In Good Company: Venice, Louisiana
Every year our friends at Clif Bar invite us to join them in a hands-on community service program they call In Good Company. The program identifies cities that could use a few extra hands and deploys Clif employees and their brand friends to do some work. For the last three Seventh Generation has been proud to sponsor an individual to attend In Good Company and work alongside employees from companies like Eileen Fisher, Annie's, Stonyfield, and Timberland as they help rebuild New Orleans.
It's that time of year again, and Clif has rallied team to head to the Gulf Coast. Kris and I are representing Seventh Generation in Louisiana for a week of hands-on down-and-dirty work planting oil spill solutions. I'll be regularly updating the blog on our work there. We welcome and appreciate any size donation to help in these efforts.
11/6: Day 1
Hello from the very end of Louisiana. The Mississippi River Delta.
Today we all arrived at 'base camp' which is a 2-hour drive out of NOLA. If you looked at a map, you'd think Venice would have to be a national park -- this is one of the most unique natural places in the country. But it's not a national park -- its oil country. It's fishing country. Strange mix? Maybe. We passed a huge Chevron refinery on the way here. We talked to two recreational fishermen from TX cleaning their catch before a long ride home. We're in a strip of flat land bound on one side by the Mississippi, and on the other, the gulf. I wondered if the name 'Venice' was chosen on purpose- a place where land and water aren't clearly defined.
Our mission is to pack and deploy bags along the gulf shoreline that contain plants and microbes that 'eat oil.' The hope is that we plant enough of these bags that, once fully grown, cover roughly 20 acres. At the same time, I think we're here to celebrate being part of a community of mission-driven companies, to enjoy the opportunity to work hard, to eat well, and think big picture thoughts. (And get out of the office!)
Ronn (two n's) is not from a 'company' but he works in an ER in Oakland, CA, and is filling in the first responder role as we are miles away from the nearest clinic. Lucky Ronn. What's this got to do with the welcome sign? Well the welcome sign reminds me of a kids' camp -- and that's kind of what this felt like today, showing up, meeting people, doing chores. Ronn eloquently stated in his intro that this was an opportunity for all of us to get back to that idealistic time in our lives when we all wanted to do something good for the planet. Reading the five things to do upon arrival at base camp put me in that mental space.
- Found my cabin, it's good. I have a top bunk.
- Wooden pelican- it was on the table. Later we used it as a napkin weight. Napkins: 500 pack brown. Represent!
- Duct tape name tags: they work. But they might not last for 2 days.
- Pecans -- a local treat. I didn't work the pecans, because I was busy task-mastering #5
- 'Wanna Help' Lists- I put together two fishing rods, cleaned a grill, and dumped out all of the ice in the ice cube trays and filled them with bottled water. Word on the streets is that ever since BP put dispersants in the water that the tap is not safe to drink…
This is base camp. Four cabins that surround a central shelter. We'll eat all meals here in the shelter. Each cabin has its own kitchen, bath, and sleeping quarters, but none are big enough to hold everyone. Each cabin has a responsibility. Ours is lunch. Most days, people will come to us to help them prepare the lunch bag -- but tomorrow and Wednesday are special days where we are making lunch for everyone. Clif selects their ICG sites for ICG, making sure they are conducive to community gatherings. This one is perfect. Cabins are comfortable- not rough by any means. This is not a tourist area at all, so it's quiet.
The Gulf of Mexico:
Finally, this is picture of the gulf. Our cabins are about 200 yards away from this scene. I really want to go swimming, but there are alligators everywhere, so I hear. I haven't seen any. But I am not going to go swimming. Word on the streets is that alligators inhabit fresh and salt water climes. I don't know how they do it if it is true. Still not going swimming on either side.
Tomorrow Steve is making Beignet's for everyone from our cabin. I can't wait to wake up to that and some café du monde.
We get started filling these bags with plants and microbes tomorrow afternoon. Let the work begin.
Hooray for the extra hour!
11/7: Day 2
Sunday. Our first full day in Louisiana kicked off with a presentation from the folks of Restore the Earth Foundation (REF) winners of many federal grants for their amazing work successfully replanting vegetation in the hardest hit and most vulnerable spots in the Mississippi delta. Finding a good partner such as REF is critical to organizing meaningful volunteer opportunities.
The key takeaway of their presentation is that Louisiana is losing land at the rate of a football field every 30 minutes. The main causes are soil erosion, the abandonment and degradation of the oil infrastructure, and non-replenishment of silt from the Mississippi River. This results in a loss of natural habitat, recreation, and inland protection from storms -- the risks of which we know too well. And it's a downward spiral -- the less land there is, that which is left is even more susceptible to storms. REF's primary goal is to take physical steps to accelerate a re-growth process. We saw some amazing maps of areas that are making a comeback.
Day 2 work:
Kris and Kiki are scooping up special soil from totes into 25lb burlap bags (one held by Kiki). These bags are the incubators of the native grasses and trees that we hope will slowly rebuild the wetlands. In two hours the team made up 738 bags (It wasn't a competition but my team made our pallet the fastest). Technically the bags we will be planting tomorrow were already assembled by Americorps workers in the last week. Those 4000 bags are on a barge waiting for us at our planting site which is about 90 minutes away by boat.
After filling the bags, we had an opportunity to hear from Rick, a dispatcher for a fleet of service boats that support the crews out on the oil rigs. He tells us about the hundreds of pipeline that feed oil to the refineries, the oil platforms that are like cities: 2 miles wide with trucks that drive between the main hubs on these mega-stations. Rick defends the oil business -- saying that its messy and guaranteed future accidents 'but right now, until we develop other sources of energy, it's what we've got.' He also points out that most of everything we adorned ourselves with at this very moment, from clothes to computers to backpacks, was made from oil. In doing so, I feel like he puts the responsibility on 'us' to check our consumption, because as long as we need it, there will be an industry to supply it. And that industry provides a lot of jobs.
Lastly on our way out of the oil service industrial complex that spanned as far as the eye could see, we happened to stop at a convenience store with this battered sign. Was it damaged by weather or rage?
Tomorrow is the first real full day of hard work -- standing in the muck, moving bags, and planting seedlings.
It's also the first day we get to experience life in the amazing wetlands of the Mississippi Delta.
11/8: Day 3
The real work commences. We've got to turn a thin, oil soaked sand bar into a mangrove forest.
We are all bracing for the full day of labor, but we are buoyed by the idea of working in a wilderness preserve. To give you some idea of where this is -- we have an hour boat ride from Venice down the wide Mississippi river and right up to the weakest land point between the freshwater river and the salt water gulf. The end of the end of the land.
Arriving on location by 9AM, our job is relatively straight forward:
- Move burlap bags off the barge and onto the sand bar
- Arrange these bags in strategic positions on the beach
- Cut open each bag, plant in grasses or mangrove seedlings inside the bag, and stake each bag into the sand
Today I saw it: the oil in the gulf.
Both hidden and in the open: Hidden underneath a thin facade of brown sand; a shallow scrape in the sand revealing a dark history. Open pooling in the water at a dead end in the water. It's not gone, it's still here.
Kris (Seventh Generation), AJ (Timberland), Claire (Clif Bar), and Ryan (Clif Bar) riding the dirt bags on a boat passing through a small path through the marsh grasses, on its way to the unload beach:
We use a small craft to fetch 2-3 pallets of dirt bags at a time from the barge. Remember, each bag weighs about 25 pounds. Easily the most physically challening job of the day is grabbing the bags at the bottom of the pallet and lifting it up for the next person in the chain to throw it into the boat. At the beach we unload the dirtbags working in a long chain formation -- dirt gets in everyone's eyes and mouths; there's no spot on your shirt to wipe your face -- and the water in the Mississippi isn't an option either. By the end of the day we are filthy.
Good news -- we probably unloaded 2000 of the 4000 total bags for the week -- overshooting our Day 1 goal by about 500. This gets some of our organizers to estimate we might be done a day early. We didn't seed all of the bags yet, but finalizing the unloading tomorrow would free up all of us to work on the planting.
Birds on the bar (Anne- freelance photographer):
The sand bar in the nature preserve is alive with all kinds of birds, fish, and hermit crabs -- while oil rigs loom on the horizon. Hopefully this picture will be a young mangrove forest in 12-24 months. If it takes off, BP is considering using this model for broader recovery.
After a great first day of hustle, the In Good Company crew eats out, giving our food team a much earned break. We order 10 different types of deep fried foods. After all, they have to make fresh squeezed OJ in the AM…
11/9: Day 4
I stayed behind at basecamp to participate in a Marketing Team meeting via phone, but I was eager to get the update from the company when they returned.
Download at Dinner: Leslie from Restore the Earth explains the details of proper mangrove planting. Mel (Clif Bar) looks on.
Leslie's update is that ALL 4000 bags of soil were unloaded onto the beach. This is great news because unloading bags takes half the squad to complete. With that done and everything taking place at the shore, we can devote the remaining time on Thursday and Friday to placing, seeding, and sewing the bags up. The sewing was news to me. Apparently if we don't sew the burlap bags after seeding them, the young mangroves would likely wash away.
So we have 4000 bags to sew…
Other headlines from the front today include an infestation of Portuguese Man-o-War jellyfish that hooked onto bags we positioned on the beach yesterday. So not only is the lunar high tide covering yesterday's work with shallow water, but we also have formidable squatters. I am happy to report that no one was stung.
Paul, Basecamp owner, treats the In Good Company crew to a Louisiana Shrimp Boil:
Yankee Moment: "We're having a shrimp ball for dinner? Can't say I've had one... Oh a Shrimp BOIL. Still can't say I've had one."
Everybody comes back home and gets a special dinner prepped by our neighbor and landlord: 80lbs of Louisiana shrimp.
The food we've had here has been nothing short of amazing. Either it's the expert craft of the working/cooking/buying/planning organizers like Temra and Thao (they do it all) or it's the local experience, this trip has been an exercise in great eating.
Check out these shrimp! Use the lemon half for reference:
Do I tell you about tomorrow or not? Should I mention that Wednesday is our break from the planting and we get to be tourists and students of this area for an entire day? Shall I hint that it starts with a sea plane ride through the bayou?
Check out tomorrow's update for some aerial photography!
11/10: Day 5
Today is the day that In Good Company (+ photographer Anne) has designed for us to put our work into context, lifting our focus off the ground and literally widening our lens.
We were gifted with the opportunity to see our work from 1000 feet in the air, to carve around narrow passages of the bayou on an airboat, to play horseshoes, and to walk the levee. We absorb the perspectives of conservation land donors, our pilots, and Cajun musicians. It's a day away from the work, but not a day to be unconscious.
Southern Seaplane Tour: "Nature didn't make the straight passes."
The edge of Louisiana.
Our pilot spends some of his working time flying tourists around the vanishing delta, and the balance is spent servicing the oil rigs with emergency parts and supplies. For a period after Katrina, he flew journalists over the site. If you ask him about the oil business and its impact on the area, he doesn't put it down categorically. I don't think anyone around here does. I am coming to accept the elements of truth in that lesson.
During the flight he points out an oil surface spill that's about a ¼ mile long. He says that happens with some regularity. And that the volume of oil there is about a gallon. With all of the pumping stations large and small, with all of the underwater pipelines and companies and support structures, is it okay to let this gallon go today?
We flew over deserted boats and deserted livestock -- all misplaced in the confusion of past storms.
As we fly over our work site (not pictured), I am humbled by its scope. It's just one small area that to the untrained eye looks like the rest of the landscape. Is this worth it?
Steve (Clif) reminds me that it's not the number of trees we plant this week that determines the success of the operation. Instead, it's the leadership, the creativity, and the proving of an idea that paves the way for more to join in. It makes this 0.001% solution to the problem worth 100% of our effort.
The sea plane let us observe the landscape from above, but the air boat helped us be one with it.
We cruised in step with birds in flight across the water. We moved slowly through bayou communities and gunned it through the open spaces. We waived as we passed people fishing. This was something I've always wanted to do.
Guests of Honor at the Woodland Plantation:
Just up the river about a 30 minute drive from our basecamp rests the Woodland Plantation -- most famous as the home of the building that inspired the original (but now retired) Southern Comfort liqueur label. It used to be a sugar cane plantation but now it produces oranges. It used to be a holding house for slaves bound for points upriver, but now, directly over those quarters, rests Spirits Hall -- an 1830's Catholic Church transplanted here from 14 miles downriver. It also has ponds where I got to eye -- and get eyed by -- alligators. I wish I could see through the reflected sky and into the water.
Lastly, it's a good sign of a day when your camera dies with batteries spent before 9PM. Thanks to Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and their bold Cajun playlist for helping me forget about capturing every fantastic moment of this day on an SD card.
Tomorrow. Back to the site. Get ready to stake, cut, plant, and sew. In Good Company, of course.