On November 1, 1952, the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb on Elugelab, a small island in a chain of coral islands in the Pacific Ocean called Enewetak Atoll. As the mushroom cloud cleared, two F-84 jets flew over the site. Their cameras documented an absence. Elugelab was gone. In its place was a crater nearly the size of the Pentagon. Within about a week, a thin layer of plutonium—fallout from the explosion—covered the entire earth.1
This radioactive film defines the current epoch in the world’s history. Or, at least, that seemed to be the consensus among the geologists who comprised the Anthropocene Working Group when they gathered in New Orleans in November 2019. To dig into the ground and observe its stratigraphic layers is to travel through time, and the band of plutonium lying just beneath the earth’s surface from the Elugelab explosion and other nuclear tests from that period offer the earliest definitive, uniform, and ubiquitous mark of the human hand on the earth’s geology. Thus, the scientists name our era “the Anthropocene”—the age of humans—and announce this nuclear dust as heralding the arrival, in a geological sense, of human history.2
The Anthropocene Working Group meeting was planned to coincide with an international conference of artists and scholars who convened that fall at Tulane University, where I work, to consider the Mississippi River. In order to focus attention on the ways that human action has reshaped the river, the German institutions that organized the conference dubbed the Mississippi an “Anthropocene river.” The Choctaw-speaking people native to the place, however, knew and know the river as Bulbancha, “a place for foreign languages.” That name suggests that the river has long been a site of cosmopolitan encounter, and more broadly, as the Houma writer T. Mayheart Dardar puts it, “as with all Indigenous Peoples, our existence and identity is tied to the land and waters that have given birth to us.”3
While the geologists met, I was across the Tulane campus, engaged in a stratigraphic excavation of a different sort. I was in the library. Specifically, I was sifting through the papers of F. Edward Hébert. The papers themselves were fragile in my hands, and the writing on them blurry, because after the floodwall that ran alongside the 17th Street Canal collapsed on August 29, 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, the force of gravity pulled Lake Pontchartrain’s water across New Orleans and into the basement of Jones Hall, drenching the Hébert papers and thousands of boxes of other archival materials in the university’s Louisiana Research Collection. Many of the materials documented centuries of effort meant to forestall precisely such a flood. Now they also documented the inadequacy of those efforts. Whether their scars reflected a natural disaster or a human failure remains a matter of some debate.
Hébert represented Louisiana’s First Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1941 to 1977. Even with the flood damage, his papers revealed a career dedicated to increasing funding for military weapons like the hydrogen bomb that put a Pentagon-sized hole in the middle of an ocean named for peace, and to pursuing federal spending that might benefit the white residents of his district while blocking federal spending that might benefit the Black residents.
In 1965, for example, after Hurricane Betsy overwhelmed New Orleans’s Industrial Canal, flooding the city’s Ninth Ward, Hébert rebuffed Black flood victims who sought his help securing federal disaster relief. “The time is not one to lean on others,” he told them, “but rather a time to show our responsibility as individuals.” Hébert then suggested that New Orleanians “stand on our own feet and show the world that we are ten feet tall.” He said this to people who lived in a neighborhood where the flood had reached a depth of twelve feet.4
This issue of Southern Cultures is named “Human/Nature” in part to call attention to the ways that the measurements we make of the world around us are also, always, measurements of ourselves.
For a long time, certain lines of European thought focused on the divide, rather than the connection, between humans and nature. Consider how the words nature and human are usually positioned as opposites. Nature means everything that is not human, or the world that lies beyond human control. Hurricanes, in this way, are natural, as is the force of gravity that pulls the water down into the lowest parts of the city. The word nature carries these associations into phrases like natural law and natural disaster. There, the word functions to define the normal and perhaps inevitable course of events—as when Hébert disclaimed any human responsibility for the 1965 flood in the Ninth Ward, calling the “weather conditions . . . completely unpredictable.”5