I entered a science fair in junior high by creating a computer that could differentiate common plants when you entered appropriate data. Since then, my Plant Book has grown in scale and scope, and is now fully computerized. My love of plants was not fully realized until I arrived in Florida. Here’s Part 2 of the journey we began last week on how I came to be here today.
Life as a nomad
To an aimless young man who just graduated in 1968 in West Covina, Calif., L.A. was “where it’s at,” with Orange Julius and homes covered in English Ivy plagued with snails. Our beloved dog, Chata, ate the snail bait. Her skin sloughed off; we had to nurse her back to health.
But I went back to Colorado after graduation. Mom had a husband (Dad v3). I needed direction. Witness: I ripped the door off Dad v3’s Mercedes 300SLR and let Mom take the heat. Dad v3 said that the younger ones — my brother, Steve, and my sister, Robin — were reachable. Older ones, probably not. He wasn’t prepared for fatherhood of an adolescent on the brink.
In fall 1969, I drove my Volkswagen 1300 Beetle up the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A, landing in Santa Rosa. Grandma was there, and aunts, four sisters, a lineage hugely depreciated after divorce, as was the custom in my family. Uncle Mike had been a childhood hero and motivation for becoming an amateur radio operator. He was living with Grandma. They found room for me, too.
A few months later, I took the VW back to Colorado. By then, Mom and husband had moved to Louisiana. I was living on Cheyenne with my friend Tony, whose father found me a job at the Free Press, preparing tear sheets for advertisers — a job that disappeared after I showed the work area to my girlfriend.
Jobless, I drove my Suzuki X6 motorcycle from Colorado Springs to Baton Rouge to catch up with the family. Riding a motorcycle into south Louisiana in 1972, I felt like a raccoon on a blind date with a porcupine, not entirely sure what was happening but intrigued by the promise of a rich experience. That motorcycle trip initiated my love affair with Louisiana and with plants. But do we ever value turning points contemporarily?
Love in green things
The route follows U.S. 190/167 through Opelousas, where I encountered heavy Southern air with the smell of banana bush and spirea. I imagined alligators pouncing should I stop. Silk thrown out by swamp spiders trying to hook the other side of a nascent web swept my face. The humid air was abrupt, misty, unknown, invasive, like missing a shower for days.
What did a boy from Colorado and Hawaii via Los Angeles know about swamps and huge tropical bugs walking through the thick air? Nothing, that’s what. I was so afraid to stop that I nearly wet myself. Big tough guy.
After miles of swamp, the road rises through an island called Krotz Springs. Renamed Airline Highway, the road finds high ground again in Lottie, then southeast, crossing the Mississippi via the Huey P. Long Bridge.
South of Opelousas, generally, a curious thing happens. The ground becomes so flat that the Mississippi has trouble discerning the downhill route. Early work by Rufus LeBlanc discovered a river bed flatter than a pool table: the slope is so gentle the mighty river can — and does — become confused about where exactly it is supposed to go as it relentlessly marches to the Gulf.
The river drains half of the continent. By the time water from the Ohio, the Missouri, the Platte and the Red rivers meet the Mississippi, flows can reach 700,000 cubic feet per second, laden with dust and soil particles. As the river reaches flatten, water slows, dropping dust and soil particles. The elevation consequently rises, flattening the river bed more.
Eventually the river cannot flow. The water moves, sweeping back and forth over time, leaving a rich alluvial delta so common in distributary rivers like the Amazon, Nile or Yangtze. If it could, the Mississippi would now move west, capturing the Atchafalaya River. To keep this from happening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a huge structure and extensive levees to keep the water flowing towards New Orleans.
Next week: From LSU to Florida. And yes, those big spiders still creep me out.
Do you have design problems you would like to discuss? Michael Spencer will respond by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).