A journal of narrative writing.
At Home in the Swamp
Page 2

Any doubts I might have had about these men's experiences with the swamp evaporate once we move into the cypress woods.  Roy Blanchard is steering us through the swamp, around the remaining cypress stumps and knees with the ease of driving a car through a familiar neighborhood.  He predicts every bump we feel as we pass through the still water and knows just when to throttle the engine to get us over a remaining cypress log sunk to the swamp floor. 

"It isn't normally this way," Roy points out to us, "but with the drought and all, the water's only about four feet deep."

Drought-the word stops me as I look around, surrounded by water.  Drought is something I know about-I am not from the hills of Western Pennsylvania as some of my classmates, but moved there from the Sonoran desert of southwestern Arizona.  Coming from Yuma, a city of roughly a hundred thousand people, where the average annual rainfall is less than three inches, I understand the importance of water.

Still, I am in awe of what surrounds me.  There are few times in my life that I have been surrounded by such a volume of water and though I am not afraid, I find myself searching for a place to feel grounded. I notice the water's movement under the plants around us as the boat glides through the swamp.  The quiet waves only slightly disrupt the duckweed, the small flowering plant with no stem or leaves that surrounds the boat.  The thick, green carpet looks solid enough for me to rest my hand, but when I press down the fronds separate and my fingers sink into the dark water.  Occasionally we float by a water hyacinth, though they are few in number this year. Its pale purple blossom is usually considered invasive, but here is an indicator to commercial fisherman that crawfish are nearby.   

"It goes back to the drought," our guides tell us.  "We need fresh water.  There's not enough oxygen right now for much to grow in these waters.  The crawfish ain't even running."

Greg confirms this when he steers his boat toward a half-submerged tube made out of something like chicken wire.  He pulls the crawfish trap from the water to show us what he's caught.  I see two, maybe three small muddy crawfish, huddled together at the bottom of the trap. 

"They didn't even take the bait," Greg says, shaking his head.  Pieces of Spam hang towards the middle of the trap.  He shakes the cage, leaves the bait and crawfish, and drops the trap back into the water.  "It's not good."  

Though the number of crawfish is dwindling in the basin today, there are examples of other flourishing wildlife all around us.  Within minutes of arrival in the swamp, our calm boat outing is disturbed by a grass carp that jumps out of the water over our boat.  From that point on, I gaze wide-eyed out at what I thought was a quiet, empty swamp, searching for signs of more wildlife.  It doesn't take long to satisfy my desire to see more animals, as we come across several egret nests, some with eggs in them. Inhabiting one large hollow cypress stump we find a family of beavers and their young. Weaving in and out of the cypress knees and stumps, I spot a water moccasin slithering along a log and Roy recognizes nutria.  Sounding much more exotic than it looks, the semi-aquatic rodent was imported to Louisiana for the fur-trading industry, but has since soared in population and is responsible for vast amounts of vegetative damage to the wetlands across the Southeast every year. 

Roy encourages our wildlife adventure, spotting a barred owl and couple of blue herons.  At one point, he taps me on the shoulder.

"Look over there.  Alligator, did you see it?" he says.

"No, where's it at?"

"Follow the bubbles."

I search the water and eventually find the trail of bubbles. 

"We'll sit here and see if he comes back," he says in a low voice.  After a couple of minutes, we give up and move along.

"I got a story for ya'll," he begins suddenly.  "About a one-eyed alligator and a dog named Duke."

Before I get a chance to respond, Roy has launched into the story.

"So my buddies and I were frog hunting one night-late, like at one a.m. and we were flashing our lights, looking for frogs when we spot one red eye staring back at us. It was an alligator-a wounded gator had one eye shot out.  So we shoot him again, and again.  It took four more shots to kill the thing, only when we kill him, he's too big to pull into the boat.  So we find a way to roll him into the boat-when we measure him, he was sixteen feet long-we go home and it's `bout three a.m. so we leave him in the boat."

Assuming it's the end of the tale because Roy is laughing, I think about asking him what they did with the alligator, when he starts up again. 

"The next morning we skin the gator and see how big his belly is-it's big and wide as a fifty-five gallon barrel-so we cut the stomach open.  Guess what we find-we find ten to twelve nutria skull, and a dog collar.  Yup, a dog collar.  So I clean and scrub the collar till I could see what it read, and it reads `Dennis Enkle.  This dog's called Duke. Please return to. . .' and it has an address.  So I know Dennis, and I call him, and I say:

`Dennis-you missin' a dog?'

He says, `Roy, I missin' lots of dogs.'

`You have a dog named Duke?'

`Duke! He's my best one, my best dog.'

`You looking for him?  Well, you can stop now.  I found his collar.'

`His collar? Where's the rest of him?'

`Gator got him.'

`I don't believe you.'

And that's the story of the one-eyed gator and a dog named Duke," Roy says, laughing out loud.

"One-eyed alligator and a dog named Duke," I say over and over again in my head so I don't forget the story through all the laughter.  

The longer I am in the swamp, listening to Roy talk about the swamp and his life here, the more I begin to understand that the Atchafalaya Basin is more than a spillway for the Mississippi.  It is more than a refuge for birds and animals, and it is much more than a tourist attraction. And though I have little doubt that Roy is enjoying us as much as we are enjoying him, I cannot help but wonder if there isn't something else he and Greg would rather be doing instead of boating a bunch of graduate writing students around the swamp.  I know though, they are happy here by the way they steer us around the swamp, by the relationship they have with one another and with the swamp.  I am beginning to understand that though this is where the Acadians were forced to live three hundred years ago, Greg, Roy and Annie are living here now because it is where they want to be.  Life isn't easy on the swamp, but as Greg quoted Roy earlier that day, "A Cajun is a guy that's gonna make it no matter what." And in some ways, I think that's what makes a Cajun content-simply making it. 

I think of my own family's history, one full of different cities, states and countries.  I can trace my father's family back only a few generations.  As far as I know their history began in Nebraska, and only lasted as long as it took my grandparents to leave in search of better opportunities. My mother's father similarly left Oklahoma at a young age to work the oil fields, might have even crossed the Atchafalaya Basin at one point, never staying in any place long enough to put down roots. My parents, unaccustomed to staying in one place, followed their parents' leads until recently, and I've done the same.  And now, after being here and seeing how a group of people have made their lives work where they were, have made their own opportunities where they were born, I wonder if I have made the best decision in leaving behind the place I might have called home for something that may not be better.  There's something to be said for a people who make their lives doing what they have always done, and when they run out of options, they simply find something else they can do.  It makes me think that it is not so much the place you live in that makes you happy, but rather the way you live and the things you do.   

When we drive the boats back to Roy's home, we are again greeted by the puppies and Annie, and though we are only there for a few minutes this time, Annie is interested in knowing which animals we saw, what we thought of the cypress, and if we got rained on too much.  After a few moments of conversation, we are herded into the vans as it is time to go back to our bed and breakfast in Lafayette.  But as I'm waiting for the last students to get into the van, I look out at the window to see Annie packing up a bunch of food for Greg to take home with him.  It's a simple act of kindness, a neighbor packing up a dinner of Cajun gumbo or crawfish étouffé for a friend, but it's my favorite part of the day-seeing what this swamp, this place does for its inhabitants, and what its inhabitants do for each other.