Research

Dboutte - Coastal Change Diagram of Southeastern Louisiana - Wikimedia Commons

Coastal change diagram of Southeastern Louisiana. Note the way in which the present-day Louisiana coastline has developed through over 6000-7000 years of sediment deposition. Image courtesy of user “Dboutte,” Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

My dissertation is a historical geography of watery places in southern Louisiana. Created over several thousand years by the muddy sediments of the Mississippi River, the region is defined by flood and muck. The river, its bayous, and the backswamps are the dominant features of a largely flat, saturated “wetlandscape.”

The project uses southern Louisiana’s relentlessly watery character to examine the unintended, often disastrous social and ecological consequences of human encounters with soggy places. By examining over 150 years of environmental change in southern Louisiana’s watery terrain, the dissertation reveals the ironies of human attempts to rationalize and render profitable a region that is neither fully land nor fully water. My research looks at questions of culture, value, and moral choice as humans have worked to inhabit these permeable places where land and water meet. What are the environmental and social values at work in such wetlandscapes? How have they changed over time? What role do those changing values play in shaping watery disasters and our responses to them? These questions don’t simply clarify the cultural and social worlds of watery places, but also inevitably underlie challenges of policy and environmental justice.

Bell Crevasse Detail

Detail from “The Bell Crevasse,” supplement to “The Picayune,” May 16, 1858. Click to enlarge

To answer these big questions, I begin in the 1850s with Louisiana’s rice plantations and end with post-Katrina urban planning and design. Along the way, I examine bald cypress timber harvesting, oil and gas extraction, and petrochemical production, three industries that both deeply depended on, and deeply transformed, the region’s watery places.

You can learn more about my research and research process by following my blog.

A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship has helped support this research, as have many smaller grants and awards. Findings from four chapters have been presented at the annual meetings of both the Association of American Geographers and the American Society for Environmental History.