“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,
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.