Building Community in the Bayou 

At the age of 19, Monique Verdin picked up a camera and began documenting the lives of her relatives in the Mississippi Delta. Little did she know that she would spend the next two decades investigating and capturing the profound ways that climate, the fossil fuel industry, and the shifting waters of the Gulf of Mexico would transform the landscape that was once a refuge for her Houma ancestors.

Based in Louisiana, Verdin is an artist, storyteller, videographer, and photographer as well as a community builder and activist. She is also the director of the Land Memory Bank and Seed Exchange, a project that seeks to create a community record of the coastal cultures and native ecology of southeast Louisiana. Her work, which was featured in the Winter print edition of Issues, seeks to understand home and belonging after displacement and migration. Her stories are laced with environmental concerns, the shifting roles of corporate entities, and natural and human-made disasters. Verdin’s art practice creates space and gives voice to Indigenous and marginalized communities in the South while building bridges with science communities.

On this episode, Verdin joins host JD Talasek to talk about using art and science to understand a Gulf that is being reshaped by climate, industry, and more.

Is there something about science policy you’d like us to explore? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected].

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JD Talasek: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and by Arizona State University.

I’m JD Talasek, Director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences.  For this podcast, I’m joined by Monique Verdin. Monique is a citizen of the Houma Nation and director of The Land Memory Bank & Seed Exchange.  Based in Louisiana, she wears many hats – artist, storyteller, videographer, and photographer as well as community builder and activist. Her work documents and conveys issues of home and belonging that results from displacement and migration. Because these stories are interconnected with environmental concerns, use of land by corporate entities and a string of natural and human-made disasters, Monique engages with a variety of art practices that seek to create space – giving voice to indigenous and marginalized communities in the South. Often informed by science, her work brings into focus the complexity of the situation and often builds bridges between the local and science communities. When I spoke with Monique, she shared how events in her life drew her into this work and how she uses this work to engage with her community.

Welcome Monique.

Monique Verdin: Thanks so much for the invitation to be in conversation.

Talasek: I first became familiar with your work as a videographer when you contributed to Brandon Ballengée’s Crude Life traveling exhibit that was funded by the National Academies’ Keck Futures Initiative. I’ve just been enthralled with your work ever since. I wonder if we could start at the beginning, maybe a little bit about your origin story. You’re an artist and a storyteller. How did you find yourself going down that path?

Verdin: Wow. I think that to do a rewind of my life, there was a moment in the late nineties when I learned about a place called Grand Bois, or Big Woods, which is between the Bayou Terrebonne and Bayou Lafourche and the Yakni Chitto, the Big Country, also known as Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes in South Louisiana. And I learned that my cousins who live in this very small community along what was the Bayou Blue, connecting those two bayous and has since become a highway that follows the high ground, that they were being poisoned by toxic oil fill waste that was bringing, being brought across state lines from Alabama to Louisiana where it was considered non-hazardous. Of course, to this day, that site is considered non-hazardous, but the material on the site has hazardous characteristics, so that facility is still up and operating to this day. But my desire to take photographs was really to expose that story, to stop that injustice.

The more I was invited to get into boats with my cousins who are fishermen and taken to the ends of the bayou where my elders once lived in places that were considered trembling prairies. I say often, where my grandmother harvested pecans today, my cousins are putting their crab traps out. And so learning about what was a “not in my cousin’s backyard” story, but I wanted to share, to stop, then I recognize there’s a much bigger planetary problem. I have a perspective that, of course, is informed by many other experiences and stories, and I feel that a responsibility of mine really is to share the stories of my elders. They were not listened to. They were silenced. They were considered uneducated and did not have a voice to advocate for having access to all the things that one needs to survive: clean water and healthy place to live and to be in community. And how my grandmother witnessed oil and gas coming in the early 1900s into the Delta. I lived through the consequences of those kinds of changes that have been witnessed, that have come from decision making processes that are far outside of the wetlands where we call home.

Talasek: Well, it sounds like, Monique, that this pathway found you. It sounds like that you just simply had to respond to what was in front of you to go down this pathway as an artist. A thread that runs throughout your work, and you brought up already is this theme of home and dislocation. And I’d like to dig down into that a little bit more as it reveals itself in your artwork. You mentioned in your description altars at the end of some of these riverways and passages. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that complexity of how you create work to raise this awareness and to raise this conversation.

Verdin: I think that a lot of the work that I’ve done has just required a real investigation and being kind of self-taught in a sense. I mean, not to say that I haven’t had amazing teachers along the way, but there isn’t a site that you can go to that feels unbiased and well-informed in regards to how the delta works, for example. Or in my own trying to understand how we ended up at the ends of the Bayou, how my father’s Houma heritage, how that history ends up in southern Louisiana on top of black gold mines, and having land stolen essentially from my elders who were signing X’s onto pieces of paper. And there’s no book you can go and check out that helps break that down. And so I think that it’s been my curiosity in trying to make sense and then trying to translate that back to my community.

And with every wave of whether it’s when the BP oil drilling disaster happened on the Deepwater Horizon rig, and for three months we were watching as this blob of oil just couldn’t be stopped, and recognizing how fragile our systems are, how fragile our infrastructure is, how powerful the nature can be, and recognizing how small we are at times when a big storms coming in. And I am grateful that when I was 25 years old, Hurricane Katrina was a moment that really forced me to reckon with the reality that what you really need to survive, clean water and healthy places to be and dry land, that really becomes a primary focus. And I feel like a lot of my work has been to sound the alarm and to recognize that yes, we may be on the front lines, but none of us will be able to hide from the consequences of a changing climate and how it’s important to recognize the intelligence of nature and to learn those lessons so we don’t continue to fight against the nature for corporate gains in so many circumstances. The work has been schooling me in a way of being forced to put a frame, whether sometimes those are moving images or sometimes it’s a photograph or sometimes it’s me saying words in a weird landscape like on an earthen levee that borders a ghost forest in St. Bernard Parish because of saltwater intrusion and wetland loss.

Talasek: Monique, that’s really powerful. And I guess several thoughts that you expressed have me curious. I am wondering about this idea of there’s no place to go to get this information how these stories and these perspectives are not historically recorded. There are a conversation that in some cases might be silenced and how your work, and this is what I’d like to dig down into, is how does your work actually give your community a voice? And I guess I’d like to have you talk a little bit more about the work you do specifically with the communities and how you help the communities find voice with each other and to hold space to remember these issues.

Verdin: Well, I always wish that I could do more. I feel like one of the most important things that we really need is access to safe spaces where people can come together from different backgrounds with maybe different visions of the future, but to meet on a neutral ground and to learn from each other and to really be able to be exposed to the data in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re being manipulated by the powers that be. And being from a place like South Louisiana and seeing how with every disaster, decisions get made in really rapid ways, and going to so many of these community meetings where I have learned a lot or I have walked away with questions that have forced me to dig deeper into investigating what does that mean, for example, what is a river diversion? What will that mean for my community? What does that mean for the estuaries of one of the planet’s biggest river basins in the world?

I think that I’ve had a privilege of being able to, for whatever reasons, whether I’m working as a researcher’s assistant or working as an artist in trying to create work that is responding to these big questions regarding how do we remain and reclaim or how do we retreat and return, or what does that look like in these times where folks are saying by 2050, life in the red zone of South Louisiana will be gone? And how do we hold onto our food ways, our life ways, our cultural traditions in these times is something that is, like, if some folks will be like, oh, well, you come in and talk about climate change. It’s like this is the existential crisis that we’re all going through. I mean, I can tell you what I’ve seen, but all of us, especially here in the Delta, have been living through many, many cycles and the warnings are coming true.

So the art, I feel like the art is in a big way for me, part of my therapy and processing and making sense of time, and part of my art practice is taking photographs and then layering those photographs with United States Geological survey maps of the place or layering a couple of those maps, one from the 1930s compared to one in 2015, and then an image taken at that place on top of it to really just show how quickly the landscape is changing. And also knowing that maps are our tool of colonization and domination and creating these lines and borders and barriers, but also with the satellite imagery that we’re able to witness this disappearance before our eyes and to translate that into saying, oh, it’s not just a dead tree. This is a dead tree, because do you see all of these straight lines that have been cut through the landscape and what that has allowed in a short amount of time for what should be a fresh or brackish environment to become completely saturated with salt water. Knowing that that generational consequence has come with these short-term gains, which are tied to money that is in the pockets of people far beyond our borders.

Talasek: I appreciate you talking about your process of documenting these and the way that you pull these different elements together for your work. But I also see your work with the community. Do you actually have gone into these spaces and created that as sort of a social sculpture? It’s definitely a part of the medium that I think sets you far apart from a lot of filmmakers or storytellers because you’re in there telling your story, you’re sharing your community story, you’re sharing the data that you’re aware of with your community in a way that perhaps they could hear it better than if they were hearing it from an authority. They’re also living it. I wonder if you could describe maybe some of the more social community based aspects of your work.

Verdin: Yeah. After I collaborated on a project called Cry You One, I was inspired to start a project called the Land Memory Bank and Seed Exchange. And the intention really is to activate sites and to welcome people in. And it was originally when the idea came to me, it was inspired by the fact that so much is being lost and how we have these waves of researchers that will come into our communities whenever disaster strikes. And there’s all of this information gathering and storytelling, whether it be for news outlets or for researchers and university, and how that information often would just go away. So I was wanting to really build a repository and to have a space where community could upload their own history and quickly realized that that is a monumental task, and how it gets held and what the bureaucracy of institutions and even the technology of holding that information became a huge challenge.

But what I recognized in that process was that the real magic was just holding space for people to connect. And for the last, since 2015, we have been activating at the Los Isleños Cultural Complex, which is along the banks of Bayou Terre-aux-Boeufs and Eastern St. Bernard Parish. So about 45 minutes south of the city of New Orleans, also known as Bulbancha, the city was and it continues to be called A Place of Babbling Languages or Babbling Tongues, but was successfully rebranded New Orleans. But recognizing that this part of the world has been a place where many different kinds of people have been connecting for a really long time. And that fiesta is actually celebrating the Canary Island descendants and many other peoples who call St. Bernard Parish home. So we tend to a little medicine wheel garden there. I work collaboratively with Dr. Tammy Greer, who’s another Houma woman, and we kind of invite our community of indigenous folks from across the delta to come and to share their baskets that are made and also jewelry.

And that’s been a really beautiful seasonal celebration. We, in February, every year, build these traditional Houma structures that are made out of palmetto and willow, and building with community, physically, building with community year after year. It’s is something much bigger than an art project or setting up for fiesta. It’s the steep relationship with each other and has become very intertribal and interracial, and also has been a really unexpected journey and continues to strengthen relationship with place too, with being in St. Bernard Parish and being in a place that is so on the edge. And as we are going through this bottleneck of biodiversity being lost, it’s a really special place to be able to get out in the palmetto forest and to recognize the beauty of those places. Out of that practice for so many years, it’s led to the building of a modern nanih. Nanih means mound or hill in Choctaw, and we are building a nanih in Bulbancha. So a modern mound is currently under construction on the Lafitte Greenway, which is a public park in the heart of the city, and building it as an intertribal. And all people, all languages are welcome and have been in community building this site for hopefully celebration and exchange long into the future.

Talasek: So Monique, your process as you’re describing it, is so incredibly complex and beautiful. It has so many different facets, and I just really enjoy listening to you talk about it. You had mentioned an influx of researchers that come into the area, especially after disaster, and I wonder if we could talk a little bit about that. I know you’ve collaborated with scientists. You mentioned Tammy Greer. I know that you’ve worked with Brandon Ballengée. I think you’ve also worked some with Jody Deming and the Ocean Memory Project. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your relationship with these scientists and how they inform your work, and also maybe how you inform their work. It’s just a simple question. Nothing too much, right?

Verdin: Well, it’s funny to think of them, and also architects. Architects and scientists weave in and out of my world, and we have these ideas of what a scientist is or what an architect is, or even what an artist is. And it’s like, oh, they’re my friends and I love them, and they’ve helped me to flip my worldview or my cosmic perception upside down, especially in regards to those who are working in the ocean sciences world. I mean, Jody Deming has been on the forefront of Arctic ice microorganism research and just thinking about the relationship of space to deep ocean and just geological time. And it’s really helped to allow myself to take a deep breath during these kind of traumatic days of waking up every morning and reading the news headlines about where we are. And to recognize how the smallest of creatures have this ability to survive under the most extreme circumstances, and how that is through communications and networks and sensing that is beyond something that we can see is really just fascinating and inspiring.

I’m a curious person and I’ve been really blessed that by being an artist, sometimes you get invited into peculiar places. And I think that so much of my wanting to understand what’s happening in my own backyard and my wetlands to my family has taken me out to sea, literally. And this time of really wanting to advocate for our survivability, really focusing attention on the importance of the ocean and rivers. The Mississippi River keeps calling me in this way that I’ve connected with communities all the way near one of the many headwaters of the Mississippi. But just recognizing water’s importance and water’s intelligence and how water is connecting people, and just recognizing that I am water too, that my time here is really short, and the perspective that I have is so small, but I know that it’s reflected in many people’s realities across the world.

And right now, I like working in the arts, but I want to put my hands in the dirt. And I feel like the most important thing that I can really be focused on right now focused is creating safe places to be, whether it’s building this Nanih, our modern mound in Bulbancha, and connecting with the community of sweet souls who are also dedicated to creating safe spaces or even building out a land site that’s about two hours north of the city as a safe place to retreat to, not only for myself, but for my community, which are human beings, and also plant friends who are finding it harder to live in my home territories closer to the coast. And just to reflect back about migrations, recognizing that migration is a way of life, and being here in the delta where so many different kinds of birds and other flying creatures and swimming beings coming through here, I feel really blessed to be part of that kind of PowerPoint of a womb site for the world, and also have embraced the fact that I might not always be able to be at my grandmother’s land, and maybe one day it’s going to go underwater, but I have a right to be in relationship with those places that I can’t just turn my back and run away. I belong to it, and it belongs to me.

Talasek: Wonderfully, wonderfully put. So beautifully put. I want to wrap this up by sharing with you a metaphor that I just heard. This was from a musician and community builder in Tampa, and this was taught to him by a West African teacher of his, and it is simply stated that the longest distance is the distance between the heart and the mind. And this came up in a conversation that we were having about the importance of water and how water connects us, and how a lot of these issues are around water. And that just kind of all comes together. Fred Johnson, who shared that phrase with me, he taught me that the heart is why we do something, and that the mind is how we do something. And I think it’s a beautiful thing because it’s the distance between the heart and the mind is often the distance between thinking about something, talking about something, and doing something. And Monique, I would just share my observation of your work over the years as work that shortens the distance between the heart and the mind. And I just wanted to thank you for your time. Thank you for your work that you do. Thank you for creating space for so many other people. And I’ll just let you have the final word. Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Verdin: I think I feel really so incredibly grateful to be in community, to be supported by my ancestors and my family, and my family friends, and also strangers that come into my world and change the direction that I thought I was going to go in such wild and wonderful ways. I think that by being vulnerable and sharing so many of my personal challenges and questions, that has returned gifts in unimaginable ways. So I’m grateful for this time and for all of the networks that I am a part of. So thank you so much.

Talasek: Monique. Thank you. And thank you for responding to what is presented to you. That’s truly an artist path, and it’s something that we can all learn from. So thank you, Monique. Thanks for being here.

Verdin: Thank you.

Talasek: If you would like to learn more about Monique Verdin’s work, check out the resources in our show notes.  

You can subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcast. Thanks to our podcast producers, Sydney O’Shaughnessy and Kimberly Quach and and our audio engineer Shannon Lynch. I’m J.D. Talasek, Director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences. Thank you for listening.