Meet Bronwyn Mitchell, author of "I Was Born on Shaky Ground," an essay to be published this spring in Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming. Her theme shifts from the geological to the personal as she considers the great pull of the Mississippi River and a unique family tradition born from living on Louisiana's rapidly disappearing coast.
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Your essay includes a memory of growing up in New Orleans. Were you born and raised there?
Yep, born on the bayou as they say. Though in reality it was a typical suburban childhood—sorry Hollywood. While I don't wrassle alligators, or speak with a Cajun accent, growing up in New Orleans does imbue one with unique talents such as learning to catch Mardi Gras beads at the age of two, knowing how to make a dark roux by age six, singing "The Battle of New Orleans" by age 10, playing in flooded streets following a hurricane, putting a cup of water outside with the hint of the thermometer hitting 32 degrees overnight, zydeco dancing, walking up and down Bourbon Street instead of the mall during high school, and knowing that a lot of good happens after midnight.
Do you and your family still live in Louisiana?
My family is still in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I left after graduating from Louisiana State University (luckily it never left me) and headed off to Botswana to pursue at that time my lifelong dream of being a Peace Corps volunteer. I worked for Conservation International's Okavango Delta office as an environmental education specialist designing programs, trails, and interpretive displays for a small education game park. Returning to the United States, I worked as an environmental specialist attached to the marine and wetlands section of EPA's Region 7 office in Dallas, TX. But bureaucracy and the lure of distant lands drove me to the South Pacific. I worked for three years as the territorial wetlands specialist for American Samoa—same bureaucracy, much better view.
Sounds like you could write an interesting book. How did your family cope with Katrina?
Katrina hit my family and friends rather hard. My parents were lucky, though. They were able to evacuate to Baton Rouge, first staying with family and then renting a small one-bedroom apartment and a red velvet furniture set. It took them over nine months to make it back to New Orleans, and then they lived on the second floor until the first floor was rehabilitated. My dad says one of the greatest meals he consumed in New Orleans was a couple of steaks cooked on the grill in the backyard upon his return to the city.
I traveled home to help throw out furniture and gut the house. Riding in from the airport, my mom tried to prepare me, but no amount of preparation would have been sufficient. As we crested the 17th Street Canal, we rolled down our windows and the smell of death and decay hit my nostrils like walking upon a crime scene. After my nose adjusted it was my eye's turn. Without tree cover, the harsh light from the sun shone down upon the devastation without shadow or nuance. A bomb had detonated—the city was empty, devoid of life, full of sorrow.
My childhood house is now but a slab. My elementary school is shackled, never to reopen. My climbing trees—huge, ancient live oak trees—are now mulch in someone's garden. The levees (that as a child represented mountains down which we would ride our bikes at full speed) the cause—or rather insufficient engineering.
Have you considered moving back?
I feel guilty not going home, rolling up my sleeves, and trying to make it better. Dad says things are healing, albeit on a geologic time scale. Someday...someday. For now, I have to take solace in the work that I am doing to build understanding and appreciation of wetlands in Maryland and throughout the world.
Tell us about your wetlands work.
I head the education department for Environmental Concern Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to what else? Wetlands. I have been in Maryland for six years now—three living on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the last three in Baltimore. I instantly fell in love with Baltimore because it reminds me so much of New Orleans: port town, shabby chic, quirky, good food, good people, a mediocre football team.
Do you play any sports yourself?
I did play professional women's football last year as a defensive tackle for the Baltimore Nighthawks (IWFL). I tore my ACL at practice mid-season.
Ouch. Hopefully you've recovered.
The knee is doing fine. I'm scheduled for surgery in December.
I guess now you can focus on tackling global warming. When did you first become concerned about the problem?
Global warming really hit home in 1999 when, as the territorial wetlands specialist for American Samoa, I attended a meeting of small island nations in Vanuatu hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme. If New Orleans is the canary in the coal mine for the United States, these small islands floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are the canaries in the coal mine for the earth. It was here that I first heard of environmental refugees. It was here that I heard firsthand accounts of the consequences of global warming. It was here that I realized that the clock was already ticking, and we had no time to lose.
Has writing been an important part of your life?
Yes. I discovered the power of the written word when I realized I could write my way out of punishments as a child. I just wish my grant writing these days would yield results as successful. Outside of writing for work, I mostly write about my experiences, such as running a marathon, being healed by a Tuvaluan medicine man, almost summiting Kilimanjaro, boxing in American Samoa, dealing with a grandmother with Alzheimer's, and most recently playing football. I'm looking for a publisher—are you interested?
We are, and look forward to seeing your essay in Thoreau's Legacy.