New Orleans and the Cartography of Erosion

A city that defies definition, New Orleans requires an atlas that takes into account the erosion of the landscape and the mystique of its history.

| November 2013

  • New Orleans is slowly vanishing into the Gulf of Mexico, a fact that makes cartography of the city a daunting task.
    Photo By Fotolia/PaulDidsayabutra
  • From authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, "Unfathomable City" documents the difficulty in creating an atlas for New Orleans, a city that is slowly vanishing due to erosion.
    Cover Courtesy University of California Press

Unfathomable City (University of California Press, 2013) is a brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, one that provides a vivid, complex look at the multi-faceted nature of New Orleans, a city replete with mystique and contradictions. Authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker plumb the depths of the city, a pivotal scene of American history and culture. In this excerpt from the introduction, the physical definition of “New Orleans” is difficult due to the nature of the Mississippi River and the erosion of the landscape.

Sinking In and Reaching Out

“Fathom” is an Old English word that meant outstretched arms and an embrace by those arms. It came to mean a measurement of about 6 feet, the width a man’s arms could reach, as well as the embrace of an idea. To fathom is to understand. Sailors kept the word in circulation as a measurement of depth, and it survives into the present day mostly as a negative, as unfathomable, the water so deep its depths cannot be plumbed, the phenomenon that cannot be fully grasped.

New Orleans is all kinds of unfathomable, a city of amorphous boundaries, where land is forever turning into water, water devours land, and a thousand degrees of marshy, muddy, oozing in-between exist; where lines that elsewhere seem firmly drawn are blurry; where whatever you say requires more elaboration; where most rules are full of exceptions the way most land here is full of water. A fathom was an embrace, but you can put your arms around a mystery, and maybe you truly love something only by granting it its full complexity, its unknowability. And maybe love is always an attempt to embrace what cannot be fathomed and to embrace the mystery of it, too.

In a sense, every place is unfathomable, infinite, impossible to describe, because it exists in innumerable versions, because no two people live in quite the same city but live side by side in parallel universes that may or may not intersect, because the minute you map it the map becomes obsolete, because the place is constantly arising and decaying. Cincinnati has its enigmas and Albuquerque its contradictions, but New Orleans is particularly rich in these things. We have mapped New Orleans and its surroundings twenty-two times, sometimes with two or more subjects per map, but we have not drained the well with these few bucketloads.

Instead, we hope we have indicated how rich and various, how inexhaustible is this place, and any place, if you look at it, directly and through books, conversations, maps, photographs, dreams, and desires. We never intended to make a comprehensive guide to New Orleans, only a provocation, an invitation for you to argue with our versions, to take them further, to go map on your own, in your head or online or on paper, whether you map this city or your own region from scratch. You can row across unfathomable waters.

Eroding Definitions

There are so many ways to define New Orleans, and none of them can contain it. Trying to define New Orleans is like trying to hold water in your hands, like trying to walk through a wetland, like trying to draw a coastline that keeps shifting. Here, all that is solid dissolves into water, and much of it seems to exist in an amorphous state of muddiness and murkiness. You can’t hold it, but it sticks to you. Southern Louisiana was built up over millennia as the Mississippi River continually laid down sediment, so that even what is solid was dissolved into and delivered by water and even what is local came from afar.

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