Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 13, 2009

Houma! America’s Wetland, Cajun Sensibilities … and Doing What Comes Naturally

The mind’s eye

Looking across the seemingly infinite wetlands of the Mississipi Delta, I sense something covert in the landscape — a dormant energy — forces to be reckoned with, and often feared.

The horizon seems to both advance and recede; the panorama goes way beyond picture postcard. It is a placid scene, but it has not always been so. Like millions of others, I watched from afar, transfixed, as hurricanes with sweet-sounding names like Katrina and Rita, moved inexorably across this wide open land. Gazing now at the inconstant terrain, I feel the wind on my face and hear an undertone of storms. I think about the local people I have met who have learned to negotiate with the elements in this disparate environment.

It is a beautiful sunny day in Louisiana, and Houma’s Mardi Gras is in full swing.

The disappearing parish

The city of Houma and Terrebonne Parish, of which it is the seat, are at the core of what remains of the French Régime in this part of North America. This is of course Louisiana, named after the King of France, and not far from New Orleans; new Orleans because Orléans was the principal residence of the French kings. But that was a long time ago, and France’s immense colony in the New World (until the fall of Québec in 1759 and the subsequent Louisiana Purchase 40+ years later) is no more. However traces of the French colonial period are still “acted out” throughout the area; this is the heart of America’s Wetland and Cajun country.

Although time does not stand still, it is the ephemeral dimension in which human history is nonetheless preserved. And here in Terrebonne Parish, there is a deep sense of heritage and timelessness.

A Louisiana mosaic

Houma and its extended environs — a mosaic both topographically and culturally — is also one of the most fertile storytelling destinations in the United States, for very good reasons. Its intricate history and resource-rich physical environment, the latter in a constant state of flux, are the principal ingredients for the dramatic conflict and dénouements that make for engaging stories, colourful personae, and character studies of idiosyncracy.

Over 65 per cent of Terrebonne is wetland and open water, and one of the most vulnerable geographical areas in the world — the Louisiana coastline is sinking.

The Barataria-Terrbonne Estuary which permeates the area between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers is considered the fastest disappearing land mass on the planet. Katrina and Rita alone removed over 18 square miles of land; accelerating the loss by four years. The dynamics of climate, topography, and human intervention in the lower reaches of the longest river system in North America — irony, nemesis, and fate! — have led to one of the greatest environmental crises in the 21st century. And yet this mutating land mass is full of life and adventure. This is, after all, bayou country — a metaphor in itself suggesting an interconnectivity that is both ecological and sociological.

Over great distances innumerable small, slow-moving and regenerative streams, creeks, small lakes, and pools in this vast low-lying area move with a lesser velocity than that of the mainstream, sustaining a nutrient-rich environment that teems with aquatic, bird, reptilian, and mammalian life. To the fisher, hunter, birder, botanist, nature lover, and other hunter-gatherers such as social historians, cultural anthropologists, linguists, and musicologists, Terrebonne Parish is very pregnant with possibility.

A singular and secluded milieu

There are few environments on the planet that are as “kinetic” and varied as “America’s Wetland.” At the heart of this part of the Louisiana coastline, the 2100 square miles of Terrebonne Parish (1255 square miles of land and 825 square miles of water) has a topography that is unparalleled and varies from prairie habitats, to wooded areas only 12 feet above sea level, to the swamps, marshes, islands, bays, and bayous for which the region is so well-known. If you take a swamp tour of the area, it is not difficult to imagine why this enigmatic (and to some extent mystical) terrain was the home that the exiled Acadians chose as a sanctuary from oppression.

To the average 21st century traveller it has an almost haunted feel to it and is certainly a wilderness area in the truest sense of the word. But for the Acadians/Cajuns it was just the kind of environment teeming with wildlife and natural resources with which they could co-exist quite productively — far from the threat of what even in the 18th century were geopolitical machinations. Like the aboriginal Houmas Indians before them, the Acadians found here an isolated nutrient-rich home of saltwater, freshwater, and brackish water, and rather insubstantial land from which they could pursue a lifestyle based on fishing, hunting, and the optimal use of the diverse life forms that this unique terrain provided. And all of this was far from government control.

Today it is still a multidimensional ecosystem and a refuge for many species. It is also a birder’s paradise. The America’s Wetland Birding Trail includes five major birding sites including the Mandalay Wildlife Refuge and the Pointe-Aux-Chien Wildlife Management Area. You can expect to see herons, egrets, osprey, bald eagles, wood ducks, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, four species of woodpeckers, and the exquisite roseate spoonbill. In terms of migrating birds (a winter habitat for five million of them), America’s Wetland is part of the Mississippi Flyway. Reaching from the Mackenzie River in northern Canada (another impressive delta area) the migratory route generally follows the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The region is also home to 70 threatened or endangered animal and plant species; and a human (Cajun) culture that historically has embodied self-determination.

But this refuge — also one of the top producers of crude oil, natural gas, seafood, shipbuilding, and sugarcane in the United States — has become increasingly vulnerable. The erosion of the blended cultures (human and natural) that are indigenous to America’s Wetland continues.

The struggle to preserve the seventh-largest delta region in the world

This invaluable landscape is not only one of the best-kept secrets in the United States, but — and here’s the good news — it is also a model of private, corporate, and governmental collaboration and commitment to right the wrongs of the past, before it’s too late.

The facts are discouraging; the Louisiana coastline is just another generic case study for the kind of environmental mega challenges we have already seen elsewhere around the world: deforestation in key regions of the world, in Haiti for example; the “warming” of the Canadian High Arctic; the decimation of the cod stocks in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland; the clearcutting in the Amazon; and the disappearance of prime farmland everywhere on the planet, to mention just a few.

However, there is some good news; these challenges are being addressed in concerted and systematic ways. Ordinary citizens are becoming organized and involved, as well as high profile individuals such as Al Gore and Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana; the latter recently announced more than $1 billion for coastal protection and restoration projects. The planet-wide emphasis on green and sustainable tourism is also a good sign; a global process that is most certainly not a one-time event.

A public awareness campaign … and more

The image below tells the story. This is a graphic of the historical and projected land change in Coastal Louisiana between 1932 and 2050. The areas in red represent land loss from 1932 to 2000. Anything in green, or light green, represents projected land gain 2000 to 2050 or land gain from 1932 to 2000. Yellow areas represent projected and ongoing land loss between 2000 and 2050.

What is also important to note is that this is a problem that affects not just the coastline of Louisiana because if you look at a map of the Mississippi Drainage area, you can see the southward flow and how it ultimately impacts on the coastline, given that it drains a majority of the United States.

Below you will also see some key facts and figures on why the Louisiana coastline is such an important ecological destination:

  • Between 1932 and 2000 Louisiana lost approximately 1900 square miles of coastal land; and from 2000 to 2050 it is projected to lose another 700 square miles. That latter figure is an area the size of the greater Washington DC and Baltimore metropolitan areas.
  • If the situation continues, the shoreline could advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas.
  • Because the natural flow and course of the Mississippi, which in the past created deltas and consequently new land and marsh areas, has been changed and interrupted because of (necessary) barrier island protection measures, the building of levees upstream, canal construction, and other human interventions, the river no longer nourishes the wetlands on a seasonal basis. This is not an unknown phenomenon elsewhere in the world; with the building of the High Aswan dam on The Nile (the purpose of which was to “manage” this mighty river as well), the seasonal flooding was also interrupted, which has led to many problems even though the original purpose has had some beneficial effects. Pardon the pun but “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
  • The carbon fuel energy needs of the United States play an important role here as well because Louisiana is one of the country’s largest producers of crude oil and natural gas; and these vital resources come from the disappearing wetlands. With the erosion of the wetlands, on-shore facilities are at risk not only from the hurricanes and tropical storms that seem to be increasing in strength and number in the Gulf of Mexico region, but also from an increasing wind and wave effect.
  • Many people would not know that five of the 15 busiest ports in the U.S. are located in Louisiana. In addition, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is a critical link in the U.S. shallow-draft transportation system. The irony here is that, in part, the Louisiana Purchase was an attempt to protect what would become the United States of America from Spanish and French imperial ambitions because the mighty Mississippi was the principal trade route to the interior of the continent.
  • Historically, wetlands have often been “misunderstood” or neglected as food source environments. For example, Louisiana is the largest producer in the U.S. of shrimp, menhaden, blue crabs, and oysters. The coastal wetland ecosystem is also a critical breeding, spawning, foraging, and nursery grounds for numerous species; over 75 per cent of Louisiana’s harvested fish and shellfish populations.
    At least 20 per cent of the migrating waterfowl in the U.S. winter in these wetlands.
    In 2001, Americans alone spent $8.1 billion in travelling to Louisiana for recreational purposes, especially in the wetlands where fishing, hunting, and birding industries contribute directly to local economies.
  • Tidal surges, and an increasing salinity of fresh irrigation water is also becoming a serious “issue.”

The above are just some of the reasons why those who are actively involved in preserving these wetlands point to the fact that it is a national issue as opposed to just a Louisiana issue; emphasizing that the continued erosion and degradation of the coastal areas will therefore have diverse environmental and socioeconomic consequences.

Given the nature of this extensive and yet delicate ecosystem, a lot of political will (and that is happening), money (billions of dollars), and time (decades) will lead to the long-term solutions, in particular the reintroduction of water and sediment from the Mississippi to the wetlands which were cut off with the building of levees.

As they say in French, “Mieux vaut tard que jamais” … better late than never.

Eco-cultural tourism

Experienced travellers, and a special breed of travel journalists, continue to pursue their peripatetic passion because they know that travel is fundamentally a grassroots intercultural experience and the most experiential form of learning.

But the lessons of history have to be learned over and over again. The eroding of the Louisiana coastal areas is also significant in terms of the human costs; the traditional Cajun culture which has survived as a distinct human community is also at risk.

However, with the advent of new specialty areas of the travel industry, such as voluntourism and ecotourism, average people have made a commitment to effect change on the planet … one trip at a time.

In Louisiana, the travel and tourism folks are now emphasizing the sub-category of eco-cultural tourism, a very special travel experience during which you experience how a destination and its physical environment have given birth to unique and distinct human cultures. And herein lies the Cajun-Wetlands interconnection.

Cajun country and the wetlands experience will “internalize” Cajun culture for you. If you allow yourself to engage and participate (and you will be most welcome to do so), you may just develop an emotional bond, and as a result, get a broader perspective of how human communities evolve in their distinct physical contexts.

Oh the joys of travel … and the Louisiana historical perspective

We tend to think that geopolitics is a 20th-21st century phenomenon. Well as the history of Louisiana shows, nothing could be further from the truth.

In 1698 the three major colonial European powers of Spain, France, and England were competing for the grand prize: America Septentrionalis — North America. The King of France chose René Robert Cavalier de la Salle as his chief envoy and explorer to “check out” this great waterway now called the Mississippi and in the process to lay claim to the region in the name of France wherever and whenever he could. When de la Salle made his way from “New France” and the Great Lakes area down the Mississippi, he was actually “invading” Spanish territory. Nonetheless he claimed the entire Mississippi basin for France.

Subsequently in 1699, Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville came to the area. Born in what today is Montreal, he has been called the founder of the colony of French Louisiana. As the King’s representative as well, he managed to make it over the shallow sandbars of the (at the time) barely navigable mouth of the east fork of the Mississippi. What he found there was — try to think in 17th-century terms — a veritable wilderness-paradise teeming with wildlife (including bison). It was a dense but immeasurably resource-rich land of marshes, brightly-coloured birds, magnificent oaks, stunning and obviously ancient cypress trees, oyster reefs, great schools of white shrimp, a seasonal regeneration of the area by fresh water, and at least six separate rivers. Also living in the area were “exotic” indigenous people: the Bayougoula and Biloxi. And in 1699, it was obvious to the Europeans who came here that the mighty Mississippi, with its prodigious delta-building skills, had created and continued to create a unique and productive water-based realm.

By 1744, however, the French court had already begun what eventually would prove to be a non-sustainable policy of clearing and draining the great cypress swamps, and thus emptying them of their immense natural wealth; beginning a process of degradation that has continued into the “modern era.” The historical ecology of the Mississippi Delta was already being rewritten. And this vast living resource would continue to be assaulted by industrial uses with no inherent long-term common sense.

By 1785 Louisiana was again under the Spanish flag when France lost the Seven Years war and King Louis XV was forced to cede Louisiana to Spain. During this time Don José de Evia was commissioned by the Spanish Governor of Louisiana to map the offshore oyster reefs which were a navigational hazard as were the drift trees that were also important to the natural outflows of the Mississippi. An important task, but an ominous one.

The history of the region did not exactly “turn on a dime” but it did pass through some confusing and very problematic times. By 1797 geopolitical alliances in Europe were again in transition and the Spanish government found itself more and more in the position of appeasing “Americans,” an ongoing effort that was not proving particularly “cost-effective”; therefore the remaining Spanish posts in what was a new American territory were increasingly ignored or abandoned. The period of confusion would end when Spain began to negotiate the transfer of its colony back to France. By this time of course the Acadians were already in the region, and to some extent making their influence felt.

Leaders of the American West movement, especially Thomas Jefferson who knew that America’s destiny depended on the expansion of territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean, started to change the dynamic again, only this time the “imperial” ambitions would be home-grown.

To make a long story short, in 1803 the United States of America, as it was by that time, would negotiate a stunning land deal — the Louisiana Purchase. This would add 828,000 square miles to its territory, for which the new nation would eventually pay $23,213,568. And if it hadn’t been for a 20-minute battle on the Plains of Abraham in Québec City in 1759, and this very astute real estate deal, I might have found myself among primarily French-speaking people on my recent visit to Louisiana.

Furthermore, if you look at a map of the Louisiana Purchase , you will note that the area in question comprises 15 current U.S. states and 23 per cent of the current continental United States. You will also notice that running north to south in this great expanse of land is the mighty Mississippi. And the 21st-century populations of this core region of the United States all contribute in one way or another to the outflow in the Mississippi Delta.

Let the bacchanalia begin!

On Saturday night we don’t go home

We bacchanal, there ain’t no dawn

Dance, little sister, dance

I said dance, dance, little sister

Dance little sister

Dance little sister, dance…

— The Rolling Stones

European colonial ambitions and their very consequential campaigns have left many historical traces on this continent. What France bequeathed to a joint Canadian-American heritage is especially engaging, particularly in Cajun country. And you only have to attend Mardi Gras in Houma to get a real appreciation of this. It is rather ironic to see a King and Queen sporting the very French fleur de lys on a parade float in downtown Houma — this is after all the Republic of the United States of America — but on the other hand, the French had their revolution first and to some extent mentored the Americans when they were gearing up for theirs.

Mardi Gras! If you have not experienced the revelry and spirited excess of this age-old and semi-authorized public acting out of libertinism, you are in for a wee bit of culture shock — maybe a whole lot. But if you understand the roots of the “debauchery” and reckless abandon, you too can engage in one of the most interesting ways in which human beings play.

To anyone with cultural anthropologist leanings, it is clear that the essentials of Mardi Gras have been around for a long time. Even that dear old thing Mick Jagger would probably concur.

Humans are essentially social beings who recognize that social order is a good thing, as Martha would say, and tend to respect the rules and rituals that maintain stability in the community. Whether that desire for collective security, cohesiveness, and cooperation comes from within the individual or the family group, or is imposed by the state or through a religious institution that, like state powers, exercises its control over the potentially unruly mob, the maintenance and perpetuation of “good behaviour” is generally considered essential to a civilized society.

And yet … ever now and then, it just feels good to let loose a little, to get down and boogie, to party!

The ancient Romans partied during what they called the Lupercalia, a festival to honour the Roman deity Lupercus, a pastoral god associated with Faunus or Satyr, both wild and crazy guys who knew how to have a good time and chase chicks. That, of course, was in pre-Christian times.

When Christianity arrived in Rome, however, the powers-that-be of the early Church knew that they had some work to do especially when it came to what they probably considered excessive merrymaking. But they also knew that they would not be able to completely extinguish all the dancing fool behaviour, all of the time. So in their wisdom they decided to incorporate some of these pagan party-going rituals into their annual schedule, thus creating a limited-time-only annual blow-out, collective endorphine release, and cultural escape mechanism for the masses. As a general rule in society, you can’t keep the troops in line without occasionally allowing the good times to roll.

So, enter Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the last day before the holiest period in Christianity, Lent; a time of penitence, self-denial, and renunciation of the ways of the flesh. And the carnival (carne means “meat” or “flesh” and vale means “farewell”) that would precede this period of self-sacrifice would end on Ash Wednesday; the now penitent party-goers would spiritually prepare for Easter, the period of renewal, redemption, and rebirth.

But in order to assure that the faithful adhered to this important period of time in the religious calendar, a certain amount of advance abandonment of day to day goodie two shoes behaviour was tolerated, even encouraged. If you give the common folk some time to play, to be just a bit subversive, and to blow off steam, it’s easier to keep them under control for the rest of the year. God forbid that the rabble should rise up in revolt! And when the time comes to say bye bye to the ways of the flesh and other earthly pleasures, they will, one hopes, have gotten it out of their systems. (By the way, historically the carnival season in medieval Europe kicked off on the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night.)

If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again! it had a dying fall:

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour!

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

During Mardi Gras, therefore a lot of stuff happens that under normal circumstances would be heavily frowned upon. And (just keep this between you and me) a lot of this officially sanctioned permissiveness (wink wink, nudge nudge) is done in secret, so to speak, because people are either wearing masks to conceal their identity or sometimes they join secret organizations (they’re called Krewes in Houma and New Orleans), or they can get away with their wild and crazy behaviour because they are just part of the crowd. In Europe mystic societies and bal masqués were very much part of the scene during Carnival time.

Of course a lot of the wild and crazy hootin’ and hollerin’ and dancin’ up a storm that takes place during Mardi Gras would not be considered “appropriate” behaviour in normal times. Um … do you think a travel journalist d’un certain âge should really hitch a ride on the back of a snazzy sports car with two attractive blondes, and actually become part of the parade? Would he … um …be making a fool of himself?

Mardi Gras has always been known as a good time, and not taken too too seriously; so I was rather amused to find in my research a very scholary study of the event in The Journal of Sex Research.

The analysis of Mardi Gras in this sociological paper is quite interesting. In its critical analysis of this particularly fraught-wth-meaning example of human play, it makes reference to “the inversion of standard norms of public conduct” and “playful deviance.” It would appear that three main criteria are necessary for Mardi Gras behaviour to be publicly displayed in the “themed environment.” The setting and the props for the Mardi Gras “behavours” must be appropriate; individuals must choose the setting to enact “deviant behaviours” and terminate the behaviours upon departure from the locale. Oh, and the setting must offer protection from social sanction for the individuals engaging in the behaviours.

The Mardi Gras scenario also has many symbolic elements that distinguish its “unique cultural context” including eroticism, public nudity, public sex, and of course alcohol consumption. And participants, especially those wearing masks and throwing beads, actually become performers in a kind of street theatre. (The last part is my idea.)

Taboo behaviours of course are set aside temporarily, and what you do during Mardi Gras can’t count against you (or your character) when the party’s over. Mardi Gras is a kind of “time out place” on steroids (again my interpretation) and a display of what is usually seen as marginalized behaviour. Maybe it’s all just piece of the puzzle of the fine art of human pair bonding. All of this of course makes total sense if you understand social control theory and subjective social norms.

Right on man … as we said in the sixties.

Some sources suggest that it was Sieur d’Iberville himself (a man of noble blood by the way, that’s what sieur means) who introduced Mardi Gras to La Louisiane when he set up camp on the west bank of the Mississippi not far from present-day New Orleans. And in honour of a festival he obviously knew well, and I suppose to put another French mark on the territory, he named the point of land where he landed Point du Mardi Gras.

As you would expect, there are many explanations of how, why, and where the numerous Mardi Gras rituals evolved. As for the traditional colours of purple (symbolizing justice), green (faith), and gold (power), one story has it that it was the Grand Duke Alexis Romanov (of Russian imperial stock), who was given the honour, during a visit to New Orleans in 1872 of choosing the official colours of the Krewe of Rex (one of those secret societies). And he chose the colours of the House of Romanov. Fancy that! (By the way, surely every one knows that French was the lingua franca of the Russian Court, and of course the language of international diplomacy.)

Now Mardi Gras celebrations can get quite raucous, and are not always the best venue for those faint of heart, easily led astray, or paragons of virtue who wish not to risk their social standing; but as I circulated through the crowds during the Houma Mardi Gras parades, I never had any concerns about personal security or things getting out of control. I and everyone else was just having a good time. Like … hey, this is Houma, not New Orleans!

Now mind you, when I interviewed teenagers who might just have been imbibing what in the old days we called hooch, and asked them what Mardi Gras was all about, a lot of them (the males especially of course) told me quite boldly that it was a time to get “pissed” and “laid.” Well, not to worry. I taught teenagers for 32 years, and know that a lot of that is just talk, and that’s OK … because it’s Mardi Gras man!

Images and imagery of Houma

slideshowiconTo view a slide show of special moments in Houma and the Mississipi Delta, click here.

A Cajun plot?

Houma, Louisiana is pure Cajun country and the gateway to America’s Wetland, the Mississippi Delta. The Cajun people were (and are) the Acadian people who were considered a threat to the British colony when Britain wrested La Nouvelle France from France. The deportation of the Acadians in 1755, one of the skeletons in Canada’s historical cupboard, was a land grab and the victimization of a peaceful people. When you repress a people, one of the first things you try to do is attempt to deprive them of their language. Unfortunately the Acadians/Cajuns were twice victimized in this way, as you will hear, once in Canada and once in Louisiana. And yet, they were and are survivors! You only have to attend Mardi Gras in Houma to understand that.

And to hear some additional commentary that clearly shows the Acadian-Cajun connection, listen to Nicole Boudreau Tourism Development Officer, Digby County, Nova Scotia, talking about the Nova Scotia-Acadian-Cajun connection.

The best little Mardi Gras parade in Louisiana

Houma, Louisiana, the gateway to America’s Wetland and the Mississippi Delta, is all about hometown culture, grassroots experiences, and “just folks.” While New Orleans, Rio de Janiero, and Québec City may have their much touted Mardi Gras celebrations and parades, there is nothing like the genuine, safe, and just slightly naughty Houma Mardi Gras parade. They’ve got the moves!

To watch this video click here.

Mean Jean: an alligator who just wants to be liked

I’m not sure why she got nicknamed Mean Jean, but given her willingness to meet and greet strangers in her Mississippi Delta home, I thought she was a sweetheart.

To watch a brief video of Jean, click here.

Resources

The official Houma, Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau website

America’s Wetland Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana

The Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program

Bayou Terrebonne Waterlife Museum

The Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON)

The official Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism website

The LA Coast website

America’s Wetland Birding Trail

Southdown Plantation and Terrebonne Museum

Annie Millers’ Son’s Swamp and Marsh Tours

Wildlife Gardens, Gibson LA

Louisiana Main Street

Chauvin Sculpture Garden

Diversified habitats give birth to alternative lifestyles and alternative visions. Kenny Hill’s life and work embodies this worldview. His sculpture garden is worth a visit.

French in Louisiana

The French language is alive and well (shades of Jacques Brel) in Louisiana.

See: The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (Conseil pour le développement du français en Louisiane).

“The history of French in Louisiana has not allowed the vast majority of francophones the opportunity to learn to read and write French. Additionally, as everywhere in the francophone world, we speak several varieties of French each having its own particular flavor. For these reasons, we have tried to include as often as possible on this web site French ‘as it is found in Louisiana’.” — The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana

According to the 1990 Census, almost 250,000 Louisianans indicated that French was the principal language in the home.

Wetland change

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