23 November 2011

Down on the Bayou

The first thing you notice in the Louisiana Bayou is the air: clean, sweet and filled with the scent of plant-choked water, shrimp trawlers, and damp moss.  In fact it’s difficult to say which of the senses are most involved in loving the place. The seductive scents make you feel like spending the day doing nothing but lying back, closing your eyes and inhaling all the different aromas. But closing your eyes would mean you couldn't be sweetly assaulted by a continuous panorama of gnarled tree roots, moss-draped Cypress, and the rich patina of green that shimmers over the water’s surface.  And throughout it all your ears are teased by the sloshing of pirogues, the chirrup of tree toads, the low rumble of gators, and the whoosh of Heron wings brushing the air. 

It isn’t until you’ve penetrated the chaotic tangle of Cypress roots and hanging moss that you start to notice the stick houses leaning precariously into the breeze with their odd assortment of people, cats, tree toads and baby gators lolling near the docks.  The peacefulness is only occasionally interrupted by the whir of a small motor launch, reminiscent of the African Queen with a flat canvas roof and an gnarled Cajun fisherman at the helm.   

Some of the families have ties to the Bayou that stretch back to the late 18th c. and they know every tree, plant, gator, heron and turtle within range of their Cypress shacks.  I had the good fortune to go out with one of them once, into the heart of the swamp, and it was wonderful to see this exquisitely beautiful territory through their eyes.  "Oh, Miss, look!” the father would say, “Over on that ol' fallen-over log... a little spotty turtle!  You see 'em?"  

We pushed on through the vegetation—gator grass, duck potato, water hyacinths—straining the motor at times and having to throw it in reverse to come clear of all the plant life.  We fed alligators marshmallows along the way.  (For some inexplicable reason they seem to crave this sugary treat, and followed in our wake like excited puppies as we threw handfuls over the side.)

Back at the shack they shared their lunch with me—red beans and rice, chicken gumbo, bread pudding—and then the father called me outside and handed me a baby gator to hold.  I say "baby" but he was about 3 feet long from "snout to tail" and was surprisingly soft and quite docile, seeming to enjoy it when I scrunched the back of his neck.  Hard to imagine in a few month’s time he’d be big enough to take my arm off, or catch me in his jaws and pull me down into the lush green waters in a traditional death roll. 

Fishing on the bayou,
with a cane pole
catching catfish

hooks baited

with earthworms.

Fishing on the Bayou

shrimping and crawdad digging

whistling Cajun tunes

and doing whatever, wherever,

and drinking Pepsi.
(Thomasena Martin-Johnson)

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