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Contemplative center opens in the Lower 9th Ward

Common Ground Relief has shifted emphasis from rebuilding to coastal restoration.

Common Ground Relief has shifted emphasis from rebuilding to coastal restoration. (Photo: Common Ground Relief on Facebook)

There may not be a better place to reflect on New Orleans’ past and envision its future than Cabane Coypu and Wetlands Contemplative Center. Located in the shadow of the Judge Seeber Bridge just a short distance from the notorious break in the Industrial Canal wall, the sanctuary created by Common Ground Relief is intended to be a place of respite for Lower Ninth Ward residents and a tree farm and nursery to replenish native habitat. Common Ground hopes to educate as many people as possible about the fragile environment and engage the community in its wetlands restoration effort.

The new contemplative center, 1515 Jourdan Ave., which will officially open on Saturday, Oct. 18, includes a cypress shelter and deck overlooking raised gardens planted with marsh grass and young, hardwood trees. Chairs are set under shady pecan, white oak and cypress trees, and a fire pit and picnic table welcome community gatherings, eco-tourism, cycling tours and casual visitations. A butterfly garden delights visitors with colorful insects and climbing roses cover the surrounding wooden fence.

“We’ve been growing grasses and hardwood trees since 2006,” said Thom Pepper, executive director.

Common Ground started a tree nursery in eastern New Orleans in 2007, but found logistics too difficult. When New Orleans Redevelopment Organization (NORA) started its alternative land use program, Pepper began looking for locations in the Lower Ninth Ward near Common Grounds’ home base and purchased 10 lots to cultivate native plants.

The new center is loca

Common Ground Relief's new center offers a place for contemplation as well as coastal replanting. (Photo: Common Ground Relief on Facebook)

Common Ground volunteers will plant bald cypress, red maple, water oak, swamp tupelo, sweetgum, sweet bay magnolia, myrtle, Chickasaw plum, pecan and persimmon trees in Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. Three hundred bottomland hardwood trees are being cultivated to help landscape the 18-acre campus of Martin Luther King High School, opening in 2015.

After Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground’s original mission was gutting and rebuilding flooded Lower Nine homes, but its focus has gradually changed to wetlands restoration. The overall plan is to secure Louisiana’s coastline by planting marsh grasses and cypress that help prevent further erosion. This winter, from November to March, Common Ground volunteers will paddle canoes out into the marsh to plant grasses and trees.

“Four square miles of healthy swamp or 8 square miles of healthy marsh reduce surge by a foot,” Pepper noted.

The nonprofit often provides state and federal agencies lacking resources with plants and volunteer labor to do the vital work. Pepper estimates that more than 2,000 volunteers have participated in its restoration projects this year.

Common Ground Relief is a nonprofit that runs a diverse range of programs, from new home construction to wetlands restoration and community gardening. It also educates children about food security and environmental science with the Garden of Good Eatin’ and Meg Perry Healthy Soils Projects.

The contemplative center will be open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit www.commongroundrelief.org

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]