Muddy Thinking in the Mississippi River Delta uses the story of mud to answer a deceptively simple question: How can a place uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise be one of the nation’s most promiscuous producers and consumers of fossil fuels? Organized around New Orleans and South Louisiana as a case study, this book examines how the unruly Mississippi River and its muddy delta shaped the people, culture, and governance of the region. It proposes a framework of “muddy thinking” to gum the wheels of extractive capitalism and pollution that have brought us to the precipice of planetary collapse. Muddy Thinking calls upon our dirty, shared histories to address urgent questions of mutual survival and care in a rapidly changing world.

Ned Randolph, author of Muddy Thinking in the Mississippi River Delta: A Call for Reclamation (UC Press 2024), sat down with Rebecca Snedeker, co-editor of Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (UC Press 2013), to discuss Ned’s new book and the shared experience of living in precarious places. The event took place at Octavia Books, an independent bookstore in New Orleans, on April 10, 2024.

The following is an edited selection from their discussion.

RS: Tell us how this book began.

NR: We left New Orleans in 2006 to San Diego for my wife Jessica’s residency. We were in this post-Katrina diasporic experience and really homesick. New Orleans kept reasserting itself in my imagination and my longing.

I was in a PhD Communication program at UC San Diego, taking a class in performance studies. We were discussing the agency of objects. I started thinking about how the Mississippi River pressed upon my imagination through its history and culture. It resists efforts to contain it. It pushes back. The more you try to control it, the more it raises the stakes of how it’s going to resist. Those stakes we see throughout history in either levee breaks, which are the obvious ones, but also coastal erosion which was tied to hemming the river between levees.

So I thought, I’ll just write about the river. I naively thought that all we needed to do was release the river into the marshes and everything would be hunky dory. But I started to realize we were talking about the river, but not about the oil and gas drilling and pipeline canals and all of the things that contribute to coastal erosion.

As a communications scholar, I think about the politics of knowledge and how common sense is constructed. Things we take as the natural order of things actually have a history and a legibility, which is reproduced. I started to see how the history of river development and flood control was tied to plantation management. Plantation management was tied to bringing enslaved people into areas to cultivate the land, which then pressured indigenous people to move out as white settlers moved in. There was a sweeping dynamic that came together as a genealogy of mud.

RS: So the book is — as you all are taking in — just an incredible synthesis of this land that we’re on and water and mud and our surroundings. I know all of us here are trying to wrap our heads around care for one another and care for this place: how did we get to this place, how are we going to live together here, and what’s to come? And the book really captures so much of the paradox of being here and the complexities of it. By using the materiality and metaphor of mud and embracing the messiness, it’s really a gift. I encourage everyone to read it.

One thing I was particularly delighted by is reading about theorists who are thinking so much about these dynamics of how to live on a weathered planet. And I’m thinking of Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. You brought together their thinking on how we can coexist without a desire to fix everything with technology, but to learn about what’s growing in the margins and the weeds and in-betweenness, and how to find moments of joy and pleasure and be here together. What did those theorists mean to you? What was it like to ground their thoughts in your local surroundings and bring together really powerful voices who are thinking about planetary health and how to move through the damage that is already incurred through this extractive thinking and modernity?

NR: One of the things I touch on is this idea of wildness rather than wilderness. Wildness is not untouched or pristine. But it continues to persist through sidewalks and weeds that you might not be cultivating intentionally. Anna Tsing talks about Matsutaki mushroom picking. It’s this fungus that grows in damaged areas. It organizes lots of different people that go mushroom hunting and exchange mushrooms around the world. There’s some comfort in that. There is life beyond the “natural” because nothing is really natural anymore. Everything is somewhat disturbed. Finding ways to live with and alongside any altered ecology is going to be critical. New Orleans is, you know, an ironic place in this extractive Petro state of Louisiana.

Thinking with these big thinkers helped me wrap my mind around how to conceive of what was going on in this paradox. In order to live here, the infrastructure required actually makes us more vulnerable. And we require an economy – or at least we’re told that we need an economy — that further damages the landscape because we need jobs. That misses the point that there are other kinds of jobs that actually help steward and foster connections.

And so, thinking with Foucault, who was also a big influence, these logic patterns reproduce themselves. Things might look different. It might not be levees, enslaved people, and riverboats. It might be something else, but it’s the same logic. It’s an extractive logic. It instead might be carbon captured from plants and burying the carbon in order to maintain factories in order to kind of keep people working. But we’re giving away billions of dollars in industrial tax exemptions and severance tax exemptions. They’re comforting, these theorists, because they have big ideas that you can apply to large scale issues that might feel overwhelming. But I’m also humbled to apply their tools a little because they’re giants in their field.

RS: And this weaving your perceptions of our reality here – you have these beautiful vignettes in between the chapters. So, the excerpt that Ned wrote about being in the mud with his mom, these personal parts are really meaningful. And I was reflecting on the structure of the book and thinking like, oh, they’re like ligaments, and then I was like, no, they’re like mud. Sort of like the mortar between the chapters. Yeah. It’s a really graceful way that you allow the reader to come to know you more personally, and so that you have a perspective, and we learn about where you’re coming from. But they are these elegant moments. So, I was just wondering what that was like for you in terms of developing your voice as a scholar and, and in these more personal memoir moments. How was it for you to weave that structure together?

NR: I wanted to personalize it and show my connection to the place. It’s a creative writing impulse, I think. Also, I wanted to breathe some life into a hardcore analysis. And I found that it helped guide me a little bit through some of the material. Donna Haraway has a really famous journal article on situated knowledges. We see things from a perspective and a vantage point. So our politics and our histories are all intertwined there. Even what we choose to write about is from a particular perspective. And so that’s where I was coming from. My family has a history here, and it’s a complicated history. I was trying to show that I’m not trying to preach. I’m in the muck with everyone else.