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Nature as Defined By the Bayou

Hurricane Katrina laid bare a region where wetlands and government policies intertwine
Los Angeles Times, Sept. 5, 2005
· Archive,Hurricane Katrina,Susan Zakin,Aaron Neville,Oil companies

IF aridity gives the Western landscape its character, as Wallace Stegner wrote, water defines the territory of Louisiana. Driving, the freeways turn to causeways; walking, your feet sink through Bermuda grass into an atavistic swamp. Water is the belly of this place, more than beignets, boudin, and, as it turns out, even the oil bidness. Everything came from water, scientists say, and this week, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, everything seemed to be returning there.

Even in the best of circumstances, a dry-lands Westerner has to get used to nature here, and in 2003, I did. I learned that people don't sleep in tents in Louisiana. They haul along paraphernalia: RVs, bikes, ATVs, boats, fishing poles, (oh, yes, always the fishing poles), and lots of strings of Christmas lights, which they drape over their RVs like a perpetual Mardi Gras. And that jumped-up Cajun music, you can't get away from it -- it skitters along on the water, it slides around the old bald cypresses. You kayak past people picnicking outside their trailer to the guitar riffs of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and just to your right, that's our picturesque oil rig out here at the state park.

You can pooh-pooh Louisianans' predilection for partying hearty in the great outdoors, or you can just go with it. I went with it and let myself be astonished by the sight of blue herons lifting off the water like bows aimed at the drifting, unseen horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. The egrets swirling around a creaking iron bridge like paperweight snow seemed neither miraculous nor ironic, merely appropriate the way whitewashed buildings fit into a hillside on a Greek Island. I never saw so many eagles as I saw in Louisiana, on the bayou, the music playing not far away, oil rig in plain sight.

The coastal wetlands of Louisiana are the second-largest flyway in the U.S., after the Pacific flyway, part-time home for 40% of the country's migratory birds. Oysters, shrimp and fish -- red snapper, grouper, amberjack, blackjack, bonito -- all live in these waters, all in staggering quantities. Louisiana is No. 1 in oyster production, No. 2 in shrimp, and it produces one-third of the country's fish. And, yes, a lot of oil rides through here in pipes from the Gulf of Mexico.

The entire lower third of Louisiana is swamp boogie bayou country, the evocative smoke-rising place that James Lee Burke writes about in mysteries, where a good old boy will speak with pride about his tough-talking Cajun girlfriend, where the old folks still speak Acadian French, where cracklins and alligators are more common than SUVs, and where the back road along the bayou is the way to go. It is a place where men, and women, make their living trawling for shrimp, and, in a few towns, still, people can pay the doctor with venison or crawfish.

The bayou isn't merely a Smithsonian scratchy record cultural preservation conceit. For centuries, 3 million acres of backwoods bayou have acted not only as a refuge from American blandness but also as a natural shield protecting New Orleans from the hurricanes endemic to the southeastern United States.

Starting in the 1940s, levees built along the Mississippi River stopped the natural flooding that for centuries had stacked the bayous with sediment that acted as a hedge against salt water pushing in from the Gulf of Mexico. Later, canals built for oil pipelines and tankers accelerated erosion and allowed salt water to intrude farther into the swamps.

Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of wetlands because of various kinds of human interference. That's a little more than one football field every half hour, a rate that Louisianians cannot staunch by themselves. But getting Washington to pay attention isn't easy. Just a week before the hurricane struck, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had tried to persuade the president to fly over the bayou country. Blanco, of course, wanted money.

Earlier this year, over the president's protests, Congress included in an energy bill a provision that would give Louisiana about $135 million a year, well short of the $14 billion over 30 years needed to restore Louisiana's wetlands. Even the oil companies are backing Blanco's plan for coastal restoration; they'll lose their pipelines and ship canals if southern Louisiana sinks like a dying thing into the Gulf of Mexico.

A bayou made whole might have protected New Orleans from a great deal of the physical devastation we're now seeing, though even in a lesser version of Pompeii, events might have fallen into a mad disorder.

In New Orleans, the bones of the world have been laid bare, and Americans are seeing how inseparable are the natural and the made worlds. We see it in other countries -- Haiti comes to mind -- and now we see it at home, where the levees have broken, where the Superdome looks like the Hotel Rwanda and police couldn't rescue victims of the flood because they were arresting looters.


I've been thinking about whether the definition of nature should be a party strung with bright-colored Mardi Gras lights. But a party, even in New Orleans, can't last forever; you can only push so hard without eventual consequences.

Aaron Neville's sweet voice surely must be echoing over the floodwaters tonight. Perhaps this is the true music of the spheres and the true music of nature, the creaking sound of that Venetian city sinking into the bayou. A memory of equipoise, New Orleans with all the parts still intact, every bit of turned wood and every stray, floating egret feather carried in the momentary and eternal sound of the blues.