An exclusive excerpt from the new memoir, Atchafalaya Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp.
Editor's Note: In the summer of 1972, Gwen Roland had just completed her master's degree and was looking for a job before starting her Ph.D. work that autumn. When she met Calvin Voisin, no graduate school could pull her away from the Atchafalaya Basin. Roland and Voisin built a houseboat and lived in the Basin for the next eight years, forsaking civilization for Bloody Bayou.
During that time, the couple met young photographer C.C. Lockwood, whose pictures of the couple appeared in National Geographic and introduced Roland and Voisin to the world.
Roland, however, left the Basin in 1980 when she fell in love with a young riverboat engineer and never looked back ' until now. The National Geographic Society published one of Lockwood's '70s-era photos of Roland in a 2003 volume titled 100 Best Pictures Unpublished, and the flood of memories triggered by the picture inspired Roland to write a memoir of her time in the swamp.
Atchafalaya Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp is a heartfelt journey to another time and place, but it's much more than sentimental nostalgia. Poignant and graceful, Roland's spare prose brings the bayou to life and also offers timeless and universal lessons on the rewards and challenges of living in Louisiana's wetlands.
As on any other morning in crawfish season, we load buckets of chopped bait fish along with a thermos of tea into our boat and head west across the Atchafalaya to our traps. With the first rays of sun warming our backs and the damp breath of the big river misting our faces, we cross the Channel. The roar of the outboard motor makes conversation impossible, so we are each alone in our thoughts as we speed past Bayou Chene, once a busy village in the middle of this vast swamp and the home of our ancestors. Usually we don't give the brushy willow thicket and scattered hunting camps there a second glance. Calvin, always the practical one, most likely is plotting the morning's strategy with the elusive crustaceans, but my mind floats off with a white egret who is cruising over the willow tops.
It is 1924, and the willows have been replaced by the majestic oaks that gave Bayou Chene its French name. Those trees, heavy with moss, are familiar from the creased brown photographs I have known all my life. Five hundred people are busy around the stores, houses, post office, backyard gardens, three churches, and the primary school. The spacious houses are startling in the wilderness; some are two-storied with verandas, glass windows, and neat cypress siding.
It looks like other small towns of the day, except there are no roads leading in or out, just paths connecting the buildings, yards, and cemeteries. The entire population is sealed off from civilization by the Atchafalaya Swamp. Other unique trappings are the boats and pirogues tied in front of each house. Black moss draped like somber Christmas decorations on the hand-split cypress picket fences is being seasoned for sale. A piece of that moss slaps the corner of my eye, and the illusion disappears behind the willow thickets.
The Chene is easy for me to conjure because I've heard of it all my life. From the time I could walk, I spent hours alongside Maw Maw Josephine as she gardened and tended chickens. She told me Bayou Chene stories from her vantage point as a third grader standing on an apple crate sorting mail in her daddy's store. Her view was especially rosy because she was looking back through the eyes of a woman who had been widowed in middle age and finished raising seven children by herself on the levee.
Her stories gave the Chene a mythical importance so that I pictured oak groves and river avenues whenever Sunday school teachers told us about the Garden of Eden or Heaven. I thought everyone's family came from the Chene, and we all would go back there when we died. I was in the fourth grade when I found out that other kids' families came from New Orleans or Chicago, and they had never even heard of Bayou Chene.
After the 1927 flood inspired the Corps of Engineers to make a floodway of the Atchafalaya Basin, the 200-year old village would not die easily. Even as the people tore down their houses and businesses to rebuild them outside the protective levee, their affection and loyalty for the old community remained intact. The independent nature that had made these people want to call such a place home would also prevent them from feeling at home anywhere else. Records of English-speaking people living in the area go back to 1795, and by the time cartographers got around to putting it on the map in 1824, Bayou Chene was already a thriving community.
Most descriptions from those days portray the Basin as a hostile environment for humans. The virgin cypress, oak, and tupelo gum trees were so tall that the sun rarely penetrated the canopy of leaves and Spanish moss. Most travelers considered that twilight world a fit place only for the snakes and alligators who lived there. Such creatures did nothing to sweeten the swamp's image with the traveler who had to pole his barge across its interior to pass from New Orleans to the West. Many people were so afraid of the place that they went all the way down the Mississippi River, around into the Gulf of Mexico, and up Bayou Teche to get by the swamp without actually setting foot in it.
There were only a few people who saw the primeval atmosphere as beauty and the isolation as a convenience. They found their way there and stayed put. Some were pioneers crowded out of the East. They were attracted to the abundance of fish, game, and building materials that cost only the skill to harvest them. Others were Civil War draft dodgers, outlaws, and adventurers with pasts that were best left behind. Once they took refuge in the depths of the swamp, none of the older settlers asked any questions.
The town of Bayou Chene never had a mayor, policemen, jails, or other symbols of authority; nor did outside lawmen venture there. But there was little crime in this village with such a tough reputation. The people handled disputes among themselves, with the loser being laid out on the big cypress bar in the Verret Saloon and Post Office to await burial the next day.
As families intermarried, everyone eventually became related to everyone else. As many as four siblings married brothers and sisters in another family. Whether it was the generation of family ties or the decades of isolation, the people of Bayou Chene developed strong emotional bonds that survived the destruction of their village. Even though the old homesteads are buried beneath twelve feet of silt and the residents are scattered throughout the country, once a year the town reunites on the first Saturday in May. The Bayou Chene baseball team, once the terror of South Louisiana, is now reduced to several white-haired gentlemen who relive the old games for the benefit of two generations that never set eyes on the village.
Photos of children dressed in knickers, white middies, and Dutch-boy haircuts, standing small under the sheltering oaks, are passed from hand to hand in search of someone who can identify them. Fried chicken and homemade ice cream are eaten to the tune of guitars, fiddles, and harmonicas. There are wooden models, paintings, and maps of the principal establishments and boats. Sometimes there are pirogue races and demonstrations of the old four-horsepower Lockwood engine. Prizes are awarded for the oldest man, the oldest woman, and the mother with most children present, because longevity and large families are traditions with people from the Chene.
Best of all are the stories. Tales of ghosts, bee trees, alligator hunts, berry picking, floods, fights, feats of strength, more floods, practical jokes, elopements, whiskey stills, revivals, and snake bites. The yarn spinners enjoy it as much as the listeners, passing along the collective memory for those of us too young to have lived it ourselves. That night when we go home, our heads filled with the images of another time, sleep transports us back to when children swung from oak trees and moss hung from picket fences. Once a year, the day of the Bayou Chene reunion sets the stage for the night when the old town comes back to life.
Like other wilderness phenomena, high water is a misfit in civilization. But what destroys homes, ruins crops, and fouls up communication for most of the world is a welcome consort of spring in the swamp, bringing life to the winter-dry woods.
When the Atchafalaya and its bayous swell from the northern thaws and rains, they spill over their banks to nourish thousands of acres. A dry hole that has spent the winter disguised as a bomb site is suddenly alive with yellowtops, which feed the crawfish, which, in turn, feed the yellow-crowned night heron. We know spring has arrived when the evenings vibrate with the squawks of these elegantly plumed birds building their nests above the water. Old swampers predict how high the water will go by observing where these herons build. When the nests are low in little buttonwood bushes, you can put short strings on your crawfish traps. But, if the nests are high in tall cypress trees, watch out! This year was the first time we saw them build in cypress trees, and sure enough, this is the highest water since the flood of 1973 that destroyed our house in the bend of Jakes Bayou.
Now that our home rises and falls with the water, Calvin and I join the other swamp creatures in making the most of the annual flood. Not only does the extra water improve fishing, but it also lets our boat into places that are cut off from all except winged creatures the rest of the year. Shimmering silver lakes appear where only sticky mud remains for nine months at a time. The oldest cypress trees with the most luxuriant moss grow in such lakes where on a still evening their perfect reflections double the number of those rare trees.
Sometimes we paddle our bateau among the lavender water hyacinths for a floating Sunday picnic. Or taking a break from crawfish traps on a workday, we watch a nutria debate over his morning bath. Grouchy and rumpled looking, he squints at the early morning sun. He scratches his ear and considers the situation. Finally accepting the reality that morning is here and must be dealt with, he plunges determinedly into the water. A minute later he squirms back up onto his log, refreshed and ready to do his grooming. He reminds us so much of ourselves that we laugh out loud. He interrupts his toilet long enough to give us a bright-eyed glance, and considering us to be of no consequence, continues with his business.
Paths that we normally use for walking, wood cutting and berry picking gradually submerge to become bayous. How strange to be put-putting along them now. I feel almost like a ghost, gliding over ground that I usually scuff with my feet. The woods look so different when covered with water that we can easily get lost. A wide aisle that we have never noticed in the dry season appears through the trees. Without a word between us, we know we must explore it. Five minutes later we know it was a good choice. Several hundred yards from the bayou bank, the thickets of small maples and dogwoods give way to a stand of larger ash and cypress. It's in these taller trees that huge blackjack vines, some four inches in diameter, are draped and twisted. All around us, they carve grotesque abstractions in midair. Projecting horizontally from trunks, hanging from outstretched limbs, their resemblance to giant black snakes is enhanced when the vibration from our motor makes them writhe. More than once we are fooled by their uncanny imitation of life. "That one's a snake; I saw him move," I point insistently.
Cameras ready, we thread our way through the tangle only to be fooled by another vine. They catch on the bow and bounce us backward as if throwing us from a slingshot. They grab our propeller and stop it dead. They even reach out and wrap around our heads, hands, and necks. Indifferent to the passing time and the chores yet to be done back at home, we wind our way in and out among the bizarre hanging designs admiring them as if they were tapestries in a museum.
An hour later finds us considerably lost. Even Calvin can't spot landmarks where there is no land. But he does know we were headed west when we left the bayou and entered the woods, so he puts the setting sun on his left shoulder and begins zigzagging back out. Just a few minutes later, we glide out of that mysterious jungle into the open bayou only a hundred yards from our houseboat. These strange and marvelous plants have been our closest neighbors for years, and we never met until high water brought us together.
Even after years of houseboat living, several of which brought floods, we're still learning new ways to work with the high water. In choosing vegetables for our garden, we look for late-season varieties, since a swollen Mississippi River could cause our fields to flood and delay the planting dates. Early tomatoes and peppers along with cooking herbs are container-grown on the barge. When Calvin noticed that wild swamp lilies can survive floods, he abandoned his beloved roses for tame lilies, which, like their wild cousins, can stay submerged for weeks and come up smiling. Our chicken flock is limited to the number that can live comfortably on a floating coop when the henhouse and yard goes under. Since permanent fences would be an oxymoron in the swamp, ours are made of wire-covered frames that can be taken down and stacked on the roof of an outbuilding until the water goes down, then reassembled in minutes with a pair of pliers.
Of course, extremely high water can cause problems as in 1973 when the safety of Baton Rouge and New Orleans made it necessary to open the locks. That unnatural, sudden rise that came up to the roof of our old house also trapped many animals in low areas where they drowned or on small islands of high ground where they starved. But most years bring water only several feet over our bank, which leaves high ground all over the Basin to serve as evacuation centers for the mammals. Higher than usual this year, the water has had us in rubber boots since February and hip boots since March. For three months I've been tending the chickens from a pirogue. Their high-water home is a large coop floating on foam blocks left behind by oil-field workers a few years ago. The floating compound is complete with elevated plank walks to the nests. A few clumsier hens drowned while the flock was still developing their sea legs, but now the survivors can roll in the wake of passing boats without missing a snatch at a fly.
Pets are another matter. Twice a day we load Lemon Peel and our spaniel Emmy Lou into the boat for a relief trip to a nearby island. Calvin and I appreciate it as the only place for miles around where we can wiggle our toes in cool sand and actually see grass growing. If we sit very still we can count the deer that have made this knoll their high-water refuge. Our cats Sylvia and Woosel don't seem to miss dry land at all as they fertilize the drums of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and parsley on the front of the barge. They enjoy chasing lizards through the flower pots and catching low-flying birds from the roof. We do have words, however, when I discover they have been eating fish dinners in the attic.
Like the other seasonal changes, high water has its purpose in our lives. We are happy to see it come each year, but when its time is over, we understand a little of what Noah and his family must have felt when they saw watermarks appearing on the side of the ark. Suddenly we are anxious for walks, gardening, mushroom gathering, and other dry-season activities.
Season to season our chores and recreation change according to the water level. Anything large that has to be moved is scheduled for high-water time when our bateau or small raft will be level with the bank. A 500-gallon rainwater cistern stays conveniently full during the wet season when the bayou is muddy, but the tank gets low during the dry summer and fall months. That's also when the bayou is clearest, providing an endless supply of water clean enough for everything but drinking. But that abundance means more work for us, since we have to haul it up bucket by bucket rather than just opening a faucet on the cistern.
Of course, as it was for our ancestors, the economy is based on the moods of the water. The exuberant spring flood finds us fishing and crawfishing to earn our major cash flow for the year. Gardening season kicks into overdrive when the water falls too low for profitable catches. We may take a welding job for a few weeks during the slack water of summer, especially if we have an unexpected expense such as an outboard motor problem too complicated for Calvin to tackle.
Trading time comes around whenever the Atchafalaya River current is safe enough for the riverboats to take advantage of its uncluttered route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi. Normally Calvin takes our catch to fish buyers at Bayou Sorrel, but trading for goods is more lucrative. Whenever a towboat captain sees us checking our lines or nets, all Calvin has to do is hold up a fine blue catfish to get us a beckoning whistle from the wheelhouse. By the time we pull alongside the moving boat, deckhands are there to catch our bowline and help me clamber up the side. For the next few miles our little bateau will skim along on the big boat's diesel power. I go into the galley and tell the cook he will be getting fresh fish for supper. He helps me fill boxes with groceries and cleaning supplies while Calvin cleans the fish and talks with the crew, many of whom watched us build the house at the Bayou Sorrel Bridge. In less than thirty minutes we wave good-bye with both sides feeling they got the best end of the trade.
It's always about the water. High or low, it's never going to pay us any mind, so it's up to us to find ways to cooperate with it. Each year of swamp life reaffirms our belief that flexibility is the key to surviving in the wilderness.
After Mr. Richard died three years ago, his son asked us to move closer to the old place so we could keep an eye on it and take care of the animals. No sense in wetting clothes this late, so I strip down and just cover my head and shoulders with a slicker coat. Splashing down the riverside path to the old house, I hear Tomoose meowing his opinion of the weather before I see him. His green eyes glare at me from the back steps as if I am responsible for turning on the faucet. A handful of Cat Chow wins his forgiveness, and I stay while he eats so he'll think someone still lives here. Tomoose is no fool, but he enjoys my company anyway. While he finishes the last crunch, I stroll through the house checking for signs of vandalism. There aren't any. Even the thieves loved Mr. Richard.
I drop into the heavy-duty porch swing and stare at his rocking chair, wishing I could make him appear just once more. Big hands resting on his luxurious stomach. Thumbs twiddling forward, then back.
"Yeah, yeah. Y'all come in. Come in. Me? I'm fine. Sleep good, plenty of energy, got a good appetite. Can't complain, can't complain."
Funny. He always said that when a man died everyone forgot him in a week. Three years after his own death, his memory is as fresh as yesterday to everyone who knew him. I wish I could tell him that. The storm outside lashes the old house with a second wind of fury to match my mood. In three years, my outbursts have only changed from "No!" to "Why?" He was loved and needed. He seemed to be in perfect health. He had weathered the winter and caught a twenty-seven-pound catfish that day. He was putting out more lines the next day, and his tomato plants were up.
Calvin and I were the last people to see him as he walked us to our boat that night. I untied the line and settled into the bow before waving good-bye. He returned my wave and then headed back up the plank walk with Tomoose at his heels.
Alcide found him at daybreak after he missed their routine CB radio confab. Mr. Richard had died in his sleep. Big hands folded on his big stomach, he had eased into death with the same bemused patience that had marked his life.
Now, staring at the empty chair I recall another of his sayings. "Whenever I leave the swamp, I want to go feet first with my eyes closed." He did not want to spend his last days in a nursing home or as a burden to his children in civilization. Unlike Cide who was ready for a trip anytime, anywhere, Mr. Richard had never left the swamp except for short appearances at family gatherings. As soon as he could get away he would come back home to snort, "Picture windows ' why do they call em that? There's nothing to look at except other houses."
Life in the swamp was the only life he considered worth living. If he hadn't died three years ago, what would he be today? Sick? Senile? Sad? Is that why? I fancy the chair moves ever so slightly as if someone just left it.
Like the storm, my anger is spent. I sit on the step with Tomoose before I leave; his round black head rubs furiously against my chin. He wants me to stay, but he doesn't try to follow when I move down the path toward home.
My hens, wet and miserable, have hit the roost early. I gather the few muddy eggs and complain about union birds knocking off just because of a few rain drops. Muffled excuses from the dark roost follow me out the door. My bare feet slap across the wet plank walk. In the lamplight through the window I see the pie cooling on the counter and Calvin dripping coffee. I can't hear him, but I know he's humming.
Gwen Roland is currently a writer and editor for the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of Georgia. The preceding excerpt was reprinted with permission of LSU Press. Atchafalaya Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp is available at local bookstores or by ordering from www.lsu.edu/lsupress. C.C. Lockwood's latest book, Marsh Mission: Capturing the Vanishing Wetlands, is available at www.cclockwood.com.