The Ninth Line, Changes
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;
A place of great living complexity;
A controlled spillway;
A changing entity;
That is the ninth line of the poem “Atchafalaya Is:” I have tried to think of how this idea can be expressed effectively. It is not just that the Basin undergoes periods of change. It does that on many levels and seasons. The water changes when northern conditions tell it to. The trees change when the sun creeps up or down the latitude lines. The birds change for the same reason the trees do. On and on you could list the ways the Basin undergoes yearly changes. And some years vary more than others, with the water rising more some spring seasons and falling more in some summers. You are tempted to say “than usual” when talking about these variations. More than usual, or less than. But this just points out that there is no “usual” when dealing with the Atchafalaya. It is never the same, it is always different from day to day and moment to moment.
But this is not what the ninth line of the poem is meant to say. Rather, it is meant to say that the change I mean is historical, not recent, and the history I mean is the history I have with the Basin. That history goes back to the time a young boy was shown a wild place with no limits and no one to establish any. That place was the Basin 58 years ago.
What was it like then? I don’t know, from an objective point of view. What I saw and remember about the swamp may be more about subjective memories than otherwise. I saw trees that were there but my images of them are bigger than life. I smelled the willows in spring and that smell remains today, to me, one of the strongest signals of the idea of freedom. Searching along the little bayous at night during a light rain you saw mice climbing grass stems to eat the seeds bending at the tops. And that taking place within touching distance. The water we travelled from Charenton to Little Bayou Pigeon was vast and filled with living things that you could harvest at will and eat. The swamp was good at hiding the grosbecs and beccroces but you could usually find enough of them to provide a meal. The barred owl tells us “You cook today, I’ll cook tomorrow” and there was one on every other tree limb. As I say, I have wonderfully clear memories of these and many other things, but how objective are they? Not very, I’m afraid.
Overall, true or not, these memories build a story of what the swamp was like 58 years ago. The story is what I think it was at that time in my life. And I believe the Basin really was like that, in concept if not in detail. The changing entity spoken of in the ninth line is the changing idea of the Basin that I have. Mainly, the swamp has become much less personal. So many more people have become involved with it that it is no longer possible for me to think of it as a place of solitude, or retreat, if you will. Where you could find aloneness easily then you cannot do so now. There are 250-horsepower engines where once a 25 was as big as you ever saw. And those big engines can go anywhere a GPS can direct them, which is anywhere they want to go.
So it is my idea of the Atchafalaya that is changing. There is less water now than there used to be and more silt every time the water rises and falls again. But that isn’t what matters to me. It is the idea, that entity that harbors our own story of the past that is changing for me. My children and grandchildren will find another way to relate to the Atchafalaya, and their memories will be very different than mine. And over time their idea of the Atchafalaya will change too. And on it goes.
The river is at 16.9 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady at that point for the next several days. The Ohio and Mississippi are both failing to support any more water for us. We can probably look for a slow fall to low water levels sometime in June.
Rise and Shine, Jim