Disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the BP oil gusher in the Gulf, have a way of revealing intricate, interconnected relationships in southern Louisiana. But as Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck vividly demonstrates in a new book, a much quieter, practically forgotten corner of the Louisiana experience can accomplish much the same feat. 

Houck’s book Down on the Batture (University Press of Mississippi, 2010) is part local history, part environmental treatise and part poetic memoir from a man who has long been active in some of the conflicts shaping and roiling Louisiana.  A one-time federal prosecutor, Houck first came to the state in the 1970s to work on environmental cases related to the Atchafalaya Basin. He is now director of the Environmental Law program at Tulane and has written books on benchmark environmental cases. 

To relax, however, Houck often wanders the batture, that slim, amorphous stretch between the Mississippi River and the “wet side” of the levee, an area he describes in his book as “woods along the river, not a park, just trees and no rules, no admission fee.”

“Were it a more stable place, a more beautiful place, it would have been gobbled up a long time ago,” Houck writes. “Scruffy, unglamorous, and prone to flooding, it has a better chance of surviving.”

It is a space physically cut off from the rest of the city by the levee, and easily overlooked, but historically it’s been the interface between New Orleans and the forces of nature and history that have shaped it. In Down on the Batture, Houck uses it as the lens to explore the Louisiana condition through issues that have touched the batture.

In a series of short narratives, he covers plantation life and slave rebellion, modern industrial pollution and murder statistics, historic land grabs, casino gambits and political corruption, keelboat legends of yore, modern-day wanderers and squatters, the Corps of Engineers and the dominant petrochemical industry.

Most of all, though, Houck writes about the restorative power of this unique corner of city life. In an interview, Houck says visiting the batture demonstrates “the incredible value of undesignated spaces.”

“I feel they’re as important for the soul as the best plays and symphonies, though in those cases the discoveries are scripted for you,” he says. “In this place, the discoveries are your own. It is a very freeing place.”

Thoreau had his Walden. Houck, it seems, has the batture.