One thing that's a little scary, but I'm seeing it's beginning to come back—when I first started turning over the soil I didn't see a single earthworm. And that kind of scared me because I had pretty healthy soil. No birds, too. I hear a bird singing and that is so nice; you don't hear them very often anymore. – Paul Arceneaux
Listen to this 2-minute audio clip of Paul Arceneaux talking about the future of the community garden he tends to. [Windows Media Player required. Go here to download the player for free.] What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
DATE: November 6, 2005
LOCATION: Community garden – Metairie, LA
INTERVIEWER: Laura Westbrook, University of New Orleans
LENGTH: 56 minutes
PROJECT: Gulf Coast Foodways Renaissance Project/Hurricane Katrina
Laura Westbrook: It's Friday morning and I'm out in the community herb garden that's tended by Paul Arceneaux; the interviewer is Laura Westbrook. The garden is on publicly-owned land next to a church and there is a building, a former stable, attached to the garden in which Paul stores his supplies. You said that when you got back here after your evacuation there were about three feet of—what?
Paul Arceneaux: There was just trash all over the place. I had a bunch of flats of these four-inch pots that we were planning to bring to Parkway Partners, from whom I get the access to this building, and of course they were everywhere, and since they still had some value to them you couldn't just loop them all up so I've already brought them back, a couple of hundred of them. So you end up having to pick them all up; this pile of gravel was maybe about six inches deep—.
And it was a pile before?
Yeah; it was a pile before. It kind of is a pile now.
It's a pile again with a lot of little pieces of—
There's a lot of trash in it; that pile over there that's been well dug that is chicken manure that I had gotten from one of our vendors at the Crescent City Farmers Market. It was considerably more mounded over before, as there was some water through here. A bench like that had been ruined—and virtually every piece of trash from a six-block radius washed in here, so it seemed, with the exception of my trash can which was gone.
I had that experience too.
The trash cans were preferred vessels for looters; they could float things from place to place. Whether that happened here I don't know.
What have you heard about the quality of the water that was in this area? Are you concerned about, say, the fertilizer and the dirt and those sorts of things?
I'm planning to get soil samples. I just haven't got to it yet.
There must be a long line of people needing to do that.
Well I haven't gotten to find the details to do all of that stuff yet. It’s in the planning; it's kind of like eating an elephant. You just have to take a lot of tiny little bites and they don't always line up, but the thing that gives me a pretty good idea is I had—unlike areas that have had bad flood water like around your house—this stuff is still growing. You can see this basil over here was doing well.
Yes; in my neighborhood, one of the most otherworldly aspects of what you see is—
Let me tell you what it is—it’s the lack of color.
—yes; everything is that same kind of mud gray, even the air.
It's like the Wizard of Oz in reverse. When you cross the 17th Street Canal you go through Technicolor to monochrome, and then the quiet too is just—it is surreal; it's like every bad science fiction novel I've ever read.
That's a great color comparison. I'll have to remember that.
Post-apocalyptic—anyway, when I left all of these beds were filled with basil. I had about 300 head as I call them—flower, I'm not sure. This Thai basil came through all right. I've already cut some basil, given it to friends, a couple of restaurant owners, because it seemed to be doing just fine.
Now, which restaurants have you supplied with basil that are open?
What I did is on an informal basis right now; “Hey,” you know, “do you need some?”—that type of stuff, because we're just sort of all in the same boat. The people that I've supplied basil to are like [loud horn sound]—there goes that [inaudible due to horn] again—Gabrielle's owners—
And they're open now?
I don't know; I don’t think so. I went by there the other day but—
But they still are cooking for themselves.
I don't know; I mean I haven't seen them since the storm but that's the kind of people that I used to do things for.
Oh okay; I see.
Most—most everything went into pestos that I sold at the Farmers Market. All of the beds were filled up about up (with debris) to here and several of these big railroad ties had been picked up and floated into the middle.
And you had to move them yourself?
Well, with the help of a very strong young friend, which are good things to have. I started nicknaming him Bam-Bam because he could pick these things up and move them over. As you can see, I've been getting these beds set up; I don't have a lot of concern for the soil right now because it was supporting so much life when I got here, but I do intend to have it examined. Since it will be a while before I can probably do any growing, get anything to a market any time soon, I'll have time to do that. Right now I'm concentrating on getting the physical stuff done.
Yes; I've heard that from a number of people—in fact, two people that I spoke with yesterday asked me to say hello to you—Frances Chauvin—
Oh she's a sweetheart.
Yes, and Henry Amato.
I like Henry.
Henry is not sure what he's going to do but Frances said that she's been selling at the Baton Rouge Farmers Market and she said she's doing better there than she did here—that she likes the people at the Crescent City Market so she wants to keep going there, but that she's doing really well in Baton Rouge.
Well that's a lot of New Orleans people there, too, so you have a bigger market. I’ve never gone to the Baton Rouge Market but I have heard very good things about it. One thing that's cool in terms of [distracted by something growing on fence]—oh, and about the only thing that I have that has flourished is—look on the fence. Those are loofahs, you know, the scrubbers. Those are loofahs: I planted one in that big pot over there, pretty much as a lark, and now I have 12 big and a bunch of little ones.
How do they become loofah?
They're just a member of the squash family but they get very, very fibrous as they get bigger and then eventually they dry and all the—the flesh goes away and what you have is that fibrous skeleton.
So that's a natural process that they go through?
That's a natural process that they go through. The loofah is already there; you just have to dry it and let all the flesh—
The skin has to come off.
—flesh go away.
Like—like a nut, the outside comes off?
Yeah; almost—yeah and the inside stuff and what's left—you just—what's left is a skeleton basically.
I've never really played with them but I did them pretty much as—as a lark. This is a bay leaf tree, by the way.
It's gorgeous; I love the bay—
And this was filled with marigolds that I use as edible flowers. There's one little bit of basil that's trying to get—a few basil. That's garlic chives over there; so a few things have—have collected. This is more indicative of the kind of trash I had everywhere; it's just a slow process. As you can see, the water kind of picked up a bunch of stuff and slurried it down here…With all due respect to those folks, notice we still have a very health bee population.
One thing that's a little scary, but I'm seeing it's beginning to come back—when I first started turning over the soil I didn't see a single earthworm. And that kind of scared me because I had pretty healthy soil; no birds, too. I hear a bird singing and that is so nice; you don't hear them very often anymore.
It's a mockingbird. Mockingbirds are good luck, I've always heard.
Let's hope so—let's hope so.
Well do you remember—when I was small, in my neighborhood, we had the little tree frogs and then they disappeared. Then other larger frogs, toady frogs, appeared and then they disappeared and then the moss started to disappear. If we lose earthworms this time—
Well, they're beginning to come back but I'm sure first the flood, and then the drought, kind of–
They were hard to handle—.
As I'm getting these beds hydrated, you will see—I'm beginning to see a few more as I turn them over. Of course, my Roto-tiller was under three-feet of water so I'm doing all this by hand right now. You can see where I had to do repairs on—this had floated all the way over here; that one over there had floated up over there. I think the flood waters came this way though, because the trash came this way; it was a lot more rosemary here. I've had some severe die-back here and quite frankly I just—
[pointing to a small live plant] This one here is doing a little better for now.
I just haven't had time to get—this is what basically all of the beds looked like. This is something called choke vine and it does a very adequate job of its description.
Lives up to its name.
But this needs to come back but I've got—I'm spending my time on getting beds ready so I can get some things in. Like this bed right here, I planted my first seeds yesterday. I planted a bit of arugula there so—probably in about three or four weeks we should have something.
That sure will feel good, won't it?
Yeah; it will.
Now, are these two different types of rosemary, or is this one much more choked back than this one?
Yes; I think you were right in the second part. Also this is having some severe die-back on it. I may have—I may lose—at one time this whole bed was nothing but rosemary, but slowly but surely they get to an optimum age.
[pulling weeds] I enjoy this.
Well, I got a place for you! [Laughs]
Wow; this is—this is knotty—
Yeah; I'm going to have—I'm going to have to get the lopper in there.
Let me get this out of the way. Yeah; see we've got some major die-back—I'm going to have to replant some rosemary but I don't go through that—I don't—
That's enormous though; I've never seen a plant that's—
Well, this is three or four plants.
I'm going to have to replant 'cause rosemary has about a four to five year life span and then it starts drying—dying back regularly I think—at least that's what I've talked to other people about. Adding a month's drought probably didn't help but I finally got sprinklers up and I'm beginning to get this sprinkled on a daily basis. Or this rain is what we need—this is what we really need.
Compost heap got very, very compacted and God knows what got washed through it; that's going to have to be checked too. You're getting an idea of exactly how much trash and weeds have grown up.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.