Into the Mud: A Marsh Planting with Common Ground Relief

Though it was only 8 a.m., the temperature was rising above 90 degrees as my housemate and I got ready to drive to Bayou Bienvenue for my first marsh planting with Common Ground Relief.

Max, my housemate, was an old hand at the plantings, and had been going all season as work from the film industry had slowed. On several trips, he had brought back plants from the marsh, and had planted and carefully tended to a natives-only garden in front of our house, attracting butterflies and bees to orange “blanket flower” and cloudlike swamp mallow blossoms. I had been envious of his trips to replant the marshes of Southeast Louisiana, but my desk job prevented me from going on the weekday excursions. But no longer— I had said goodbye to the desk, worked a grinding two weekends at Jazzfest and was ready to get my hands dirty.

After picking up a friend and neighbor, we pulled up at nearby Bayou Bienvenue outside of Chalmette by the boat launch, where the directors of CGR (Charlotte Clarke and Joshua Benitez), a group of high school volunteers, and a few other friends were waiting, along with the CGR boat and kayak, ready to take us to the site on the water where we would be planting bulrushes. A truck pulled up, with a trailer loaded with the bulrush “plugs” ready to be planted in the mud and hopefully flourish. The rushes looked picturesque, packaged in burlap coffee sacks and tied together halfway up the stems with twine. We loaded the bulrushes into the boat, and, after a brief orientation, set off on the bayou in the little motorboat to plant.

Bayou Bienvenue was once part of a marsh that stretched from Lake Borgne to New Orleans, thick with old-growth cypress trees. However, deforestation and drainage took its toll upon the marsh, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet canal’s construction in the 1960s increased the salinity of its waters, killing much of the plant life and destroying habitat. Some sources refer to Bienvenue as a “ghost swamp”, in recognition of the life lost there.

But even in the simmering heat, the bayou was beautiful. Egrets stalked the banks and mats of invasive water hyacinth bloomed purple in the water. There was the silver flash of jumping fish, the bright red on the wings of the numerous red winged blackbirds flying overhead. Ballooning blooms of swamp-rose mallow grew along the shores. Along the way, Charlotte Clarke, CGR’s director and our boat captain, pointed out bullrush stands that had successfully rooted and proliferated from last year’s planting.

Charlotte dropped us off in small groups to get to planting at various points in the water, along with a kayak loaded with the burlap sacks of rushes. The first step, plunge, as it were—was to get into the water.

I half-jumped from the boat, and my booted feet sank into the mud to calf-depth. Like the other volunteers, I was wearing a hat, athletic shorts, and a t-shirt, and the novelty of the experience—being fully submerged to my neck while fully clothed, cotton and nylon billowing around me, my legs in the silky depths of silt—was halfway entrancing. In typical New Orleans small-town fashion, I happened to know two of the four people in my small planting group by chance. One was a friend of a friend, a therapist, the other was a friend of another friend, a journalist-turned-professor who had camped out and covered the protests in Standing Rock.

Planting the rushes in the mud was simple enough: you took one plug, which contained about three stalks of the tough grasses, and thrust it into the muddy bed, tamping down the silt so it would not be easily dislodged in the current, or by wind ruffling the surface of the water. Charlotte had instructed us how to orient the rows of grasses, and how far apart to plant. The easiest way to move through the water was on your knees, with your shins resting atop the mud. When we experimented, we found we could sink thigh-deep into the riverbed if we tried.

From our position we could see the high-rise cluster of buildings of New Orleans’ CBD. We could also see the petrochemical infrastructure rising right beside the city in St. Bernard Parish, from marshy areas close to where we knelt. It was a surreal manifestation for the “sportsman’s paradise” state—the glory and decadence of New Orleans close at hand, the petrochemical industry its lurking shadow, the marsh that surrounds it clinging to life and slowly regrowing.

As we planted our neat(ish) rows of sedges, a cloud of black smoke billowed up from the far shore of the marsh. Burning slag, or perhaps burning materials sent to a recycling center nearby? We couldn’t be sure. The black smoke drifted overhead, until it became a diluted smudge far above us.

The afternoon passed in a pleasurable blur, punctuated by snack breaks taken while we still knelt in the cooling water, the steady rhythm of planting the rushes, and a spontaneous friendly mud fight. When our little group finally returned to the skiff, and then to the boat launch to return to New Orleans, it was with the sense of a day well-spent, and the hope that our plantings would root, and grow strong, and help replenish what was lost.

Thank you to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program for funding Common Ground Relief’s Fortifying Bayou Bienvenue project, led in collaboration with the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, the Meraux Foundation, Crescent Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Louisiana Department of Ag and Forestry.