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Learning from Louisiana’s Wetlands

Posted On February 28, 2022 | 17:23 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Diane Allen brings the legacy of Maroon communities that lived in New Orleans’s bayous to wetlands restoration projects

Diane Jones Allen, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “The Maroon Landscape: A Cultural Approach to Coastal Resiliency,” describes the Maroon and other communities that lived in Bayou Bienvenue near New Orleans.

Q&A with Diane Allen

What is unique about the bayou landscape of New Orleans?

My research focuses on Bayou Bienvenue, which is part of the Louisiana Central Wetlands near New Orleans. The bayou is a remnant of the landscape that existed before French settlement of New Orleans and the surrounding area. The wetlands were made by the deposits of eluvial soil from the Mississippi River, and we know today wetlands are essential for protecting coastal communities from storm surge and sea level rise.

When the French started to build the city of New Orleans, they used African enslaved people to  build levees and floodwalls, which disrupted ecosystem services the wetlands provided, preventing the river from depositing sediment and flowing in its natural direction. They also drained the wetlands to expand the development, including farmland and plantations. Even today, they pump water and soil out of the wetlands to create channels to travel from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River for industry. Development has so depleted the wetlands that they are now much smaller. This has happened all across the country including wetlands in Ohio, North and South Carolina, Florida, New York, and now we’re dealing with the results of destroying those ecosystems.

Who were Maroons, and what was their relationship to this landscape?

Maroons were self-described liberated enslaved people who lived in the wetlands. For Europeans, the wetlands were associated with death and fear, but for Maroons they held the possibility of new life. Liberated enslaved people, especially of African origin, would escape into the wetlands because of the similarity to the landscapes of their origins. Maroons lived alongside Indigenous communities that were there before them, like the Chitimacha and Choctaw Tribes and Acadians, who had arrived when Britain colonized Canada. These societies developed various techniques for living in the wetland environment without damaging it, including raised housing, small watercraft-like pirogues, and a new cuisine of alligator and turtles. Each group brought their knowledge of cooking, animals, plants, medicines, and building.

Eventually, industry and plantations began to exert pressures on these communities and how they used the landscape. To earn money, Maroons made wares with grass-weaving techniques they had learned from the Chitimacha. Enslaved people whom Maroons had relationships with would take the wares and sell them at the slave market in New Orleans. Lumber companies would also bring enslaved people into the wetlands to harvest cypress for building materials. Through the connections between the enslaved and Maroons, lumber companies would pay Maroons, who were deeper in the wetlands, to cut timber. However, this practice was not beneficial to Maroon communities because the logging participated in the destruction of the wetlands that protected them. As the wetlands became navigable with more shipping channels and canals, the Maroons were increasingly hunted down. Maroon communities still existed in wetlands elsewhere, like Brazil and Jamaica, but in Bayou Bienvenue their communities ceased to exist either through capture or destruction of the landscape that had sustained them.

Why is it important to understand this history and relationship?

My focus is to look at these communities and learn how their culture and sustenance techniques can help with coastal resiliency today. Wetland restoration aims to revive these ecosystems to mitigate damage from the storms Louisiana continues to experience. There are a number of wetland restoration projects occurring in New Orleans using methods such as the replanting of cypress trees and other plant material for surge protection. Some of these environmental activists call themselves Maroons and look to this history for inspiration. The idea is to use a cultural and community-based approach for ecosystem restoration by connecting it to this unique history.

The manuscript is arranged into five chapters, beginning with the ecology of the bayou, traversing the history and culture of Maroon communities in the bayou, and ending with how we can use Maroon knowledge in our ecological practices, including case studies of present-day “Maroons.” After my research report, the Garden and Landscape Studies cohort provided helpful feedback on moving material from the first chapter into the last, especially as I started writing my second chapter. Material from interlibrary loan and from the Dumbarton Oaks Library has also been helpful on this research journey. (I was pleased to find a whole section on wetlands and also a book on Maroon art.) I also participated a conference at the Harvard Graduate School of Design called “Landscapes of Slavery, Landscapes of Freedom,” where I was on the panel with Daniel Sayers, an archaeologist whose work on the Great Dismal Swamp has really informed my research.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow. Photo by Emily Orr, humanities fellow.