Discovering the water

10 February 2012, from Acadiana

As I explore Acadiana, its coast and marshes and farmlands and towns, listening to the stories of the land, I find always that the water is a major element. Whether ocean or river, bayou or lake, marsh or swampland, the water is the central protagonist and leading character. In this way it is opposite of the desert, yet not fully of the sea: like the swamps themselves, the landscape is a ever-changing mixture of water and earth, both important and necessary.

In Henderson, fifteen miles east of Lafayette, I stop just over the bridge that crosses a bayou. There’s a man fishing there, pickup truck doors open, listening to the radio, a dead catfish in his hands. As we chat about the weather and the fishing, he nonchalantly guts the fish: head twisted off, innards scooped out, waste returning to the water whence it came. I watch the head float a while, then sink to the bottom. He puts the fish into a crinkly plastic bag at his feet, joining two or three others already caught and gutted.

I drive southeast along Henderson Levee Road, twining along its graceful curves. On my right is a small but navigable canal. Beyond, to the west, are rice fields, flooded now; beyond them lies the old town of St. Martinville. Oaks and scrub line the canal. The wide green space between the road and canal hold only power lines, clusters of honeybee boxes, and ant hills.

A sloping hill rises maybe forty feet above the road to my left. This is the levee, the engineered mound of earth that insulates the farmlands and towns from the Atchafalaya Basin: half a million acres of bayous, marshes, and swamplands, the largest wetland system in the world. Down its length runs the Atchafalaya River, which breaks off the Mississippi River about eighty miles north of where I’m driving now, and flows south another eighty miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

This particular levee is officially known as the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee (WABPL). The levee and its partner twenty miles to the east (the EABPL) embraces the basin, enclosing its wildly natural potential with 150 miles of tranquil green arms.

Small gravel access roads occasionally cross the levee on the bias. Most of these are marked with NO TRESPASSING signs put up by the Army Corps of Engineers, those infamous land-sculptors who built and manage the levee system. Those access roads that aren’t off-limits lead to small boat landings: unpaved parking lots full of pickup trucks and boat trailers, and stocky men in outdoor clothing loading boats in and out of the bayou.

Every once in a while, a jovial, welcoming sign cajoles the traveler to cross the levee to something more exciting: a store selling bait and ice, sometimes with a bar or restaurant; occasionally a dancehall offering regular live music and dancing.

Clearly the landings are the social zones of the area, where one crosses paths, coming by water or land, whether fisherman or farmer. From the look of them, the landings have been here for generations, a stable stepping stone in this unstable, watery place.

Besides the landings, there is little evidence of human habitation, save a few clusters of shabby mobile homes and frame houses that sit glumly below the levee.

Ten thousand years ago, this was all open water, a large bay that opened up onto the Gulf of Mexico. Over many centuries, the Mississippi brought silt and sediment down from its vast watershed in the north, depositing it to create the earth that now seems solid. As the land filled in, the river often shifted, changing its course across most of southern Louisiana. Several times over that long period, the Mississippi changed its course to pass through the Atchafalaya Basin, and it is eager and determined to do so again. The farms and the towns depend on safety and consistency, yet the water promises neither.

Hence the levees. These structures, echoed in a larger scale along the Mississippi itself, are an attempt to contain the rivers’ unpredictable desires. The Mississippi has been tamed and channelized since the 1850s, but it was not until the calamitous floods of 1927 that the Atchafalaya Basin was seen as a danger. Hundreds died, thousands made homeless, dozens of towns were washed away, and huge pressure was forced onto the government to make certain the tragedy would not happen again.

Over the next few decades, the Army Corps of Engineers — those great creators and destroyers — designed and built a massive system of levees, gates, spillways, and floodplains. I spend hours one night researching the development of this complex system, and detect in the heavy theorizing and engineering an undercurrent of doubt and mystery: we know what has happened before, we can guess — or hope — what will happen in the future, but truly, we cannot know for sure. Each year, particularly in recent years where large floods have come more frequently, the complex system of waterways and control structures are tested.

At the state park at Lake Fausse Point, a helpful ranger describes the past: we are in an area that once was cypress forest, then logged, and then became an oil field. She waves her hands across the panorama, imagining oil derricks and lumber barges, now forgotten and taken back by the swamp. The ranger reminds me that we’re on the other side of the levees, outside the Atchafalaya Basin. The canal I saw as I drove down the road is the ‘borrow pit,’ dredged out to create the levee itself, and now filled in by the water’s natural flow.

As she relates all this, there’s a sadness in her voice: a bitterness at being separated by this unassuming but vastly important hill. It is as if the levee is a Great Wall: one is either ‘in the basin,’ or out of it, and that’s a forlorn feeling of being excluded — both from a culture and from the current, which no longer flows here, on the outside of the Basin. In the park, the wind is the only thing that moves the water.

I walk around one of the nature trails in the park. It’s calm now: no winds blow, no rain falls. It’s winter, so the leaves have fallen and not yet returned, and the swamps are miles of gray tree trunks and green water hyacinth. Egrets peer into the water for fish, and songbirds chatter. The leaves rustle behind me; I turn to see an armadillo, cute in lizard’s way, stare at me and then rush off to safety behind a cypress trunk.