Ph.D. Research

My dissertation follows three hundred years of environmental misadventure in one of the swampiest, most waterlogged places in North America: the Mississippi River Delta. Created over several thousand years as the muddy Mississippi River deposited sediments along the Gulf Coast, the region is defined by flood and muck.

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 research in this amphibious landscape revealed a recurring theme: from the arrival of the French in 1700, through the early 21st century, people’s efforts to tame the delta frequently backfired. Using levees, canals, roads, property lines, and much, much more, Euro-Americans struggled to impose physical and conceptual order on the landscape by clarifying the boundaries between land and water. But those boundaries remained persistently unstable: levees crevassed, canals clogged, roads sank, property lines faded from view.

Bell Crevasse Detail

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

In fact, a tragic irony of people’s efforts to distinguish land from water in this expansive wetland was that those efforts often resulted in even more pronounced instability. For example: since the 1930s, almost 2,000 square miles of Louisiana wetlands have eroded into the Gulf of Mexico. Those wetlands disappeared largely because of canals that had been dredged to stabilize the landscape’s shifting arrangements of land and water.

Land loss in Louisiana, 1932-2050

Coastal land loss in Louisiana projected through 2050. Since 1932, almost 2000 square miles of wetlands have become open water. Another 700 square miles are projected to disappear by 2050. Click to enlarge.

But while coastal land loss is an increasingly visible problem afflicting the Mississippi River Delta, it is not the only important story that has emerged from three centuries of Euro-American struggles to reorganize land and water in the region. My research begins with the arrival of the French in the early eighteenth century, and continues through the years following Hurricane Katrina to demonstrate that people’s efforts to tame watery nature in the delta were almost always far more provisional and precarious than they imagined. From rice agriculture to swamp logging, oil and gas extraction to petrochemical development, Euro-American efforts to reorganize land and water in this amphibious terrain almost always left them mired in unintended consequences.

You can learn more about my research and research process by perusing my (now discontinued) blog.

Fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the UW-Madison Institute for Research in the Humanities 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.

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