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, March 01, 2009

Commerce – Moss and the Rest

When you talk to the Myette Point people, both those born in the early 20th century and those born in the middle of that century, they always emphasize that fishing was the primary means of earning a living. In the constant effort to feed themselves and the always-growing number of children, the most frequent and reliable source of income was fish. But the fish didn’t always cooperate no matter how skilled and dedicated the fisherman was. Sometimes they just didn’t bite, and other harvestable products had to either supplement fish or completely substitute temporarily for them. These other things, in order of their economic impact on the lives of the people, were Spanish moss, fur, frogs, alligators, ducks, crabs and lastly and minimally, crawfish. Some of these had a greater importance in the early part of the century – mainly moss and fur and alligators. Others, like crabs, assumed significance in mid-century. Alligators were more readily available in the early 1900s, having been reduced to near-extinction by 1950. And oddly, wild crawfish were not considered commercially viable at all until after the 1960s. The oldest members of the Myette Point community available for interview in 1974 were Myon Bailey and his wife Agnes. They talked about how diversified their parents had to be to survive in the Basin in the early 1900s, and before.

MB: You know, Jack of all trades, just like we are. We don’t make it fishing, we do something else.

AB: Fish. We [her father’s family] fished, they picked moss, hunt frogs, alligators… Trap. Everything that, you know, that make a living. [laughs]

MB: …you didn’t make something at one thing, he’d go after the other one, you see? That’s the way it was. [if the] fish didn’t bite, well, he go hunt frogs, or [if they] didn’t have no frogs, he’d go…he’d trap sometime, a lil bit. It’s not all the time the fish would bite. It’s just like now, you see, at times you couldn’t catch no fish.

AB: In the wintertime he’d trap every winter. Boy, he’d make money then! Make good money.

MB: Lot of people, you tell em you hunt frogs, you fish, you do the things you done… doing that [each of those things] every day, but you don’t, you see?

Spanish moss was the great item of salvation to most of the Basin people during most of the first half of the 1900s. Whenever the fish didn’t bite, people picked moss. The older members of the Myette Point community all talk about collecting moss as a supplementary, or sometimes critically essential, means making enough money to buy food and supplies. And there was another more administrative reason for fish not being economically supportive. It comes as strange to most of us at this point in time to hear that there was a closed season on some fishing during the early 1900s, lasting several years. This was brought about by the powers that existed at that time to prevent alleged overfishing catfish and buffalo in the Basin. The period of prohibited fishing was during the months of May, June and July during which the water was perceived to be so warm that too many fish would die in the fish cars of the fishermen, in the opinions of the lawmakers. People remember their parents talking about this, and some had personal experiences with it, Myon and Agnes Bailey:

AB: …They had a closed season on fish. When I was small [born 1912].

MB: Aw yeah, you had two months closed season. Three months! That’s in May, when the fish would spawn. Catfish would spawn.

AB: Well, when he couldn’t fish, he’d pick moss. Pick moss, uh, almost all day, then at night he’d go hunt frogs. And he’d kill alligators and hunt frogs at, you know, at the same time.

The passing of this regulation was catastrophic to anyone making a living for a big family by selling fish, and some people found ways to circumvent it, but those and others looked for alternatives too. One such alternative was found in the harvesting of Spanish moss, as Agnes says above. Early in the 1900s, the Basin was still largely covered by forests of cypress trees, big trees. These trees harbored long, thick blankets of the gray/green epiphyte which apparently found existence suspended above the water and high in the air to be good for rapid growth.

But nothing is worth much monetarily unless there is a use for it and a buyer, and that use for moss was found to be stuffing for furniture and automobile seats. The buyers were either the fishboats that regularly visited the fishermen (like the Monarch) or sometimes a special effort was taken to collect the purchased moss in barges with cabins built over them to keep the moss dry.

“I remember they had…they had an old boy used come buy moss, and he had…it was like a campboat, that’s he’d tow…and bring, to put the moss in. ‘Cause once you dried it, that black moss, you couldn’t let it get wet no more. Because you would have to redry it, you had that stuff bailed. He’d bring that campboat. He’d put it in that campboat. And he’d weigh it and put it in there and he’d…he’d tow that back with him. “ [Edward Couvillier, 1997]

Two means of harvesting the moss existed. The most prevalent one was to go out into the forest with a boat and a long pole with a hook on the end. The pole would be extended up into the blankets of green moss and masses of it would be pulled down into the boat, or barge if one was used for greater capacity. People did build platforms or derricks in the barges sometimes to allow a higher reach with the poles. Once the capacity was reached, the moss would be returned to the household site where there was some bank exposed. Occasionally it was worthwhile to pick the moss from land and haul it to the boat. In order to be sold, the moss had to be treated in such a way to remove the living, outer growth, leaving only the black/brown inert inner core of the plant. The “green” moss was transformed by this process into “black” moss, which was of value to the furniture manufacturers. To do this it is necessary to kill the outer living plant material by submerging it in water, or thoroughly soaking it after piling it up on the bank. This begins the composting process, building up heat in the interior of the pile and killing, rotting, the live material. After turning the pile with a pitchfork for a period of time, all that is left is the sought-for inner black core. The black moss is then strung out on lines, or fences, to thoroughly dry. Once dry and ready for sale, the dry moss is forced into a wooden frame designed to allow the packing of the moss into a bale that is tied together with baling wire, or some other cordage. In their own words Edward and Lena Mae Couvillier describe it this way.

JD: Yeah, yeah. Did yall used to pick it and cure it too?

LC: I guess so!

EC: Yeah. Put it in the water and leave it soak in the water about a week or two. It soak in that water and it start turning…

LC: I got a scar on my knee where I can show where I stuck the pitch fork in it.

EC: ….turnin brown. You put it on the bank and it [?] dead. And then that sun get to it and get…talk about get hot! Every now and then you got to turn it over, you know, turn it over and keep, keep that moisture down in it. [Then] Hang it on a line. We had moss lines…just run a line out, just hang it on it and let it dry. Once it’s dry you pick it up and bail it. Had a box made that was 12, 14 inches wide…it might a been three foot long, maybe three foot deep. You put you wire…you had a wire, go down, like over here, one over here, all the way around. And you put one thisaway. And we used to put that moss in there and get in there and jump on it. Just jump on it.

JD: Jump on it, pack it down.

The result was a bale of black moss varying in weight from 30 to 70 pounds depending on the size of the frame used to bale it and how much was put in. This bale would sell for between one cent and three cents a pound. If times were really hard, sometimes the buyer would just exchange the moss for food items without the intervening need for money.

The river is at 10.2 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, falling to 9.2 feet by mid-week. The Mississippi and Ohio are rising some way up north so we could hold about 9 or 10 feet for the next couple weeks.

Rise and Shine, Jim


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