I used to go hiking to get my head straight. The whole point was to leave “civilization,” whatever that means in a geographic sense, and find something new out the countryside, where wonders dark and hopeful abound, and where my human form is nothing more or less meaningful than another animal, a beast of flesh and blood and bones. It must have been my naivete then, please excuse me. To my eyes the world seems increasingly and near finally drained of its wonder, its magic, it's wilderness. To me the iron cage, the great disenchantment seems like an accomplished fact.
Where are those wild places still beguiling? I'm not talking about lands “untouched” by humans or stayed “pure,” nothing is, and thank goodness. But where are those sacred groves and mountaintops more or less unmolested by those “civil” humans with their steel motored gasoline machines, their poisonous effluents and greedy hands?
And where are the wild humans? Have they all been killed and tamed? The fire inside me feels weak. Were the Indian wars so final? Were the bureaucrats and city slickers so effective as to eradicate the country-wild spirit and wisdom in all those Appalachian and Acadian clans, those Delta families and Rocky Mountain ranchers? Did the consumer culture suffocate savage beauty so easily? Is modern life really so overwhelming? Is there no one left in North American to inspire us and lead us back to our indigenous souls, the inner places we must find quickly to save ourselves and a world that is fast unravelling before the onslaught of ourselves denied?
I walked into the Barataria Preserve on Sunday. A good friend had told me that I “had to see it.” She was right. We took paths along an elevated wooden gangway that runs along the natural levees of several Bayous - old tongues of the Mississippi built up several feet higher in elevation from the surrounding swamplands. Several feet makes all the difference down here in south Louisiana's landscape of subtle, gradual powers. Bayou Coquelle, named for the shell middens that ice it, evidence of the Native Americans who lived here in a purged era, and Bayou Famille, named for the Isleno families that once lived right along it's high grounds, both run through the wetlands and are themselves filled with giant catfish, alligators, and snapping turtles. Birds haunt the cypress and tupelos. Snakes curl around the frond stems of palmettos.
Unfortunately this park can leave visitors an impression that the swamps and wetlands are healthy and that the wild has a place in south Louisiana, especially for those tourists who don't know much about the natural and recent history of these ecosystems. Like all of the Gulf Coast's wetlands, this place is dying, quickly. Not only are its wild animals and the few remaining wild-hearted people being trapped and tamed, the whole mass of sedimented land is sinking and drifting into salty waves.
Inside the Barataria Preserve visitor's center a ranger lounging behind a desk pulls out maps for us, tells us eagerly about his night hikes and bird walks. It's nice to see him so excited over the spendor and intrigue of birds, rodents, lizards, and spiders. We ask to see the short film they screen. He nods toward a small theater's doors, “It's twenty-five minutes, I'll start it up for you.”
The film is terribly outdated. Probably some oil company funded product, it's soundtrack is heavy on cajun music and popular artists like Linda Ronstadt who sing of “Blue Bayou.” Images of Cajun culture flash by - food, music, and labor, a master boat builder, hunters and trappers, fishermen, children swimming in an edenic pond with a grand gnarled cypress as their swing and diving board. Probably assembled in the 1980s, judging by the dress and manners of people dancing during Mardi Gras and chatting at a crawfish boil, the film is short on any meaningful history. It feels like a welcome mat for tourists, and yet several times the narrator mentions troubles ahead.
The film ends with the voice of an old woman dubbed over frosty dream-like scenes of a man pushing his little pirogue down a tiny canal lined with reeds and grass. He's going to check his muskrat traps. She says something like, “it's getting harder and harder to live like we used to. Times are changing. Can't make a living anymore off the land or sea. Used to be able to go out and hunt or fish, catch some crabs, we never really wanted for anything. That's changed.” Without skipping a beat the disembodied voice says, “...but new opportunities have come for us....” Images of oil rigs in the Gulf and river boats pushing barges of coal and lumber, trans-ocean tankers, and drilling platforms in the swamps flash across the screen. Wages, dollars, and all the accoutrements of modern, civilized life are implied. Acadiana tamed, the wild women and men of Louisiana's wetlands drafted into the grand movement of industrial progress: energy, plastics, sulfur, timber, shrimp, exports, resources....
Bayou Coquelle drains into an artificial waterway, the Kenta Canal which was dredged out in the 1800s to provide drainage and transportation for a major sugar growing plantation. The indigenous tribespeople had paved the natural levee paths like Coquelle with crushed shell, whereas the Islenos and Cajuns of these parts also mostly respected the given topography, its rhyme and reason decided over several millennia of river floods and hurricanes. Capitalist “progress” had other designs, however. Kenta Canal was the earliest type of major diversionary infrastructure built by “civilization” in this part of southern Louisiana. It connected the African slave-employing factories in the fields with the major urban market and port city of New Orleans. When prices dropped on sugar and other plantation crops, and when demand for cypress timber was high enough, the owners of this particular plantation drove sinkers into the Kenta Canal to deepen the channel and float out of cypress to mills closer to New Orleans. Few of the cypress in Barataria preserve look older than fifty years. There is one grandmother tree, perhaps hundreds of years old along the trail. A sign sings its praise and explains that it is unknown why crews didn't cut this giant back on the day when they trudged through the swamp and felled every other beautiful life-giving creator.
When you walk through a forested Louisiana swamp it's impossible not to notice the absolutely key role cypress play in holding the whole ecosystem together. Their trunks anchor mud and silt. They send out dozens and dozens of “knees” through their eager roots, each of which stills the water, provides shelter, and grips the ooze beneath, building layers, capturing nutrients, purifying and sharing all this under immense canopies of oxygenated shade. Here and there along the trails in Barataria are dead cypress, their barren trunks quickly decaying under the heat, rain and strong winds. The youth of the trees in Barataria and most of America's wetlands makes them more vulnerable to hurricanes winds, storm surges, and the invasion of brackish waters.
At the end of the “Marsh Overlook Trail,” about where Bayou Coquelle runs into the Kenta Canal, a wooden foot bridge rises high over the latter. Atop it one can see everything for miles around. Looking northward up the Canal, disturbingly aligned with the artificial waterway, looms One Shell Square, the tallest building in Louisiana, a gleaming white office tower that used to house major Shell Oil Company operations but now, owned by a life insurance company, is mostly leased office space occupied by the shipping companies, law firms, merchant banks, and smaller oil and gas concerns that make up white collar New Orleans. Up and down Kenta Canal are connections to smaller exploratory canals, dug out in the 20th century by oil corporations in search of the next little profit. Kenta Canal's opposite end connects to the equally artificial Bayou Segnette Waterway which feeds into the Intracoastal Waterway, the absurdly long aqueous highway that has seen billions of tons of petroleum and other bulk goods floated across it, from Brownsville, Texas, to Carrabelle, Florida, since its completion shortly after World War II.
Kenta Canal, with its history and its vantage point is as good a place as any to try to get a fix on the land and water of dying Louisiana. Thanks to AJ for the photos.