This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Dead Moccasins Bite

Sunset today, another pretty one. They just keep coming.

A long time ago, early in the last century, a man whose story I have recorded built a houseboat for his family in the Atchafalaya Basin. He was a fisherman, and a moss gatherer and a timber cutter. Working with the trees, he was able to find logs to take to lumber mills and in those days the mills would saw the log up for half of the lumber derived from it. He met his wife to be during the 1927 flood. She was 13 and told her mother that today she had seen the man she would marry. She had seen him as he pushed a skiff with oars up the bayou near Stephensville where many boat people waited for the high water to recede. It would be two years later, but she did marry that man when she was 15. She was a small woman, a little over four feet tall and she was worried that a judge would think she was too young to be married, so they took a bateau across Grand Lake to Charenton beach. They were met by the judge that would marry them right there on the beach. No one mentioned her age or her size, and the judge didn’t object – he was blind. Anyway, it was for this new wife that he built the houseboat that would see them raise a large family, supported by the things the Basin offered to those who knew how to get them. He built the barge and house out of the old, virgin cypress that was his half of the logs he brought to the mill. Many years later, when the time came for the houseboat communities to leave the Basin, in the 1940s, he winched his houseboat over the levee and settled down to what must have been a strange existence on land after a lifetime of floating freedom. His odyssey continued about three decades later when he was forced to move from the levee by the Corps of Engineers, who said they needed to raise the levee and he was in the way. He did move and his house came to rest for the final time at the community of Oxford near Franklin, on Bayou Teche, along with many other families who had once been swamp people. He died at this place several years ago, and so did the wife he built the house for. His house was torn down last month by the last owner, his great-grandson. The lumber from the ancient trees that had supported the roof and provided shelter for all those years is stacked under a shed now, waiting for the next time it will become something useful to man.

Today I rode down the levee to Myette Point to pick up two child’s swings made from that lumber by a man who reveres the old wood even more than I do, the old swamper’s son-in-law. The picture shown here hardly does the old wood justice, but the wood will be cherished for many more years in the form of this swing. It will hear children’s honest peals of laughter as they learn the freedom of flying through the air securely supported in this swing. I feel good about having a piece of the house that the old man lived in so very long ago in the old swamp on Bayou Pigeon, and Bayou Smith, and Bayou Boutte. A piece of it will be on my front porch now, waiting for the next child to use it to make a memory of its own.

Coming home after picking up the swings this morning, as I drove back along the levee road past Lake Fausse Point State Park, I noticed a couple dead water moccasins on the road. I stopped to look at them and since neither of them was badly mashed, I picked them up and put them in the bed of my truck. No, they didn’t come to life back there, they really were dead. My interest was to try to process them for the skeletal material they could add to my collection. To do this, I had to skin them so that the bugs would have easy access to them. To skin a snake, all you have to do is split them up the middle and start on one end with a pair of pliers and just peel the skin off, pulling it to the other end. As I did this to the one that was hit pretty badly, the head came off unexpectedly and I very nearly buried one of the fangs in the heel of my hand. In other words, I nearly made the snake bite me. It didn’t happen, but it got my attention. I skinned the other snake in the other direction, pulling the skin toward the tail, not the head. Some lessons are easy to learn.

The river is at 2.3 right now on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 2.9 by Wednesday. The Ohio and Mississippi are experiencing a mid-summer rest from the rigors of high water, even though we didn’t get any of that this year.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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