What could possibly bring together an artist from Norway and a farmer from Thibodaux? Sugarcane, that’s what.
It all started with Anne Senstad’s vision of a labyrinth made of humans linked together, which evolved into a living art form of plant life instead. After online research and a series of phone calls to the Louisiana Sugarcane Board, Senstad finally connected with south Louisiana sugarcane farmer, Ronnie Waguespack.
Talking with the artist and the farmer was a lesson in human complexity and common ground. Senstad, petite, fair, and soft-spoken described with an aura of mysticism the oxygen released inside the maze, and the magical qualities of being among the leafy canes. Waguespack, barrel-chested, ruddy, and extroverted, talked in earnest about the different kinds of cane and how much he has seen these fields change in the twenty-six years he’s been farming them.
And where do you think we were? Lower Terrebonne Parish. As we talked, sugarcane trucks and wagons came in empty and left, filled with the freshly-cut fall bounty. It was, indeed, sugarcane harvest time in south Louisiana.
The labyrinth project began in March, when the cane was only knee high. A plot of sugarcane more fibrous than the juice cane was chosen as the site for the maze. Waguespack explained that the fibrous “energy” cane grown for ethanol production would be best suited for the project.
While the cane was still short, Senstad outlined her maze using bright pink surveyor’s ribbon. She then went back and removed all the young sugarcane from the paths, which allowed the cane to grow for the past seven months forming the interior walls, twists, turns, and dead ends that became an amazing labyrinth.
My son, his friend, and I were the first to arrive, giving us an opportunity to meet Senstad and get a personal introduction to the artist and her work. Even though folks have been doing cornfield mazes for years; the reality of a Norwegian photographer finding her way down the bayou by way of New York and New Orleans to carve out a maze in sugarcane is an unusual one.
At her invitation, the boys and I had the honor of being the first guests to explore the labyrinth, and we did so all alone.
In all-boy fashion, they ran off and left me, knowing that I had a small element of fear that I might not find my way out. They raced through the maze in short time, and then proceeded to stake themselves in unlikely places in order to frighten me. I went through the maze repeatedly, making sure I had followed every possibly route, wanting to feel the oxygen and magic of which the artist spoke.
Somewhat disappointed that my trip through the maze was less magical than expected, my spirits were lifted at the sight of a young man making sugarcane juice and serving it over ice to the boys. He offered me a cup and then asked in his charming French accent, “Would you like a little rum with that?” Well, if you insist.
To that I added a dash of fresh Satsuma juice and then a dash of fresh lime juice (all squeezed with his own two hands). The mixture was surprisingly delicious, refreshing, and addictive.
One would never imagine the variety of folks who took time out on a Saturday afternoon to drive 15 miles out of the nearest city, down a bayou road, and across a narrow, wooden bridge into a muddy parking lot dotted with old farming equipment. Among those were artists, musicians, professors, businessmen, students, and a handful of locals.
Even more interesting was the international flavor of the attendees. There was a Croatian, a Ukrainian, an African-Canadian, a Brazilian-Frenchman, and 4 African-American children from inner city New Orleans, who came with a New Yorker. Oh, I almost forgot the 4 Mexican migrant cane workers who came forward shyly to drink the juice of their labors.
After overhearing comments about several others’ experiences in the cane patch, and feeling like I might have missed something, I sneaked away from the preoccupied boys to have another visit inside the wispy branches of the caney lanes. As I approached the first turn, the sound of beautiful music made me think my time had come. The sounds were heavenly, and drew me through the canopy of the sugarcane dancers. Maybe it was the sounds of the rustling cane mixed with the sugar rush from the cane juice, but this must have been what the others were raving about.
The most soulful flute music these old ears have ever heard, coming from the center of the labyrinth, transported me to a magical place of air, space, and timelessness.
Back at the juice table, Alex engaged me in a conversation about wetland loss and the loss of culture and way of life of the bayou peoples. He alone had funded the sugarcane juicing experience for all these people, and does so at every festival that will allow him in for free. I don’t think anyone realized he was doing this service out of the kindness of his heart, motivated by the haunting truth that sugarcane will not always be grown right here on this piece of rich, dark earth.
And he is absolutely right, for moments later, the farmer confirmed in a candid conversation, explaining how he can no longer keep the water pumped out of parts of his cane fields across the highway. This may be the last year he farms there, because the small levees he built to keep the water out were washed away by Hurricane Ike; and the cost to restore them would be counter-productive to the amount of cane he could grow on that one hundred acres. Though he spoke with a tinge of sadness, strength and determination are what rose to the surface. Never fear, he is also farming cane up near his native Thibodaux, though the soil is not as rich as this once was. Further, the soil in which the labyrinth was growing contains almost three times as much salt as it did when he started 26 years ago.
I’m really glad we made the effort on a Saturday afternoon to support the arts in a cane field in south Louisiana. Even though my reasons for attending had nothing to do with talking about wetland loss, it seems there is no escaping the fact. It seems no matter where one turns in coastal Louisiana, there is beauty and art like an eagle and a sugarcane labyrinth. Conversely, there is the disaster and doom like hurricanes and saltwater intrusion.
As I reflected on the intricacies and complexities of one woman’s artful dream and one man’s hard work, conjoined into a mystical maze of common ground, I noticed an oak-covered Indian mound off in the distance.
Beauty and art.
Across the bayou from that mound, lay a bleak landscape of parched cypress trees, with bony branches that reached out for the freshwater of elsewhere.
Disaster and doom.
Folks, when I started this little essay, I had no idea where it would go. I’m sorry to end on a sad note, but such are the lives of the bayou people. Forgive me for preaching, but I’m afraid the day “the powers that be” realize that our problems are national problems, it will be too late.
By then we will be reaching out with bony fingers to the freshwater of elsewhere and moving our homes further inland to where the eagles have already moved their nests.