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Emissary from a Watery Future

Nathaniel Rich, interviewed by Daniel Drake

Pableaux Johnson

Nathaniel Rich

Pableaux Johnson

Nathaniel Rich

In the October 7, 2021, issue of The New York Review, Nathaniel Rich reviews They Called Us River Rats, Macon Fry’s account of life in the batture, a colony of houses on stilts abutting the Mississippi River, on the far side of New Orleans’s levees. A longtime resident of the Big Easy himself, Rich writes affectionately of Fry and his two goats, Inky and Dinky, and their dozens of neighbors in these ramshackle huts, “emissaries from a watery future” who have grown accustomed to living with the unpredictable rhythms of rain and floods, mud and raccoons that characterize life where the river meets the ocean.

Rich grew up in New York City in a family of writers, but, as he told me over e-mail this week (somewhat reluctantly—“An honest answer to the question Why do you write? can only embarrass the respondent”), his passion for writing is almost instinctual: “I’ve always been prone to obsession. Writing is itself a kind of obsession—it has to be, really, or at least a compulsion—but it’s a kind of master obsession, in that it is the vehicle through which I can pursue my other obsessions to their extreme limits.” This eclecticism is borne out by the dozens of essays he has contributed to the Review since 2007, taking on, among other things, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films, Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, the Amanda Knox case, the lives of deep-sea divers, and P.T. Barnum.

This wide-ranging catalog also reflects one of the advantages of living by the pen:

No job offers as much freedom as writing. You’re not entirely free, of course, particularly if it’s the means by which you support your family…. I grew up with a writer in my apartment, so I had no illusions about the pressures, anxieties, and work ethic required. Still, it beat every conceivable alternative. Writing does not just offer the freedom to structure your life how you want. It allows you the freedom to think about what you want, to resist allegiances and clubs and ties and follow your intuitions.

In New Orleans, where Rich moved with his now-wife a little more than ten years ago, he has found a wellspring of material. He has written essays about Lee Friedlander’s photographs of the city and the history of Bourbon Street, and a novel, King Zeno, about a 1918 axe murderer and the creation of the Industrial Canal. And, like many a New Orleanian, he has no intention of leaving:

A dozen years in, New Orleans continues to surprise me. It is one of the only major American cities that truly doesn’t give a shit about what’s happening in New York City…. It’s a city that, despite being haunted by its past, has a radically honest view of the future. Nobody in New Orleans needs to speculate about the future of climate change. We’re already living it. We know that every hurricane season might be the last—just as this year’s season was the last for many residents of Grand Isle and Golden Meadow and Ironton and Pointe-aux-Chênes…. New Orleans’s cultural identity derives in part from regular near-death experiences. Like a person, a city is not fully alive until it looks squarely at the prospect of its own death. And New Orleans, for all its sins and shortcomings, is alive, God knows.

This existential clarity has guided his more recent work. “Our civilization’s most daunting crisis now is environmental,” he emphasized. “Not just climate change, but our transformation of the planet from a natural world into an artificial one, recast in our own image.” Rich knows whereof he speaks: he has recently written two books on the subject, Losing Earth and Second Nature, that focus on the personal experiences of people affected by pollution, genetic engineering, and climate change. “What I always end up writing about, one way or another, is the way our innermost lives are warped by the great crises of our age…. How does the chaos of the world—what Bellow called ‘the Great Noise’—get past our defenses, and change us?”

This is not to say that writing is a form of activism:

I don’t believe, as many activists and scientists do, that some popular novel or work of nonfiction will “mobilize people”—that some Uncle Tom’s Cabin for climate change will spark a political revolution, converting skeptics, shaming the oil and gas multinationals into compliance, and winning over Tucker Carlson.

Writers do have a responsibility, however, to write about the world honestly. And you can’t write about the world today honestly without some feeling for the insane dangers we’ve brought upon our civilization and all the creatures with which we share the planet.

Too often the question is phrased, What can writers do about climate change? Writers can’t do a lot about climate change. But writers can help us puzzle through what climate change is doing to us. In both obvious and subtle ways, this upheaval is changing the way we think about our future, our families, the choices we make about our children (including whether to have them), where we live, how we live, our work, our faith in our systems of government and commerce and culture. Good writing has a contribution to make here. Even more important than changing the way we think, it can help us to understand why we think what we do.

Almost by way of example, Rich offered a vision of a city finally coming to terms with its relationship to its surroundings:

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After centuries of misguided water policy, New Orleans is welcoming the water back into city limits—reopening canals, building water gardens, restoring ancient linkages between bayou and swamp and estuary. Until now the basic plan had been to pump the water out of the city as fast as possible. The results, city planners at least realized, have been devastating—not only to the city’s infrastructure but to its spirit. Residents of an island city built on swamp should not be denied access to water—it’s perverse, a violation of the city’s nature.

Days before filing his essay about the batture, Rich fled the city with his family as Hurricane Ida swept across the Gulf Coast, knocking out power for weeks and leveling trees (although the levees held, staving off a perhaps greater disaster). “Our house suffered some damage, nothing catastrophic,” he told me.

Our neighbor’s entire roof peeled off. Power wasn’t restored until more than two weeks after the storm, and it was more than three weeks before our children both had a full day of school. The streets are still polluted with rotting garbage and the butchered corpses of majestic trees. An alligator was swimming in a flooded Walgreens parking lot. A second alligator, this one dead, was found stuffed into a pink dumpster. A third alligator, a twelve-footer, was executed after eating a large man in the aftermath of the storm. Yesterday the roof of the Superdome burst into flame.

And what of the batture residents?

We biked to the batture houses and found Inky and Dinky in good health. Macon Fry reports that his tin roof was punctured by a fallen tree, and one or two of the more dilapidated camps look pretty bad, but I’m told the colony made out all right. Thanks to their proximity to a major hospital, they were among the first houses in the region to regain power. They’ll probably outlast us all.

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