MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Across the Mississippi from downtown New Orleans in an area known as lower Algiers, you can drive along River Road, past a row of storm damaged homes and at the end, there's a gravel driveway. It leads into the last bit of bottomland hardwood forest in Orleans Parish. Once the site of a sugarcane plantation, this land is now home to artists Lucianne and Joe Carmichael, both now in their 70s. The couple have created a seven and a half acre nature preserve. Here they host an artist in residency program for sculptures, writers, musicians, and other creative types. The artists spend time at what the Carmichaels 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 built by hand. They fled their beloved patch of forest and when they finally returned, forty-one days later, they had no idea what awaited them.
LUCIANNE CARMICHAEL: We can back on October 1st.
NORRIS: And what did you see?
CARMICHAEL: What appeared to me at that time, a disaster of all these huge trees down, and everywhere there was debris. I mean there were branches piled as high as they — everywhere you could walk. It was almost like going into a graveyard. Our whole dream of this place going on in perpetuity as an environmental preserve and a place for artists, it was as if it was all gone. And on Monday morning, when Dave got here, I said, Dave --
NORRIS: Dave is your botanist.
CARMICHAEL: Dave, the forest is just gone and the magnolia tree in the front is blooming. The forest is so confused. It's not supposed to bloom now.
And Dave, what did you say to me?
DAVID BAKER: Well, I'm trying to remember. What did I say?
CARMICHAEL: You said, Lucianne, a tree is never confused.
NORRIS: Botanist David Baker takes care of the grounds here. He studies hurricane ecology, and so he knew the trees were doing exactly what they needed to do. He explained that the trees went into reproductive overdrive sprouting leaves and springtime buds in the fall. The objective, to create a rush of seeds so new trees could eventually replace those damaged by the storm.
BAKER: And I definitely think that that was kind of a byproduct of the disturbance and them knowing that they were going to need to set seed in large abundance because most likely, most of them were damaged. And the mortality we'll be seeing for the next five years.
NORRIS: I follow David and Lucianne through the woods. Gone is the canopy, water ropes, pecan trees, and hackberries that used to shelter this place. Fallen limbs are everywhere, but amazing things are happening as a result. Think of how an open window shade can speed a houseplant's growth. Now imagine that happening in an entire forest. Decades old trees that were stunted because they never saw much sun, are now growing like crazy.
BAKER: The little trees have grown upwards of six feet as a result of the canopy being removed. The whole forest has been waiting for this to happen, so we actually were seeing mortality of the younger individuals who just kind of gave up, and now there's this really big push.
NORRIS: It's their time.
BAKER: It's their time.
NORRIS: It must be amazing to see the trees grow that much, that fast.
BAKER: Yeah, I work in the woods here everyday and there are trees you could actually probably watch grow every week.
NORRIS: Lucianne Carmichael says nature's burst of renewal after Katrina offers important lessons for humans trying to recover from the storm.
CARMICHAEL: Every line, every town, every gesture as the wind blows, every texture, every shape, all of those things are what feed the artist, and who we are is a child of this environment. This environment is our parent. We must respect its teachings.
NORRIS: You too can visit A Studio in the Woods at our website NPR.org.