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.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Sixth Line

Beyond ownership;
A place where a great river lives;
Where most of our crawfish used to come from;
Where commercial fishermen make a living;
A place of memories for a lot of people;
“A home for ghost stories;”

Comments on the first five lines of the poem Atchafalaya Is have appeared earlier in Riverlogue postings – now for the sixth line.

Yes, it is a home for ghost stories. It is a place where mysterious things are said to happen, some witnessed, some only spoken of. It is hard to overcredit the capacity of the human mind for imagination. But things that go bump in the night are not imagined by those who hear them, they are really there, for those people. It is we who only hear about them who scoff at the stories. If we measure size in relation to the potential for loneliness, the Basin is a big place, and it was bigger when there were fewer people in it. Being alone in this big place, and being human, and having the human capacity to imagine – this would be a formula for witnessing the unexplainable. And the Basin has had its share of the unexplainable.

Perhaps four short stories will be enough to exemplify what I mean. The first has to do with what I call “The Woman in White” legend. This legend is well known by those who once lived in the Basin, and you can hear it from people in communities on both sides of the swamp. Basically, the woman visits people who are alone in the swamp, usually working at some swamp-type task. She visited Ulysse C. late one afternoon in 1933, almost at dusk, while he was gathering moss. He had his moss pole twisted in a big clump of green moss which he pulled down and then turned to carry it to his moss barge. His boat and barge were in the bayou about 50 feet behind him. As he turned toward the boat, he heard someone call his name. He turned back and there was a very pretty woman in a very white dress sitting on a stump about 20 feet away. He swears she smiled at him and motioned for him to approach her, saying “Ulysse, come to me and you’ll never have to pick moss again”. He turned back toward the bayou, dropped his moss pole, and ran for his boat as fast as he could. When he got to the boat, he looked back and, sure enough, she was still there, sitting on the stump. She repeated the invitation. He says he was never so thankful that the Lockwood engine in his boat started with a twist of the flywheel, and he was off down the bayou as fast as the putputting bateau could take him. It was a long time before he returned for his moss barge and the pole he left on the bank. He maintains that the woman was not mean looking or scary in that way, and she really seemed nice. But, to him, she sure didn’t belong where he saw her. And, after all, he says, he was a married man.

Next, there is the Peach Coulee legend. Many people have said that no one can live (in a houseboat) on that little bayou. And the story is that there is pirate treasure buried somewhere near there, protected by the ghosts of pirates killed and buried there for that purpose. People have experienced things that should not be happening when they tie a houseboat in Peach Coulee. During the night, and sometimes in the daytime too, the sound of brickbats being thrown on the roof is heard. When the people go out to see, nothing is there. When some people tried to make bread, they would come back to the rising dough to see the marks of two big hands pressed into the soft dough. Coffee pots full of coffee fall off of the stove onto the kitchen floor. Gangplanks become detached from the houseboat during the night resulting in sleepy people nearly falling into the water in the morning. These reports and many others have come from the Peach Coulee area. As mentioned earlier, I took a class of boys from school there one weekend in 1974. We spent the night in tents and didn’t see or hear much that was alarming, except that boat that came by during the night when there was no boat – just the sound of the motor.

And then there is the Bayou Sorrel mound. A baby is heard crying there, and this has been heard by several people. The mound is a very old Native American burial site which has also been used during historic times for burials by non-native peoples. A picture of the mound is offered here.

Lastly, different people from the swamp tell me that on several occasions, when someone they know is about to die, that person appears to them. This is probably more in the line of a “spirit” rather than a ghost. But it nevertheless is an unexplained event.

Yes, the Basin is a home for ghost stories. With some digging, a lot more of this kind of material can be found. Some individuals have collected this kind of information and they are worth talking to.

The river is still acting very unseasonal in that there is a lot more water in it than we usually see in July. The Butte La Rose gauge says 8.7 feet now, with a gradual fall setting in next week. That reading is usually about 3.0 about now. The Mississippi and Ohio are both holding or rising a little. We shall see.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Dead Tree

Across the river there is a dead willow that sticks up over the general tree line. It is a big tree that has succumbed to the hunger pangs or idle curiosity of patrolling beavers. It is common to see this along the river, and it provides an opportunity to see things that normally hide among the foliage of still-living trees. This morning there was a little scene acted out in that dead willow.

A tall dead tree in a forest is like a ridgeline in a western landscape. Your eye is drawn to it because everything stands out on the ridge, and so in the dead tree. A dark spot in the branches is an anomaly. It is a something else where only the form of branches should be. No birder can resist an anomaly in a faraway dead treetop.

This morning such an anomaly appeared in the dead tree across the river. It was a dark blob, suggesting an owl. Up come the binoculars and no, it is a young red-shouldered hawk. It looks big because it has one wing spread out to dry, odd because it looks lopsided like that. Now comes a second hawk and sits near the first one. I would imagine they know each other.

All is quiet. And then a flock of ten blue jays arrives and the quiet disappears for a while. The jays jabber and fuss and annoy the hawks from the safe distance of several feet. This goes on for about five minutes, and the hawks pay no attention. The jays lose interest and one by one they peel off from the dead tree and come across the river toward me. They don’t bunch together, there is a long ragged line of them coming across the river, and they pass over me and continue on into the woods on this side.

A flock of smaller birds takes over the hawk-awareness duties. These seem to be mostly titmice, chickadees and warblers. They dance around the hawks but they are too far away for me to hear the scolding that I’m sure is taking place. After a few minutes, they too disperse, perhaps attention deficit disorder is not specific to humans.

The two hawks sit in the tree alone, preening and drying. Then, from behind them, I see two crows coming low over the trees. I am reminded of airplanes attacking ships by coming in just over the wave tops. There is no sound announcing the crows, they just fly right at the hawks. One of the crows hits his target so hard he nearly knocks the hawk off the branch. There is a moment of wild wing thrashing and the hawk resettles on the branch. The crows take up a position about ten feet away and begin to make noise. Applying human behavior expectations, I wonder why the hawk doesn’t react to the attack more aggressively. This continues – the hawks sitting there and the crows yelling and with each loud call thrusting the head and chest forward, seeming to throw the sound at the hawks.

As if to comply with my understanding of human behavior, one of the hawks dives from his branch toward the offending crows with all the body language that says “Enough!”. But the crow is expecting this, of course, and beats a retreat back through the trees with the hawk chasing but not overtaking it. It is like a game, each has his role.

There is now one hawk in the tree, alone, as when I first noticed it thirty minutes ago. And a few moments later it flies off in the direction of the crow-chase. Whatever else happens, it happens in the secrecy of the foliage.

The dead tree is empty again, reminiscent of the ridgeline between hills.

The river is, and has been, acting oddly for this time of year. There is nothing normal or average (even though we always use those terms) for this river, of course, but having a rise in July is definitely not an expected event. You don’t plan on it, and it catches you by surprise when it happens. We all heard of the floods in north Texas and Oklahoma two weeks ago. Well, like a message delivered by a reliable delivery service, we get the message by way of that same water paying us a visit now. Where the water “should” be about three feet now on the Butte La Rose gauge, it is close to nine feet! I am having to improvise a way to get from the bank to the dock and that is irritating. It should begin falling next week back down to more usual levels. Any spirit reading this should not interpret my words as complaints, really.

Rise and Shine, Jim