Never Drain That Swamp: Real Life in the Louisiana Atchafalaya Basin

[Except from The Edge of Extinction (Cornell University Press, 2014)]Atchafalaya Basin

Mud brown water sluices at the eroding bank, eddying around drowned willows still thick with trailing leaves, and races up a swollen bayou of old growth cypress. Beneath a watchful osprey, an egret harshly cries, alabaster flashing into the dense forest. A heron stately sails on a raft of plant debris, yellow eyes intent. Deep in these swamps, the water levels are higher than anyone can recall for the time of year. The flat-bottomed skiff scuffed by a quarter century of duty skids across the surface. There are smiles: for a while we’re free from the relentless persecution of mosquitoes. A swimming racoon, head held high, unblinking at first is swamped by the rushing wake. A sleek black moccasin glides from matted water hyacinth, and glares as it has to twist away.

Ricky Carline turns the aluminium bateau into the baylet on Bloody Bayou, and we jump ashore to walk a narrow dappled track invaded by brambles and clutching palmettos. In the high canopy hidden birds sing, and then the brooding forest unfolds. Before us is Sawyer’s Cove, an inner lake stretching far. Here are old-growth cypresses, with buttresses wet in water and branches wreathed with Spanish moss, and beneath our feet are young bullfrogs leaping in the yellow marigolds. An early flock of ducks clatters down on the sunlit water. Ricky and Calvin Voisin, friends since childhood this half century, clear debris from their pirogues, and pull them up from the shore. The water has some more rising to do. When Hurricane Gustav ripped through here, it put down trees, tore roofs from camp houses, flattened houseboats. Today the sky is pure blue. In all swamps, nothing remains quite the same.

The wild Atchafalaya basin: 2500 square miles of the largest contiguous bottomland forest in North America, a land of many thousand bayous, lakes, ponds, rivers, islands, levees and mounds. It’s a refuge for endangered peregrines, Florida panther, the Ivory Billed woodpecker, and another 300 bird species. The 135 mile basin begins near the Red River’s confluence with the Mississippi and ends at threatened coastal marshes, and is constrained mostly on each flank by the ninety mile Eastern and Western levees built by today’s mound builders, the water engineers. It’s a liminal land at the end of a funnel that channels water and silt from thirty-one states and a couple of Canadian provinces. What happens up there acutely affects what goes on down here, as it does out on the Gulf too. Louisiana was once the richest state of the south; after oil it became one of the poorest. Its hardwood forests are now mostly gone, the ancient bottomland cypress logged out for ships and housing.Atchafalaya Basin

The Cajuns have a proud heritage, and have retained identity and customs more than most in North America. But like all distinct groups, this comes with casual stereotyping: they are swampers, devoted to a good time, eat well, sing and dance. By the mid-twentieth century, Cajun had come to refer to a culture of poor, inbred and ignorant swamp dwellers. It became an insult. Many Cajuns were punished if they spoke French in the classroom. But the late 1960s brought a cultural revival, with the import of French teachers and a growing sense of pride. French speakers settled not just from France, but also Belgium, Switzerland, and lately Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, all now seeing themselves as honorary Cajuns. Stereotypes can help cultures retain their own identity, yet also bring unfair characterisation. It is often difficult to have one without the other.

Almost all early visitors thought the cypress swamps were dark and dismal places, beyond civilising tendencies. In 1816, William Darby’s geographical description of Louisiana drew attention to the “deep, dark and silent gloom of the inundated lands of the Atchafalaya,” and the “dead silence, the awful loneliness and the dreary aspect of the region.” Searching for woodpeckers, Audubon wrote of “gloomy swamps… oozing, spongy.. where the sultry, pestiferous atmosphere nearly suffocates the intruder.” The cypress itself is rot-resistant with a deep tap-root, and withstands strong winds well. The seeds root in mud flats bordering rivers, but die if covered by water. Once old enough to reach the canopy, they can stand in water, and develop the distinctive buttressed base with unique cypress knees that are part of the root system. The wood is called eternal: hollow logs used as water pipes in New Orleans in the 1790s were still serviceable more than a century later.

Still today, the swamp is used as an evil metaphor, something needing draining. And once drained, the land will become great again.

Today the swamp is still more likely to be portrayed as menacing rather than a fragile wilderness. This land remains forbidding for most people. Luckily.

We leave Ricky’s swidden camp in the clearing edged by Bloody Bayou, just along from Calvin’s moored houseboat, built on pontoon pipes dragged from an oil field thirty years ago. We flit upstream, which used to be downstream. We are aware of the many moods of water. Some bayous seem to flout hydrological norms, with sleeping water, dead streams, reverse flows, every wilful behaviour. The boat skims out of the enclosed bayou onto the shimmering Atchafalaya itself. On the far side a line of trees hugs the horizon. Ahead the lunging, turbulent river swirls with debris from the north, great logs lurking just beneath the surface, ready to send such a boat straight to the bottom. With no warning, a cohort of water gives up its geographic origin as we slice through an invisible patch of icy air hugging freezing water that’s come thousands of miles from the Rockies.Atchafalaya Basin

A towering double barge pushed by a thudding tug blots out the sun and proceeds down river. We angle across the current in search of the ghost town of Bayou Chene, once a thriving settlement of more than nearly seven hundred people. We moor to a willow, and push through dense undergrowth. This forest is tall with cottonwoods, also invasives that came by water. The chêne oaks have gone, long since destroyed by high water and the silt. A few mature cypress and tupelo remain. Dense clouds of insects join us as we strike inland in search of the hidden graveyard. In the thick forest, it is twilight in the middle of the day.

Bayou Chene was known for its frontier character. Farming, trapping, fishing and moss picking all brought vital income. At that time, alligators were killed to prevent them eating the hogs: they clubbed them with their tails, then pulled them underwater. Spanish moss, an epiphyte of the pineapple family and not a moss at all, gave a uniquely brooding presence to the forests. The French called it barbe espagnole, the Spanish pelvia francesca; the French won. The Indians clothed infants with it, used it for mattresses and insulation, and it was medicine when boiled. Then distant markets were found. Ford used it for stuffing upholstery in their cars. Men in low pirogues stood with perfect balance with long poles to pull down moss. At the museum were photographs of moss pickers by their houses in the 1930s, loading trucks, laying it out to cure and darken by the bayou banks. It was dirty and dangerous work, says Ricky, who recalls it from his youth. Snakes commonly came down with the streamers of grey moss. But huge amounts had to be collected to make a living. In the Atchafalaya, twenty-five moss ginning plants were active in the 1940s, the last closed in 1967.

Back at the camp, the three of us sit on the porch in hammock and deep chairs. Aback of the clearing the forest trees rise sheer and dense, entangled with vines. Wild turkeys venture onto the pasture in search of feed. We talk fish. Especially crawfish. Of the twenty-nine species in Louisiana, the red swamp and white river are the most common. Crawfish further define identity of the basin. Some are now raised, but both Ricky and Calvin say wild is best, a slightly muddy flavour, something extra. They are smaller than lobsters, caught with one by half metre traps fashioned of black chicken wire. Fish or maize bait is dropped inside, and like a lobster trap, once in there is no way out. Every fisherman has his special places.

As I sprawl in the hammock, beers in the ice bucket, shirt crucially rucked up my back a few inches, one thing lazily strikes me about life in the swamp. Night closes in and now we watch the ball game, LSU at bitter rivals Alabama, the jungle television bright from batteries. Meanwhile mosquitoes work their way silently across my back leaving, I see the next day, weals of red bites like bullet holes. But it could be worse. Charles Simpson in the 1920s wrote of mosquitoes in these swamps: “the insects covered the exposed parts of my body until the skin could not be seen, and when I wiped them off blood dripped on the ground. With puffed cheeks and eyelids I could scarcely see.” We eat fried catfish and bullfrog’s legs, one of the few places outside France where frogs’ legs are on the menu. A treat: Calvin serves his best blackberry wine, and we talk of the animals of the forest: Louisiana black bear, red wolf, river otter, panther. Poor old coyote is formally called an outlawed quadruped by state wildlife authorities, as are feral hogs, escapees from the days of farming, nutria and nine-banded armadillos. And talked too of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Lord God Bird, hidden still in these forests.

Back on the road, we pass through St Martin Parish, one of the poorest in the state. White plantation homes with wooden verandas, lawns and specimen trees, then a main street of painted houses and shops. This is a place deserving of serious dedication: it is the home of one of America’s best living writers, James Lee Burke. We stop for bowls of fish soup. Ricky’s family owned sugar plantations hereabouts before the Civil War, and were original landowners at Bayou Chene. They have since stayed close to the swamp, even though the land was lost. He says they always will.

The evening sun now washes the cane fields and wooden houses, and we turn inside the swamp and drive north along the cracked road outside the western levee. The restaurant is almost empty. No live music, few customers, for a Friday night again not so good. The economy has declined yet further. At a table with chequered tablecloth overlooking the darkened lake, we work on a heaped dish of red hot crawfish.The Edge of Extinction book cover

As we prepare to depart, I notice the houseboats have been removed from the water and are now on pilings at the shore. All I can think about is an earlier time, when moonlight was on the still lake, on the floor of the houseboat sharp shadows, croaking frogs beyond the mosquito netting. No more feeling the creaking of the boat in your bones, watching a moon rise through the trees and filling the windows with light. Somewhere further south, deep in the swamp we cross a clanking bridge, and stretching backs and legs, walk into a bar in a shambling wooden building. There are no other lights in the swamp. Inside, local friends leaning against a bar are shouting over the music.

You could have it all, sings Johnny Cash, my empire of dirt. Neon blinking, eyes smarting, beer at the bar.

In the car park, I stand and listen to the frogs out on the bayou.