Erosion of a Culture

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson


 Photo by Martyn Lucas

Photo by Martyn Lucas

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Pass Christian, Mississippi

I am leaving my skiff at a funky little marina on the swamp’s west side, an access point to the Atchafalaya in the deep Cajun parish called St. Martin. Boat docked, I head to my pickup.

There are flyers beneath the windshield wipers of each truck in the parking lot. I read one.

A benefit will be held for “our friend,” the leaflet says, and then it names the Guidry or Boudreaux or Landry – I forget which -- whose family needs money to bury him.

“He will best be remembered for dancing with a can of beer on his head,” the announcement concludes, just in case you knew him better by his drunken balance than his name.

I have never seen a more concise description of the colorful Cajun culture I have come to love in long visits over the last two decades. Not the drinking part, because my acquaintances in the area are about as evenly divided between drinkers and non-drinkers as people anywhere else.

It is more about friends helping friends, neighbors helping neighbors, even unto death. These are poor but proud people, working hard and playing hard, sometimes drinking too early and too long, the joie de vivre and rhythmic lifestyle prevailing. There is no pretense and little judgment. No guile. And there is in the swamp an appreciation for talents most of us have never heard of – frog-gigging without a gig, a healing traiteur’s spiritual advice administered over the telephone, or, yes, dancing with a beer can on one’s head.

I have lost it, but for years I saved that leaflet.

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The swamp is connective tissue. It runs not just through the cypress and willows and floating islands of water hyacinths, but also through the sawdust on the dance floor where the chank-a-chank band plays Sunday afternoons on the levee. It flavors the gumbo pot that grown men stand around all day to stir and to debate the best recipe.

It courses through the hearts of a people who live on or near the water, or once did, until the oil companies and lumber companies and so-called civilization encroached and spoiled the fishing and left contrails of canals and pipes and brackish water where once fresh had run.

You would not have the celebrated Cajun culture without the swamp, which once provided the livelihood that fueled the distinctions that make this place unlike any other on earth.

It is the largest swamp and wetlands area in the United States, some 600,000 acres, twenty miles wide and 150 miles long. The Atchafalaya was nigh inaccessible for so long it kept the Acadian culture pristine and whole, beneath a bell jar, preserving its looks and even its language.

That changed, of course. The interstate causeway that links Baton Rouge to the 22 Cajun parishes had a lot to do with assimilation, with change. But long before the big bridge was built, people looked into the vast dark mirror of waters and saw dollar signs floating.

The Atchafalaya has been drained, dredged, abused and mined -- for moss, oil and lumber -- yet still somehow the beauty of the place remains overwhelming, a dreamlike reminder of what the world must have been before humans. What the world could be now with proper stewardship.

And in the midst of this stunning Jurassic Park there are trees, towering recriminations in the wilderness. They are the few giant cypresses missed by the wholesale annihilation that went on the beginning of the last century. The skeletal cypress sentinels remain to haunt us.

“Once we have cut down all the big trees, part of our punishment will be to live in a world without any big trees,” the late environmental activist Greg Guirard once wrote.

Guirard, who died in May of 2017 at age 80, spent the last two decades of his life planting live oak and cypress replacements on the land he inherited and, in turn, left to his children. It troubled him that a beloved grandfather who first owned the home place on Bayou Mercier had been part of the workforce that harvested what Greg Guirard lovingly called “the giants.”

During Guirard’s life, his slice of Louisiana was a bosky oasis of work boats and outboard motors and old tractors and big logs he salvaged from the bottom of the swamp. Into his last year on earth, Guirard spent countless hours raising the sinker cypress and filling multiple barns and warehouses with the beautiful and decades-old wood.

When he died, there was regionally a sense of astonishment, as if a young man had dropped dead suddenly. Greg Guirard’s admirers seemed to expect him to live as long as the trees he championed.

But cypress, not a renewable resource, is endangered, like the swamp itself. If it looks like forever, it is not. Guirard himself was a part of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, a small, but feisty nonprofit organization that opposes the harvesting of what’s left of Louisiana’s cypress for lumber, mulch, or even wood pellets.

Makes no sense, but Louisiana politicians for years have winked at the decimation of its most valuable natural resources.  It has been up to such activists and individuals to express the outrage that elected officials never feel or wink away.

“If there was justice in life, they should shackle to cypress trees the gutless politicians and oil tycoons who destroyed the Louisiana coast and let the ever-encroaching gulf swallow them up,” Louisiana native and photographer Marc Lamkin says. “That would turn the bastards into tree-huggers.’

The warming of the planet has joined forces with big oil, loggers, nutria, scales and developers against the Atchafalaya and its few remaining giants. Its fragile beauty. Its filtering system. Its crawfish and catfish and alligator. Its working couples who in Cajun country prefer to labor together in a boat.

This makes me sad, and now I see the remaining cypress trees as monuments in a vast, watery cemetery.