'A Studio in the Woods' Offers Hope for New Orleans

Across the Mississippi River from Downtown New Orleans, in an area known as Lower Algiers, you can drive along River Road, past a row of storm-damaged trees to a gravel driveway. It leads into the last bit of bottomland hardwood forest in Orleans Parish.

Joe, 78, and Lucianne, 74, first picnicked on this land in 1968. Credit: Andrea Hsu, NPR.

hide captionJoe and Lucianne Carmichael had a picnic on this land in 1968 and purchased the parcel a year later. It's since become a retreat for artists near and far.

Andrea Hsu, NPR

The land is now home to artists Lucianne and Joe Carmichael, both in their seventies. It was once the site of a sugar cane plantation.

The Carmichaels preside over a nature preserve of more than seven acres. They host an artist-in-residency program for sculptors, writers, musicians and other creative types. The artists spend stints at what the Carmicheals call "A Studio in the Woods."

Last August, as Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans, the Carmichaels packed up some of their favorite artwork and secured the wood-frame house they had built by hand. When they returned home 41 days later they found a tangle of downed trees. Among the mess was a magnolia tree blooming at the wrong time of the year.

Botanist David Baker takes care of the grounds. He also studies hurricane ecology, and so he knew that the mangolia and other trees showing unexpected signs of life were doing exactly what they needed to do.

Trees that were healthy went into reproductive overdrive, sprouting leaves and spring-time buds in the fall. It's nature's way of creating a rush of seeds so that new trees will eventually replace those damaged by the storm.

Gone from the Carmichaels' woods is a canopy of gigantic water oaks, pecan trees and hackberries. Fallen limbs are everywhere. But amazing things are happening as a result. Decades-old trees that were stunted because they never saw much sun are now growing like crazy.

Lucianne Carmichael says nature's post-Katrina burst of renewal offers important lessons to humans trying to recover from the storm.

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