It is a warm, cloudy afternoon in south central Louisiana as we climb into small Jon boats, preparing to set off and explore the swamp of the Atchafalaya Basin. Some of my traveling companions are nervous about the aluminum boats, but after meeting our guides, Greg Guirard, Roy Blanchard, and Bernard Blanchard-all experienced Cajuns who have spent their lives on these waters-my classmates' doubts subside. Captivated by the cool waters ahead of me, I climb into one of the boats and feel a sense of relief that I will be spending some time in a new natural setting. It is our first full day in Cajun country, having already spent nearly a week in New Orleans. As part of a travel seminar for our coursework at Chatham College, we have come to Louisiana for a two week stint to learn about and experience the culture and heritage of Louisiana. Already we have walked the French Quarter, spent a day at JazzFest, and toured parts of the city affected by Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees. The week in New Orleans has left me physically exhausted and emotionally drained, and I am ready to spend some time among the quiet of the swamp as an introduction to the Cajun culture.
The basin itself is more than just water runoff from the Mississippi River. The Atchafalaya River, whose name is derived from the Choctaw Tribe language, meaning "Long River" runs through the center of the Basin as a tributary of the Mississippi River, though given the amount of water pushed through, the river is a relatively short 150 miles in length. Locked in by levees on both the eastern and western sides, the basin serves as a spillway for the Mississippi controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, the same government agency that oversees the now infamous levees of New Orleans. Within the Basin is are countless numbers of water life, birds, animals and plants, including alligators, egrets, nutria, and what is left of the cypress forest that once covered close to a million acres of this land.
Greg Guirard, one of our guides, has spent most of his sixty-nine years here, and still lives in the home his grandfather built on the edge of the basin. A Cajun who has worked as a fisher, hunter, logger, writer and teacher, Greg invited us into his studio earlier for a slide show presentation of his own photography that captures life on the Atchafalaya Basin. He showed us pictures and talked about the wildlife and cypress trees, Cajun heritage, and his own relationship to the world around him here. Now, out on the water, watching him with Roy and Bernard, as they steer us under a gray sky towards the few remaining cypress trees, I cannot help but admire his enthusiasm for the basin. Coming from a migratory family that has never stayed in any one place for more than a generation or two, I am intrigued at what kind of place compels people such as Greg and Roy to stay in the same place their entire lives.
course, for Greg or Roy's family, the answer to that question goes
deeper than their individual decision to stay, or even their grandparent's
decision to stay. The Cajun people of Louisiana can trace their
roots back to France when during the seventeenth century they were persecuted
and left for Acadia-which is now Nova Scotia. When the British
forced them from what had become their new homeland in the mid eighteenth
century, the Acadians ultimately were given the undesirable swamps and
prairies of southern Louisiana, and have remained here since.
It's a testament to me that the strength and foundation of families
is what keeps a culture alive and surviving. From the struggle
to stay in the basin to the struggle to preserve the Cajun French language,
it's clear to me-as someone's whose own values are rooted in family
and tradition, but has little ties to any specific place-that this
swamp plays a role in the culture of these families.
After the slide show presentation at Greg's home, we caravanned to Roy Blanchard's place to hitch up the boats we would be using in the swamp. Arriving at Roy's, we were greeted by a new litter of puppies as well as Annie, Roy's wife. She graciously opened her home to us as a place to rest before we headed off to the swamps, engaging us in conversation about what we had learned this morning.
"We built it ourselves what, about thirty years ago, right Roy?" Annie said smiling, when I had noted how nice her home was.
"Yep, it took us two years alone to get the lumber," Roy responded over his shoulder.
"Where'd you get it?" I asked, impressed by their work.
"Right over there," Roy said. He pointed at the bank of the basin not far from the house. Coming over to where Annie and I were standing, he continued.
"It took a season to float the logs and pull them from the basin, and a year for the cypress to dry. Then we milled and let it dry for another year, but in the end the house only cost sixteen thousand. It'd cost me more today."
"Where did you live while you were building it?"
"On a houseboat," Annie said.
She most have noticed the look of surprise on my face because she quickly added, "It's nothing. I was born on a houseboat."
Not wanting the conversation to end, I remembered the family pictures I had seen inside.
"Do your sons live nearby?"
"Clyde and Ti-Roy, no," Annie said, shaking her head. "They live near the city, with their families. They come out when they can, go crawfishing with their daddy. They love it, though."
just not an option for them anymore," Roy added.
It's one of the things Greg had mentioned in his presentation earlier that morning-how it's not possible to live off of the Basin anymore. There's hardly enough crawfish to feed your family, let alone fish and sell it commercially. Most families have had to find work in other places. Greg spends his time pulling cypress logs from the bottom of the basin. Still a valuable wood, he can usually sell it for a decent amount of money. It is a sensitive spot for Greg, though-the story of the trees.
Cypress trees are one of the few species of trees that can grow and thrive in water, as well as one of the strongest, slowest-growing trees found in the United States. The oldest tress grew to be nearly five feet wide and over 130 feet tall while their most prominent features were the "knees"-parts of the root that protrude above the water level to help stabilize the tree in soft soil. Unfortunately, cypress was logged extensively in south central Louisiana from the end of the Civil War to the 1930s. It took less than 100 years to harvest trees that had taken over a thousand years to grow.
Surrounded by the stumps in the water, I better understand Greg's sadness at what's happened to the forest. The few hollow stumps left behind, some five feet in diameter, are merely ghosts of what the forest must have looked like a hundred and fifty years ago. The closest I can come to understanding the devastation and loss of this forest was my own experience as a child watching over thirty percent of Yellowstone National Park burn in the summer of 1988. It does not compare though, and I realize this. The lost acres in Yellowstone were, in part, a natural renewal of the park, where here trees were harvested for their heartwood, preferred for its durability and resistance to rot. Where in Yellowstone, the pine trees have begun to regenerate themselves in the past eighteen years, the cypress lost in the Atchafalaya Basin will never be grow back. What few trees remain will take a couple hundred years more to grow to the size of the giants lost already.
is probably more upsetting for Greg though, given that when we first
arrived at his property, we were showed us the location of the saw mill
his grandfather had built and used to saw cypress logged from the basin.
It is an issue Greg has addressed in his novel, The
Land of Dead Giants, which is about a young boy growing up it the
Atchafalaya Basin. In what is most likely an effort to change the past,
Greg also plants a thousand trees annually in the basin. What
I admire most about Greg, however, is his dedication to sharing the
beauty of the remaining cypress through his photography, his writing,
and his lectures.