This was a Working Wetland

“This was a working wetland.”  These words go through my mind in the voice of Meryl Streep, from the beginning of the movie, Out of Africa, where she says, “I had a farm in Africa”, which are also the first words of the autobiography written by Danish Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke about her 17 years of farm life in Kenya.

For four years now I’ve been writing on this blog, present tense, about life in the Louisiana wetland that surrounds me.  How many years before I write the book which begins with the past-tense words,

“This was a working wetland”?

Oh, that there were a word somewhere between “is” and “was” to describe where we are currently, possibly on the brink of extinction. But for now, we will go back 33 years to a time when life in this working wetland was viable and as dependable as the seasons.

Back in 1978, down at the oilfield drilling dock in Dulac, a gentle bear-of-a-man named Mr. David C. Billiot waved at me from his Lafitte skiff as he passed in the bayou headed toward the shrimping grounds beyond.  His son, Russell, was captain of one of the boats docked there and the one for whom Mr. Billiot’s was really intended.  Russell and I had become friends during the short time I had worked there.

As I came to know these dark-skinned people, I learned they were Houma Indians, a state-recognized, but not federally-recognized, tribe of French-speaking Native Americans.  Their language, customs, and food intrigued me.

Seasons of a Working Wetland

The Billiot home is where I ate my first piece of Indian fried bread dough, called galette (gah LET), served with sugared, dark-roast coffee, lightened with Pet milk straight from the can.  The first thing Mrs. Vivian , Mr. David’s wife, did each morning, after imbibing her coffee, was put a batch of rice on to cook in her Hitachi rice cooker–which I didn’t even know existed at the time. No matter what else she would cook that day, it would be eaten along with white rice, cooked to perfection in that electric pot.

Mr. David and Mrs. Vivian’s house was where I ate my first meal of rice topped with white beans and fried shrimp and oysters, fresh from the seashore, as Mrs. Billiot referred to nearby waters.  Out on their porch was where I first learned how to crack open a boiled blue crab, separating the innards from the sweet, white meat.  In the yard, with family gathered round, is where I slurped my first raw oyster, straight from the shell, the salty brine washing the mussel straight down my throat. It was there I first ate snap beans, picked that morning and served, again, atop their staple food–white rice.

Late winter was the time Mr. David spent hours breaking the ground in preparation for his spring garden.  He tilled under the remnants of the winter garden of mustard and turnip greens.  From that very garden came the first turnip I ever ate.  He plucked it up, wiped it off, peeled it and handed me a slice, right there in the garden.  The taste was new and invigorating to me.

In the early spring, he planted pole beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, corn, and potatoes. In later years, when I lived in that yard, fresh vegetables magically appeared on my back steps early in the mornings.

While the garden grew silently, Mr. David tended his shrimp nets, repairing the tears with a net needle and net twine.  Boats were hauled out of the water; the bottoms received a fresh coat of anti-fouling paint to discourage barnacles from taking up residence there.

Just as the spring garden started to play out, it was time for the May shrimp season.  In the spring of 1980, he invited me to go with him.  We departed at 2 a.m. while everything and everyone was still asleep.  The water was calm and quiet, the skiff engine breaking the silence as we made our way to Lake Boudreaux.

Shrimping in the Working Wetland

Speaking mostly in his native tongue, he taught me the processes involved in trawling for shrimp.  Once we arrived in the lake, he picked his starting point, put the engine in idle, and lowered two door-like boards attached with chains into the water behind the boat.  As the boards sank to the bottom, he put the boat in gear, gave it just a little throttle, as the weight of the boards pulled the net down into the dark water.

Back at the controls, he increased the speed, and thus began the dance of the trawler.  Across the water, other skiffs were doing the same thing.  Round and round in the lake the boats moved, avoiding collision by some small miracle, stirring up shrimp from the murky bottom.

He could tell from the strained sound of the engine that it was time to pull up the nets and check the catch.  A winch mounted on an iron pole on the stern of the boat helped with that process.  Mr. David pulled the net around to the side of boat, and together we heaved it onto the picking box and dumped its treasures there.

Tiny blue crab scuttled across the wooden box, where they made their escape under a sliding board he lifted up just for that purpose.  The shrimp, still alive, flipped and jumped around on the table.  His hands worked skillfully as he picked out baby catfish, avoiding their stinging fins, blowfish, pogie, croakers, flounder, and the occasional piece of man-made trash.

First he picked out the largest shrimp, which he would take home for  a meal or to share with someone in the family yard.  He once gave me a bucket of those beauties, which I considered more than ample pay for the time I spent on the boat with him.  He then shoveled the remaining shrimp into a plastic bushel basket called a “champagne“, which he sold at the shrimp-buying dock on our way back in.

That brown shrimp season lasted about six weeks, and then there was a break before the white shrimp season began in August.  Similar to the May season, the white shrimp were also caught in inland waters, less than three miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Between the two seasons, some of the boats served double-duty as blue crab boats.  The wire-mesh traps, about two-foot square, were baited and dropped overboard and checked daily for blue crab to sell to local buyers.  Each crabber painted the floats a particular color and design to readily identify his traps among dozens of others floating in the same waters.

The month of September hailed the beginning of alligator-trapping season.  Locals also call the process catching alligators, fishing alligators, or hunting alligators.  In past years, a hunter would be allowed to keep the meat from the alligators to feed his family.  Back then, hunters received fewer tags per person and were required to skin out the gators, selling the hides to the buyer.  At the height of the market, hide buyers paid as much as $65 a foot.

Also with the cooler temperatures, came time to plant the fall and winter garden with pumpkins, squash, greens, and possibly more tomatoes and beans.  These are the foods that tied them over with the onset of winter and the trapping season.

While those seeds were sprouting, Mr. Billiot prepared his fur traps, which were stored in a 55-gallon drum of water in the off season to prevent them from rusting.  Sounds strange, but that is how they were stored.  He dried and then oiled them in preparation for opening day.  The traps were set in the evening and checked each morning.

As a young couple, Mr. David and Mrs. Vivian lived on a camp boat out in the marsh during trapping season.  He checked the traps and brought the otter, mink, muskrat, and nutria back to the camp boat for her to clean.  Once she had removed the fur from the animals, she then washed them in the marsh water and stretched them over wooden boards, usually made of cypress, or wire stretchers and hung them up to dry.  Occasionally, someone would come out in a smaller boat to bring them food, supplies, and to take the pelts back home to sell to local buyers.

With the pelts sold, it was time to buy staples for the house like coffee, sugar, rice, and flour; as well as seeds for the coming spring garden.  And just like that, it was time to plow under the spent winter garden and let the land lie fallow until time to plant the spring seeds.  The one-year cycle of life in the wetlands slid seamlessly into the next season.

Decline of a Working Wetland

Even though Mr. Billiot did not engage in gill netting red drum for commercial sale, many wetlanders did.  Red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, were once considered “trash fish” until a Louisiana chef developed a recipe for blackening these fish, which increased restaurant demand for them.  As the demand went up, so did the price. This was a gold mine for the commercial gill-net fishermen who depended on this resource as part of their annual income.

Over the past 30 years, though, the way of life of the wetlanders has changed drastically.  Shrimp prices have dropped significantly due to the foreign imports, while profits from local sales have decreased due to lower prices at the dock and rising fuel costs.  For some unexplainable reason, increasing numbers of blue crab are dying before the boats reach the landing and cannot be sold.

Alligator meat may no longer be kept for the home, with the gators being sold “whole” these days.  The going rate now for the whole gator averages from a mere $6 a foot for six-foot and under and about $20 a foot for the rest.  The land company gets a twenty-five percent cut of the hunter’s take.  Further, the hunter’s profit has been greatly reduced by rising fuel costs and a declining demand for alligator hides for boots, shoes, and handbags.  PETA and the fashion industry brought the fur trapping industry to a screeching halt.  And lastly, the red drum has been given game fish status and may no longer be caught and sold commercially.

Like many cultures, these hard-working, family-oriented citizens have been cut off at every turn by the changing economy, changing mindsets, and stricter government regulations.  Many of them have resorted to subsistence hunting, if they can afford it. In order to hunt local marshlands, they must lease the marshlands from large land companies at a rate of about $235 per acre.  That may not seem like a lot, but considering that most leases are at least 500 acres, and the price tag goes up.  As a result, many local families can no longer afford the leases and no longer hunt for heritage, subsistence, or pleasure .

Gradually, the way of life is dying here, and the culture so closely intertwined with it is dying, too.  It is a slow, silent death that is painful to watch and seems impossible to stop.  The disease causing this morbidity is also causing a slow exodus of younger wetlanders who must move to town to find jobs to support their families, leaving behind their heritage.

The outlook is a sad one.  The wetlanders’ only hope is that consumers will demand American seafood, boycott imports, start wearing animal furs and hides again, fuel prices will drop, as well as the price of land leases.

Too much to ask?  Maybe so, but this wetlander will continue to live in the Louisiana wetlands and write about the life and hold onto what is here as long as there is marshland under her feet.

Present and accounted for,

BW

Post Script:  This article was very, very difficult for me to write.  I don’t know if it was trying to cram so much information into such a tight space or if writing it made me put into words what I see with my eyes as truth every day.  It is long, so please forgive me for that, and if you made it this far, thank you from the bottom of my bayou heart for giving your time to read the rantings of this old bayou woman.

NOTE:  I did not mention oyster fishermen, because typically that is what they do year  round.  With coolers on the boats now, they can even dredge up oysters in the months without the letter “r” in them.  The oystermen who suffered losses due to the oil spill and freshwater diversions were duly compensated and are faring better than any of the other commercial fishermen, from what I can see.  I apologize if I am wrong, and I am open to being corrected on that.

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Comments

This was a Working Wetland — 40 Comments

  1. M’dear – never apologize for sharing yer heart. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with ye (via blog or in person) knows how much ye love yer home, family & community – and we are ALL the better for it that ye have the grace and generosity to share that love with us.
    It is our privilege to honour that gift by sharing it out further into the world so that in some way, we too can be a part o’ this rich culture.

    What we call our “WGL Initiative” – Save the Wetlands, save the Gators, save Louisiana – because if we lose the first two, the third is already gone.

    As always, we salute ye, yer family and all our ancestors!

    • Spoken like a true friend, and I’m very grateful that you continue to encourage me to share my heart. So, when are ye pointing yer sails in this direction, Captain? We salute ye back and welcome ye and yer mates any time.

      • At this point we sail no earlier than spring…ye know, unless we win that proverbial “lottery-we-never-buy-tickets-for” ;]
        Of course we sail there frequently in spirit…I’m convinced part o’ me never leaves!

        Me very late Sat. breakfast awaits and so I must part…with thoughts o’ warm sunny days looking out on the life that is the bayou, sharing it with good mates…

  2. Thanks BW for telling the story like it is. My family came from hardy stock that oystered and fished in the Apalachicola bay in NW Florida. The fishing industry there is also dying. Precious water flow that comes down the Apalachicola River from Georgia is vastly decreased and that affects the oyster beds and fish nurseries. That small fishing town is now being taken over by people from out of state opening businesses that cater to tourists; restaurants, gift shops, and lodging. The local people are hurting and alot of them out of work. The way of life that I grew up with is almost a thing of the past.

    • I so appreciate your response, Mamabug. So things have even changed there? I know that time changes things, but it’s because man has manipulated Mother Nature so much. Do you know what has decreased the water flow? While this is the country based on free enterprise, and tourism certainly has its place, I think it is a terrible twist of events when native peoples (no matter their race) are left not choice but to leave their generational homesites to have them taken over by those with more means for purely recreational purposes. That is what appears to be happening here, slowly but surely. We share sympathies and compassion.

      • BW, the water authority between GA and FL have been fighting over the water for years. They won’t open the damns in GA to turn the needed water loose. GA claims they need the water for munincipal drinking water and recreational lakes. The low water also affects the barge traffic. We’ve not seen barge traffic on our waterways in quite awhile. On 9-27 I have a post about our beautiful Dead Lakes drying up. So check it out.

  3. It’s a shame to see how rapidly things can change. I only hope some of these people who still Shrimp, Crab, hunt, garden…are at least teaching some of these skills to a younger generation. Even if they can’t make a “living” doing these things, there is always the recreational value for them to learn. I personally get great satisfaction from growing a few vegetables and crabbing. I don’t think I’d want to do either for a living though. It’s too hard of a life for this city girl!

    • Steffi, I so admire your commitment to gardening. I could only ever hope to have a thumb half as green as yours. I don’t even bother any more because of the saltwater intrusion. It’s hard to lose everything I plant year, after year, even in regards to flowers and such. Yes, there is the recreational aspect, but they will have to make sure they stay in public waters now, won’t they? Because as these leases are taken over by weekend warriors, no trespassing will be tolerated. And I’m sure you’re familiar with the debate over gated waters . . . let’s not even get that started. Yep, things have changed a lot in the 33 years I’ve been here . . . . .

  4. That makes me very sad, but I’m glad you wrote it. I was appalled at the leases, $235 per acre? That’s insane. Not worth it. Very sad to see what’s happening and wonder what will happen in the future. I’m sure if some of our ancestors could see what’s become of our country, they’d be plenty upset. “Progress” carries a heavy price.

    • Hi Mikey, it’s so good to have you continue to visit here. I think $235 is on the low end, too. Some are much more. And even at that price, the alligator lease is not included in that. That price only allows us to hunt deer, rabbit, water fowl, and to fish that leased area within the marshlands. You are so right . . . . our ancestors would roll in their graves if they knew what has become of our country . . . . . thanks for sharing your thoughts. BW

  5. It made me sad to read this. Especially since I went thru part of my old home area today. What was once cotton, corn, wheat & maize fields is now part of a toll road, a huge lake, malls and homes packed so tight that you could sit in your window (if they opened!) and talk to the neighbor in their window without ever raising your voice! We played, skated, rode bicycles and flew kites in the middle of the road because most of the traffic was farm tractors and they only passed every few hours.
    The busiest time of the year was spring planting and fall harvesting times. We stood in the road and waved at the crop dusters as they passed over us while spraying the crops. (I wonder if that is why I am so short? All the stuff stunted my growth!! LOL)
    But, you are so right regarding the passage of time and the “progress” it has produced. I fear it isn’t always for the best and unfortunately, the simpler times of living by our wits, hard work and hands has fallen by the wayside. Life as we lived it has been replaced with “get it now”, “get it ez” and “the government said”. It saddens me to think that my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will never know the joy of simply sitting in a porch swing w/neighbors, watching what we planted grow, sleeping with the windows open, chasing fireflies without a care or even walking down the street and feeling safe. I loved those nights we camped at the lake, with a small fire going, swatting mosquitoes, listening to the splash of fish & turtles, the bellow of the bull frogs, seeing shooting stars & running the trot lines. And waking to a breakfast of fried fish, campfire biscuits and hashbrowns from potatoes buried beneath the coals.
    Progress is ok in its own way but, I would rather go back to the times when life was actually lived each day instead of just trying to make it thru each day.

    • Cammy, your comment should have been a guest post. Your feelings are so well conveyed. I can picture everything you write about. Can you share with everyone where you grew up that has changed so much? I personally have not drunk the global warming koolaid, but I have seen with my own eyes how urbanization of rural areas increases runoff, and because of all the concrete, summer temps are hotter in those areas than in the country. People are sometimes amazed at how much cooler it is down the bayou, and I continually tell them it’s because we don’t have all that concrete and we still have trees for shade. We, too, grew up in an area of a city that had just been urbanized. Even so, we rode our bikes anywhere, stayed out late on summer nights playing hide and seek and our parents NEVER worried about us. Daddy had small garden in the back yard, hunted public rural lands in the winter for dove and squirrel, and we drove to Toledo Bend to go fishing in the early summer. Even though we were city dwellers, Daddy made sure we appreciated the rural areas. I used to visit a farm north of town with my Cuz, and I loved it there—windows open, frogs and crickets chirping at night, fireflies in the yard at sundown. I often feel sad for those who have never connected with the earth like we have been able to do. I hope they can before it is too late. Again, it is sad, and I hate to dwell on these things, but it’s hard when I see it happening. And one more thing . . . in that same city where my great grandmother’s house was in the older part of town, very near the Red River, now sits a sprawling “River Parkway” complete with bowling alley, theaters, and a Bass Pro Shop. I can’t stand to go there for obvious reasons . . . . I have a lot of wonderful memories of my grandmother’s house and yard. In her day she raised chickens, kept a big garden behind the house, had an iris bed on the side of the house, and had a milk cow, too. My, my how city life has changed in less than 100 years . . . . .

      • I lived in Little Mexico in West Dallas until I was 5, then spent a year on the outskirts of Dallas before being shuffled from relative to relative when mom & dad divorced. Mom remarried just before my 8th birthday and we moved to a share croppers home on Princeton Rd in Rowlett, Tx. We lived in 3 different houses on that road. One actually had an indoor bathroom and running water!! We hunted in the bottoms behind our house, grew hay in them and ran our milk cow thru it also. Nearest neighbor with kids was about a mile away. It was pastures, crops and trees almost as far as we could see.

        Now, it is Lake Ray Hubbard and Rockwall and Rowlett are virtually one entity. You don’t know when you leave one to go to the other. Across the narrow, 2-lane road we lived on where crops flourished and I hoed and picked cotton, there are now homes that start at prices so high that I flinch when I see them. It is a gated community too. The road I walked from my school to my home with my friends is being turned into a toll road for part of the way. The houses we lived in our long gone and the bottoms behind them are part of a soil/reservoir conservation site now. This past spring, I had my husband drive me over there and my aunt and uncles home was still partly standing and her iris beds had spread down the fence line since the late 60s. I waded thru poison ivy to dig up some of them and have them growing out back now. Just a little piece of the past that I really needed to help me ground myself to so much change.

  6. I think you should write the book. Part of my enchantment with the wetlands goes back to 1959 when I read a series of books about a little bayou girl. I have never forgotten the experience of sitting in my room reading those books and thinking how great the stories were. I would give anything to be able to track those books down and look at them again. The little girl’s life was full of adventure and excitement. There were swamps and alligators. Your writing reminds me of those books. Of course, Debbie Reynolds was playing Tammy along about that same time, and she made living on a houseboat in the swamp seem like the most exciting thing a girl could do. Romantic themes dealing with nature and the past still intrigue me. Have you considered giving voice to a fictional character living during the times you describe?

  7. One of the things that strikes me is that the changes are everywhere, not just on the bayou. We were prairie people, born and bred from folks who lived in Nebraska “soddies”, camped on the high plains outside what’s now Dallas/Ft.Worth, and broke the sod for farming in Saskatchewan.

    The context couldn’t be more different, but the values were very much the same: independence, responsibility, care for the resources that supported life, respect for the worth of individuals and a commitment to community.

    When I listen to any of the arguments taking place in this country now, whether over global warming, economic policy, social commitments or resources, I’m just appalled. The nastiness, the obvious desire not just to win an argument but to destroy an opponent is overwhelming.
    This isn’t the world I grew up in, and the slow degradation of the world in which we live is only a reflection of the increasingly self-righteous and selfish people who inhabit it.

    Hmmmm… perhaps I should say what I really think? 😉

    But here’s the point – whether one lives in Dulac or Detroit, Shreveport or San Francisco, the struggle is the same. Only the details differ. One of the most important things we can do is help people to understand that it is one world, and even if you’re saving wetlands and I’m preserving prairies, it’s all part of the same effort.

    Now that Mom’s gone, my life has changed considerably, and your post makes me think that it needs to change some more. Just what changes need to come I’m not sure – but I’m going to be thinking about it a good bit. Thanks!

    • It’s interesting how we can give and take in our writing, because your work always invokes emotion from me and often inspires me to at least remember a time, a thought, or a feeling. It’s a question we could all ask “what changes do I need to make?” And we could all think about that a little more. Your reflections about the prairie are appreciated and respected. It’s true, as I said somewhere . . . this is not the only way of life that is being lost. We all know change is inevitable, but I wonder why change seems to hurt those who can handle it the least? I guess if I had lots of money and could take a gamble, I would be buying up all this property and developing it as camps to sell to the folks who can pay cash and not worry about huge insurance rates or insuring at all. It is a crime to me that as the locals move out, the weekenders move in. I know this is American free enterprise, but the fact that this is happening is just wrong, wrong, wrong to me. If anyone is allowed to stay here, it should be the folks who have been here for generations. But life is a choice, I guess. Life is not always easy, and sometimes we just have to change routes and take the road called Easy.

  8. Just read/watched something very startling – residents in the Antelope Valley, California (who are self sufficient, off the grid and miles away from anyone) are being forced to destroy their homes and move away from their land.

    While this is a far more “obvious” attack, it smacks of something very near at hand all over Louisiana’s Bayous…

    Keep a weather eye out…know yer rights…stand fast!

    Article: http://goo.gl/uHbV7
    Be sure to watch the video report too: http://t.co/J1QTIfaF

    • It is startling, as I can see no real reason why their way of life should be impacting anyone else. So the question as to why really remains unanswered. And it just blows my mind with all the other civic problems that govt. agent could be working on, that evicting these people is on his list of things to do. I just don’t get it. Thanks for posting, mate.

      • Apparently being self sufficient, creative, resourceful & not eating the “gummint cheese” is a threat…once upon a time, this was how everyone lived.

        We need to celebrate our ancestors and emulate their fortitude – if more folk were self-sustaining, helped each other out and were off the grid (or at least feeding back into it) we’d all be better off.

        “The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common:
        instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views, which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that need altering.” (Dr. Who)

        • Ha! What a brilliant quote! One would think with all the prior talk about “cap and trade” and making every home conform to energy conservation standards, the gummit would be more than happy to see folks using solar panels and being off the grid. They can’t have it
          both ways now, can they? I mean, just LOOK at the tax incentives for doing things like adding insulation or switching your home to solar power. Making these people destroy their homes, especially on their OWN property, makes absolutely no sense at all–as if I needed another soap box to stand on!

          PS I like gummit cheese : ) though

          PPS A friend of mine from Lafayette called me yesterday to ask if I was aware that a blog site called NOLA Ladder picked up my blog post. I went there, and it looks like they picked it up from your Tweeter feed. Could that be right? If so, thanks so much for tweeting that for me!!!

  9. You know I love when you pour your heart out! I love when you write about your life and the life around you. It takes someone like you to let the “outside world” know what really goes on in the bayous of south Louisiana. I agree with Brenda – that you should write “the” book – any book about your life in LA!

  10. Thank you BW for all the nice comments on my blog! I really appreciate it. You can find Blanket Flower (Gaillardia) at your local plant nursery. They shouldn’t be hard to find. You can also order them online. One of my favorite websites to buy plants from is highcountrygardens.com.

  11. I landed here through a google search and boy, am I ever so darn happy that I stumbled upon your story. Although, I’ve never visited Louisiana, since I was younger, I’ve harbored a longing to visit and immerse myself in the culture. Thanks so much for writing from your heart and with such beautiful detail. Your story was a pleasure to soak up with my milk and cookies 🙂

    • Hi Chaka! I’m so glad you landed here through a Google search! Now, I wonder what the key words were! This blog is definitely one way you can immerse yourself in the culture and way of life. The blog is four years old now, and all the stories of past and present bayou life are archived by date and by category. So, please do browse to your Louisiana longing’s content! And we welcome you back to the bayou any time! BW

  12. I accidently came across your writings and photos this morning while searching for chocolate cake ballsl. In your writings I noticed the word Dulac. I was living in Houma in 1958-1960, and taught 1st year 1st grade at the Dulac school. Mrs., Dillard was the principal. I have not been back since I left in 1960 so was interested in hearing something about the area. I was Billie Margaret McDonald Slack at the time, I am now Billie Richmond.

    • Hi Billie and welcome back to the bayou! My husband, Houma Indian, has spoken with great fondness of Mrs. Dillard. She was there when he started first grade and could not speak English. She put him at ease by speaking French to him. He has never forgotten her for that. Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know you were here, and I hope you have fun browsing the site and seeing more about bayou life as it was then and now.

    • I think I just received a compliment from one of my inspirations, yet I fear she is more of a ghost to me these days . . . . . . . where y’at, lady? Thank you, Stephanie! Means a lot coming from a writer of your caliber! Truly.

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