My dissertation is a historical geography of water in the greater Mississippi River delta from about 1850 to the present. The delta is a landform in southern Louisiana (not to be confused with the culture area of the same name 200-300 miles farther north) that emerged over 6000-7000 or so years of sediment deposition by the Mississippi River.
I came to focus on this particular region precisely for its sogginess. Rainfall from 41% of the continental United States gets funneled down to the river delta where it spreads over the landscape in a network of swamps, rivers, and bayous. As a landscape built up by millennia of continental sediments deposited by the meandering Mississippi, the delta is relentlessly flat and wet.
It’s in that geographic context that I’m trying to understand the ways people have negotiated watery landscapes in different ways at different times. How did they approach living in such soggy territory? What were their relationships to wetlands, the Mississippi River and its distributaries, seasonal flooding, waterborne illness, etc. and how have those relationships changed over time? Likewise, how did people’s attempts to live in the delta transform not only the landscape, but also their own livelihoods, cultural values, and social systems? In many ways, the dissertation is an exploration of the changing cultures of water that have shaped both the region’s landscapes and the people living in them.
As I proceed with this research, there’s also one overarching conceptual theme that guides the questions I pose and the evidence I gather: porosity. Which is to say, I’m interested in stories that suggest the historical fluidity of environmental boundaries that humans have taken for granted in different ways at different times. Examples include:
- Levees separating river from nineteenth-century plantation
- Boundaries between urban center and sinking or eroding marshes
- The skin that separates human biology from waterborne disease or environmental toxin
To try and answer some of these big, messy questions, I begin with rice agriculture and hydrology on mid-1800s Louisiana river plantations and (likely) end with hurricane Katrina. Along the way, I’ll be examining bald cypress timber harvesting, oil and gas extraction, and petrochemical production, three industries that both deeply depended on, and deeply transformed, the ecological and geological history of the delta.
You can learn more about my research and research process by following my blog.