Swamp Music

There is a kind of folktale in Louisiana: a set of lobsters followed French Canadians exiles, cast from their home in the mid-18th century during the French and Indian War, to arrive in Louisiana. As the lobsters journeyed south, enduring heat and humidity, they shrank from their grand dimensions, creating the diminutive creature we know as the crawfish.

The crawfish is an ancient creature, of course, and was a foodstuff long before the first Cajun exiles arrived in the swamps. So the Chitimacha Indians have their own crawfish story. This crustacean, they say, was commanded by the Creator to carry mud up from the ocean bottom and create the land on which people live. Geographers have another version – they tell us the mud in the Atchafalaya Basin came from further up the continent – as far away as New York, Montana, even Alberta – flowing downriver until it settled into one of the world’s greatest swamps.

To each eater, then, his own tale of crawfish, as to each swamper his own tale of the swamp. The modern interstate driver sees a different topography still: stuck in standstill traffic atop the I-10 bridge – where, as I rudely discovered, the lack of shoulders can turn an unseen fender-bender into an hour-long snarl – he regards an endless maze of backchannels, winding through a prehistoric sludge that he imagines has always been. Exploring those muddy, mysterious chutes looks like an adventure, if only he can escape the damn bridge. But of all these stories, the driver has it most wrong.

The swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin are neither ancient nor timeless, but inconstant, forever new. Season to season, its waters rise, then fall. Generation by generation, more and more mud arrives. Century by century, its human occupants have shifted: native villages replaced with cabins and houseboats, where French-speakers picked moss and caught crawfish and danced to music accompanied by violin and accordion. Now, often, there is no one at all – just a few birds, a few gators, and the occasional roar of an outboard motor as a boat passes through. Hydrologically, ecologically, culturally, the Atchafalaya Basin changes so frequently that it’s hard to say just what this place is.

Geographically speaking, at least, the Atchafalaya Basin is a wide swath of backswamp and coastal marsh, about 3,000 square miles, bound on all sides by old channels of the Mississippi River. That famous river tends, every thousand of years or so, to choose a new path to the Gulf. When these ancient rivers overflowed, they built natural levees, which now form the containing walls for the Atchafalaya’s swamp. An hour away from Baton Rouge, where the local coffee shops have the same industrial-chic veneer as in every other gentrified or gentrifying town, the Basin feels like a different world.

Its name – whose pronunciation is a boondoggle to describe in print, just Google it, practice it, and know you will mangle it embarrassingly until one day it finally clicks – is a misnomer. A novel spelling of the Choctaw phrase “hachacha falaya,” it means “long river,” but the Atchafalaya River is much more powerful than long. By discharge it ranks as the nation’s fifth largest river, despite a path of less than 150 miles. The “littlest big river,” some call it.

That bigness is a relatively new development, as the river itself only took modern form 500 years ago. And for centuries, the river was blocked at its top by a miles-long tangle of driftwood so dense the Spanish drove their cattle across. Not until 1860 was the wood fully cleared, just as channel dredging began for commercial river traffic. A once-minor river was granted a mighty flow.

And more flow means more mud – too much mud, perhaps. In Louisiana, a state famous for land loss, the Atchafalaya Basin now has the opposite problem: its cypress-tupelo swamps, among the most productive on the planet, are turning into dry forest. The siltation was a problem, too, for those who lived in the Basin. “Every spring they’d get a load of sand and silt in their houses,” Greg Guirard told me.

Guirard, a writer and photographer, started his professional life as a school teacher, but in his spare time collected old cypress wood from the nearby swamp. He’d find the logs when the water was low; he’d carve them free from the mud and flag them with styrofoam. He’d float them out once the water got high, later rinsing them clean at a car wash. Guirard quickly discovered that hunting wood was not just more fun that teaching, but paid better, too. Eventually someone lent him a camera, which he used to show his wife and children the marvelous, wild things he saw. Now he is known as the foremost documenter of one of the most precious – and puzzling – parts of French Louisiana.

Acadiana, as French Louisiana is often known, is a triangle of 22 parishes, stretching from the Texas border to the Mississippi River. Famous for crawfish and swamp pop – for its general swampiness – Acadiana is mostly hills and prairies. It is, more accurately, a civilized land suitable for corn-and-cattle farms.

Its culture is a stew, first stirred up in the mid-eighteenth century. The British government cast French-Catholic settlers out of Nova Scotia so that they could purify their empire, and of 15,000 refugees, some 3,000 wound up in southern Louisiana. There they intermarried and intermingled – with German, Spanish, and earlier French settlers, and, occasionally, Anglo and Native residents – to form a single ethnic group. The Cajuns, they’re called, an Anglicized pronunciation of “Acadian,” with the first syllable dropped.

The Atchafalaya River, which threads through the middle of the Acadiana triangle and whose confluence with the Mississippi River sits at the triangle’s top, created a wet buffer that isolated this group for centuries. By 1940, less than one in five rural dwellings in Acadiana had electric lighting, half the rate in the rest of the country. Outsiders viewed Cajuns as wretched, lazy, and dumb. (They “don’t know more’n a dead alligator,” as one Louisianan told Harper’s Magazine in 1887.)

Bayou Teche, which once formed the eastern boundary of the Atchafalaya Basin, is strung with tiny towns where a Cajun flavor remains. Arnaudville, to the north, has a French immersion school and monthly cultural potlucks (think homemade gumbo and free-flowing wine, with couples slowly swaying to traditional Cajun fiddle songs). These days, that old culture is not scorned but admired, and draws in the world. At Little Big Cup, a fine café in town, my cocktail was mixed by a wise-cracking, transplanted New York City Jew. Later, I drove out of town on the state highway and found a gaggle of tourists from across the nation, gathered at Bayou Teche Berwery. We all sipped happily on our hand-made Belgian-style beers. Which all was lovely. But compared to my romanticized image of the Cajun lifestyle – drinking coffee on a houseboat porch, surrounded by gators and cypress knees and the general wildness of the swamp – it was also all a little tame.

Some of the earliest Acadian exiles agreed. Accustomed to a maritime life, bristling at their new prairie home, they slipped into the Basin itself. Others were drawn by remoteness: Bayou Chene, one of the more famous hamlets within the Basin, was well-known as a place where a person could leave his troubled past behind.

The first homesteaders arrived in Bayou Chene in the 1830s; its post office opened in 1858. For almost a century, farmers cleared out plots and could reach the rest of the world only by boat. Greg Guirard showed me a calendar that displayed the overlapping seasons for those who lived off the swamp, and my summary can only be woefully incomplete: winters for rabbits, squirrels, snipe, woodcock; raccoons, opossums, and turtles in spring; catfish and crawfish almost year-round. In the 1920s there was good money picking Spanish moss, prime material for stuffing furniture.

But almost as soon as the town was founded, it began to fade: by the 1860s, once the river’s logjam was cleared, flooding began, and worsened in the wake of great flood of 1927, after which the federal government declared the Basin to be an official “spillway,” a release valve for the water when the Mississippi got too strong. A levee was built, walling in the spillway – and further concentrating the mud.

In 1952, the Bayou Chene post office closed. The town was soon abandoned. You can reach its old site by boat, but you won’t see much: over 12 feet of sand have settled on top. Its once-stately live oaks are rotting stumps, their dead branches reaching up through the ground. It’s a headstone for an old, gone way of living; the last true swamper, Guirard told me, died in 1995. According to the story, the man was 98 years old. On his last night on earth went out on a gator hunt.

My guide on the swamp was Derek Picard, an acquaintance of a friend, who had agreed to show a visiting journalist around. He lived fifteen minutes away, in Lafayette – the biggest nearby city – but gets out on the water whenever he can. He hunts and fishes and frogs. It is fun – but for Derek, and for many others, it is also food.

There are no towns left within the swamp, so we met in Henderson – the “gateway” to the swamp, as its welcome signs declare. Like most of the towns along the levee, it is an unlovely cluster of trailers and pre-fab homes. Its real purpose is just proximity: a place to sleep, a driveway to park the boat, and the swamp just a bump over the levee away. These towns were built by old swampers who abandoned their over-flooded towns for the ease of civilization. Thanks to the outboard motor, after all, a fishing trip could be done in an afternoon, with no need to live so wild.

Still, Henderson has its merits: great, swamp-themed bars and fried-seafood shacks, and a 100-year-old roadside bakery. Drive south from town and you’ll find a string of legendary “landings” on the levee’s swamp side, wooden halls built for seafood and beer consumption, for boot-stomping Cajun dancing, performed by men in cowboy hats, and with enormous, gleaming buckles on their belts.

For men and women drawn to the water, it has always been a fine place to live. When Mark Allemond was a boy here, the interstate was under construction just north of town. He and his brothers rode bikes to the exit ramp, then dropped their bikes down to the embankment so they could swim in the river, before looping many miles back home. They built forts out of tin and scrap wood, and caught live squirrels to sell to classmates for a dollar as pets.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“The levee and the swamp – that was our playground,” Allemond told me, speaking, even after six generations in Louisiana, with the French accent common in these parts. “Hell, I still get out every chance I get.” His grandfather was a trapper and fishermen, his father a roughneck and crew-boat pilot.[/perfectpullquote]

Allemond and his wife, Peggy, offer customizable swamp tours – which is, for most visitors, the easiest way to get into the Basin. (Those more daring can rent a houseboat by the night; I, instead, stayed at their Cajun Cabin, a cozy, hand-built one-bedroom cabin in Arnaudville.) Its old swampers have emigrated, its old-growth cypress have been cut to stumps, but the Atchafalaya Basin is not empty. It holds gators and bears, bobcats and hundreds of species of migratory birds, perhaps even Florida panthers. If the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker lives anywhere on the continent, it may be here.

Derek, my pilot, was willing to tear down any line of open water, to cut through deep tangles of Spanish moss. He at one point expressed disdain for forgers overworried about their motors: “You gotta get where they at,” he said. “You actually gotta tear your motor up. You gotta get to where nobody else is going to.”

Which is, really, the appeal of the swamp. In some official publications, the Basin is referred to as a “semi-wilderness.” Its waters, after all, are cut by canals that lead to oil derricks; its timber is still harvested for cypress mulch; its flow is constrained by man-made levees, and rises and falls by the dictates of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But “semi” is more wild than most of us get. Even its houseboat dwellers, while wandering its back channels, found themselves occasionally lost.

What is the future of the Atchafalaya Basin? Many, like Guirard, worry over the “sedimentation,” which is the scientific name for all that increasing mud. The ecological character of the place is going to change. Then there are water-quality issues caused by the oil fields, and a state government that doesn’t always enforce environmental laws. The swamp is no longer what it once was.

One could also claim that the swamp will never become what it is meant to be. Early in the twentieth century, geologists realized that the Atchafalaya would soon steal away the majority of the water in the Mississippi. As the river has shifted paths before, it was going to do so again – leaving New Orleans and Baton Rouge and all their industry mired in a field of mud. The structures that stand at the mouth of the Atchafalaya – authorized by Congress in 1952, completed in 1963, restored after near-destruction another decade later – intend to prevent that future. We have built machines to freeze the Atchafalaya Basin in place.

And that is not so different from the culture of this place. The obsession with crawfish, for example, is, according to scholars, an invention of a very particular era. When Cajuns first took to the swamp, crawfish was just bait, a food only occasionally consumed. Only in the 1950s, as new interstates and electricity eased the transportation and storage of seafood, did its consumption take off. The region’s accessibility also gave its once-scorned culture a new appeal. In 1954, more than three million tourists spent almost $300 million in the state. One of the major attractions was the wetlands like the Basin, a kind of landform that was already disappearing from the continent. A decade later, the town of Breaux Bridge cemented local identity by inaugurating its popular crawfish festival. Our perfect image of Cajun culture now seems to come straight out of a Hank Williams song, “Jambalaya” – which was recorded in 1952.

I worried that I was getting that tourist sheen at Pont Breaux’s, a Cajun restaurant in Breaux Bridge. It’s a place, after all, that offers a special menu for visiting tour buses, and is decked out like a classic ‘50s Southern roadhouse: varnished cypress walls, red-checkered vinyl table clothes. I’d missed the big event the night prior, when a television crew made its bi-weekly visit to film the Cajun dancing.

So I was happy to find it a quiet Thursday: just three or four local couples out for dinner. Almost everyone, I noticed, rose at some point to dance – the band’s frontman, white-haired, played the accordion and sang in French – and did so despite the absent cameras, and would have done so, clearly, without their audience of one. I drank a few beers and watched the couples whirl expertly across the floor.

Some people, I thought, in some places, remain unredeemed. They are what they are, for reasons all their own. I would be reminded of this the next morning, when I woke and drove to the edge of the nation’s great swamp. There I met Derek, and we climbed into his motor boat. We roared past derelict houseboats, wove through moss-hung cypress stumps, and then we stopped beneath the interstate bridge. Less than 24 hours before,

I had been trapped in traffic up there – still a part of the over-connected, over-packed world. Now I watched an egret lift off from the still water, untroubled by questions of past or future or who or what it was. This bird just wanted to fly, and that made me happy to be in this world below.

Written by Boyce Upholt / Photography by Rory Doyle