We first acknowledge the river, land here would not exist without the water. The earth beneath A Studio in the Woods is young – built up over the past 5000 years from the alluvial soil carried by the Mississippi River. We are situated on a natural levee close to the river grading further back into floodplain. The meander bend of the river that the Studio faces was ocean at 5,500 years before present, when sea level was furthest inland prior to the delta beginning to form in this area. The land would have been in active connection with riverine processes — receiving river water and sediments from overbank floods and nearby crevasse events that broke through the natural levee —right up until artificial levees were first built in the 18th century in the greater New Orleans region. Since the construction of the federal Mississippi River & Tributaries levee in 1928-1930 the land no longer floods and has been losing elevation to subsidence without annual mineral deposits.
Early Native Peoples of this land were the Washa and Chawasha tribes; later communities included the Houma, Chitimacha, Biloxi, Choctaw, Bayagoula, Quinipissa, Tangipahoa and others. The city we now call New Orleans has been a site of exchange and commerce for 1000 years and was known as Bulbancha – “the place of other languages” in Choctaw. The Mississippi River takes its name from the Anishinaabe (a people native to the headwaters of the river) word Misi-ziibi, meaning “huge river.” The land flanking the river was and still is the highest elevation and served as a crossroads for additional Indigenous groups, including the Atakapa-Ishak, Caddo, Natchez, Tunica and many other nations. The diversity and richness of the deltaic ecosystem drew these peoples, who lived with the rhythms of the river, traversing Bulbancha’s ridges and bayous to hunt and to trade with each other. The creativity and ingenuity of both the Indigenous and enslaved African inhabitants of this area are embedded in every aspect of what we now refer to as New Orleans culture – the music, art, engineering, agriculture, foodways, language and ways we are in community together.
The French crown claimed the land in 1682 and began sending colonizers who seized, subdivided, and began exploiting it for economic gain. This seizure created a structure within which those who owned the land could use it for their purposes of power and resource – an attack on the land and its people in service of profit. The land was cleared, the trees cut down, and the ecosystem destroyed – first in the 1700s for indigo and then, beginning in 1801, for sugar cane as a part of the Delacroix plantation. Over the next six decades, this plantation became one of the largest sugar producers in the region. This plantation economy system was pervasive across the entire Southern United States.
By 1860, there were up to 94 forcibly enslaved African and Afro-Indigenous people living and laboring on this plantation:
Andre, Andre, Andres, Angelique, Anne, Antoine, Antoine, Austin, Bacchus, Baptiste, Ben, Betty, Bob, Brice, Bryant, Canelly, Cardena, Cesar, Cesar, Cezar, Cezare, Chandy, Charles, Charles, Charlot, Charlotte, Chloe, Coxe, Custeri, Daice, Davis, Davis, Davis, Domingue, Doricna, Duke, Eleonore, Eliza, Elizah, Etienne, Fatima, Fatime, Francois, Frank, Gabriel, Gabriel, George, George, George, Georges, Gougnon, Grace, Harry, Henry, Henry, Hercule, Honore, Isaac, Jack, Jacob, Jacques, Jacques, James, Janvier, Jean Louis, Jerenne, Jim, Joe, Joe, John Harrod, Judith, Judy, Letty, Lindor, Lislee, Little Winey, London, Louis, Louis, Lucy Morrow, Luke, Magdelaine, March, Marianne, Marion, Mark, Mars, Mary, Michel, Michel, Monday, Nancy, Ned, Pamela, Patty, Pelagie, Penny, Peter, Pierrot, Pleasant, Pompey, Pouponne, Primus, Prince, Raphael, Rhody, Rosalie, Ruth, Sarah, Simon, Smith, Solomon, Stephen, Suckey, Susane, Suzanne, Tennesey, Themarr, Thom, Toby, Tom, Triton dit Jean Pierre, Victorie, Will and many others whose names have been erased. (Source: Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Louisiana Slave Database www.ibiblio.org/laslave).
They were possibly among the thousands who fled rural areas for New Orleans as the Union Army arrived in 1862. Louisiana’s sugar industry, built upon enslaved labor, declined quickly following emancipation and the plantation was seized by creditors shortly thereafter.
The land was sharecropped and at some point, subsequent owners’ attempts to grow rice and sugar were no longer generating income and it was left alone. The forest eventually grew over enough to hide a moonshine distillery which helped stock New Orleanians’ liquor cabinets during Prohibition. The Sweetgum, Waters Oaks, Live Oaks, Pecans, Box Elders, Palmettos and Shield Ferns grew again and there was a period of respite for the land and creatures, including Fox, Armadillos, Lizards, Frogs, Alligators, Squirrels, Rabbits, Snakes, Egrets, Cardinals, Owls, Turkey Vultures, Hawks, Turtles, Fishes, Racoons and more. It was a period of restoration and quiet. In the 1940s, the land was parceled into residential and small farming lots. This one lay fallow until 1969, when Lucianne and Joe Carmichael purchased it.
The Carmichaels stewarded this 7.66 acres of bottomland hardwood forest for almost 50 years and shared it with the community as a powerful source of creative inspiration and education. It is in this spirit that we continue to care for and learn from this land. Since 2004, our Environmental Curator David Baker has been actively tending to the woods by mitigating the effects of recently-introduced species, seeking ecosystem balance, and studying the forest’s adaptive relationship to hurricanes. This relationship has driven our programmatic focus. Taking direction from the land, we created Restoration Residencies following Hurricane Katrina, focusing on the forest as an example of adaptation and healing for local artists still reeling from the storm’s impact. These residencies solidified our model – offering support for artists in response to environmental crises – which unfortunately keep coming.
In 2017, Baker’s efforts were formalized by recognizing the property as the Lower Coast Field Station at Carmichael Forest to deepen our relationship with the forest by welcoming further scientific research and engagement activities. We have since seen the woods transforming at an alarming rate – a prolonged and unusually high river, a species-specific fungus, increased hurricane frequency, and nearby coastal marsh loss caused by lack of river sedimentation coupled with sea level rise. We have come to a deeper, embodied understanding that this land is truly on the frontline of climate change.
We are now witnessing geological time at the rate of human time.
The legacy of colonization and the plantation economy on this land is part of a continuum of attack on the ecosystems of our region, an attack currently being waged via toxic capitalism and the climate crisis. Current climate impacts manifest as an act of abusive domination over land, plants, animals and humans for the comfort and profit of a few. We continue to deepen our understanding that this dynamic exists within a larger context where race, class and power are completely intertwined with the harm being done to the land.
In our work and programs at A Studio in the Woods we are engaging the following questions:
- How can our organization fully live into our role as stewards of this land?
- How do we as humans and the land heal?
- What is reciprocity with this land at this time?
- How can this jeopardized, changing forest educate and illuminate the threats to our region and its people?
- How do we hold these histories as we move forward?
As we work towards becoming a more just and equitable organization, we ground our process in honoring and engaging with these histories. With the help of resident artists and scholars, we are still uncovering and reckoning with the history of this land. We welcome additional perspectives and insights, please contact us at [email protected]
Many thanks to the following individuals for insights and conversations that have helped frame our understanding: Mead Allison, Katrina Andry, David Baker, John Bardes, kai lumumba barrow, ChE, Jeffery U. Darensbourg, Mark Davis, Denise Frazier, Cammie Hill-Prewitt, Andy Horowitz, Arthur Johnson, Alexandra Mora, Monique Moss, Jan Mun, Margaret Pearce, Kathy Randels, Grace Rennie, Christopher Rodning, Ama Rogan, kei slaughter, Nick Slie, Rebecca Snedecker, Monique Verdin, Gary Watson, and Joe and Lucianne Carmichael.