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Learning Louisiana’s wetlands

Montana, my home for the past thirteen years, is easy to fall in love with. Its dramatic mountains, wild rivers and clear streams make for perfect wilderness adventures, and great settings for the romantic novels of the West.

Montana’s rich wild lands and wildlife are fully and aggressively supported by organizations such as the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Sonoran Institute and the Nature Conservancy, who’ve made it their mission to protect and conserve the region’s beauty and qualities. The northern Rocky Mountains are held in such high regard that most of these organizations also have key offices in Montana to assist with on-the-ground efforts and provide field reports to their main offices. Their successes are measurable through the general public’s knowledge about and support of these places. Both the staff and members of these conservancy organizations join together to work toward significant conservation efforts like the preservation of grizzly bear and the reintroduction of the wolf, as well as more basic tasks such as building trails and teaching environmental courses.

 Last Year I fell in love with Louisiana’s wetlands, a place I had never been before. I was not prepared to be so captivated by this landscape or its people. From a distance the wetlands seem easy to know through a quick experience – simple, even simplistic. Yet, what I experienced was something quite different, a place that is wild, vibrant and intense, complex and rich. If the Rockies are all about straight-forward drama, wetland drama is reserved and subtle, requiring the investment of time and self-reflection. Louisiana’s wetlands are a viscous concoction of water, earth and air, elements constantly shifting in their percentages and relationships to one another. Sometimes more water, sometimes more earth, always the humid air holding an in-between quality.

 Spending time with the people who call Louisiana’s wetlands home provides a window into a contemporary culture that remains invested in the place for sustenance, livelihood, art and daily passions. Despite the inherent richness of the Louisiana wetlands, and the despite the experiences of wildness and beauty they provide those who come to know them, the uneasy truth is that the wetlands are vanishing. In part this is due to our abuse and over-use of them; in part it’s because, unlike Montana’s landscapes, they do not receive national public attention, much less a similar level of political and activist support.

 The loss of Louisiana’s wetlands means we lose one of the most vital and necessary ecosystems in North America. When we disregard this place, we not only fail to recognize that the survival of other creatures depends upon the wetlands’ continuation, but also that they and the wetlands are integral to our own lives and well being. There are many reasons for this, including such basics as the wetlands’ role in reducing erosion and retention of clean water.  But according to Dr. Paul Kemp, the reality today is that approximately “one football field of wetland is disappearing every thirty minutes.”

 Imagine, for a moment, watching your homeland disappear……..the place you live and love. 

 What are we to do when faced with such potential devastation and loss? As I see it, there are only two choices: complacency or engagement. Engagement is not an armchair activity – to change the direction of a current condition requires us to be vigilant, intentional and active. As we prepare to enter a new year, I challenge you to choose engagement. Learn the value of the wetlands; learn about the place you live.  Understand what’s at stake for all of us, take initiative, take action – as an individual or a group member. Volunteer to leave the Earth a better place than you found it. As Annie Dillard has written, and I try to live by everyday, “grasp your one necessity and not let go.”

My love of place is now divided between Mountain and Delta. I am fortunate, however, to have the ability to spend time in both. In Montana as director of Artemis Institute, and in Louisiana as the 2011-12 Marie M. Bickham Chair in the School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University.

Learn More: read Terry Tempest Williams’ essay, “The Gulf Between Us” in Orion Magazine, go to http://