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.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Pilgrimage to Bayou Chene

People do come up with good ideas. One such idea was that of making a pilgrimage to a place that has been empty of settlement for the last 60 years. Prior to the mid-1900s the location known as Bayou Chene was a vibrant, economically prosperous place deep in the Atchafalaya Basin, very deep. It housed farms and stores and churches and a post office. And to get there you had to go by boat, there was no other choice. At a certain period the boats that were popular, indeed almost universal, were the long, slim bateaux - a style still seen today powered by outboards. But in the last four or five decades of the life of Bayou Chene, there were no outboards. Instead, the boats had the first gasoline-powered marine inboard engines, most of them manufactured by Lockwood Ash in Michigan. These little engines (they were 2 ½, 4, 6 and 8 horsepower), provided the Basin residents with the first boats that did not have to rely on human power for propulsion. They were not fast but they were faster than a person with two oars, and that was more than enough for them to be immediately adopted by almost everyone needing to get around on the water in the Basin. You could always hear them coming. They either had one or two cylinders and every time the spark plug would fire and ignite the gasoline in a cylinder, you could clearly hear it. The resulting sound is reflected in the name that today adheres to these old boats: “put-put”.

So the trip was to be made using the old engines, not modern outboards, and this provided a sense of authenticity as well as making the time required to make the trip a realistic one. In keeping with the idea of pilgrimage, the boats were launched at a landing at Bayou Sorrel, on the east levee of the Atchafalaya Basin, a place that was once one of the primary entry points that led to Bayou Chene. Bayou Sorrel (the actual bayou) takes you about ten miles into the Basin until it joins the main channel of the Atchafalaya River. From there you turn upstream and go about five miles to the lower end of Bayou Chene on the left ascending bank of the river. It is once you enter “The Chene” as they call it, that imagination takes over to supply the scenery and human aspect of the long-ago occupation.

The idea for this trip was originated by a one-time resident (born there) of Bayou Chene, Mr. Ory Mendoza, who contacted the owners of the old motors and then organized a time and place. The time was May 22, 2010, and the gathering place for departure was to be his camp on the bayou across from the boat landing. On the morning of the trip, ten of the old boats showed up. The plan was to leave Bayou Sorrel and venture out to visit some of the old places on Bayou Chene. Three more boats came from across the Basin (the west side) to join the group on the Atchafalaya near Bayou Chene, also a trip of about 15 miles. This means that the interest in this trip (reenactment, if you will), spanned the Basin from side to side.

It took about two hours to travel the 15 miles, what with the faster boats (8 horsepower) keeping pace with the slower ones. Once the east and west groups met up, both proceeded to enter the lower end of what is left of Bayou Chene. It is now, at this point, that a little knowledge of the past and a willingness to allow your thoughts to drift in that direction, can build a vision that the current environment does not present. An awareness of what was once the main channel of the Atchafalaya River (for so Bayou Chene was before 1935), can put into perspective the Bayou Chene of today - a relatively small body of water that is being slowly crowded in from both sides by willow trees. Memory makes the bayou 80 feet deep, but current circumstances make its depth only nine feet even during moderately high water. In low water periods from June to December, most boats cannot enter the bayou from either its upper or lower ends. That is why we are doing this in May while there is still enough water to allow us in and out of the shallow bayou.

So you enter this emptied place. A practical mind will see a muddy bayou with willow trees on both sides, and human emptiness everywhere except for a few camps that some descendents of the original families still maintain. But a person who is willing to let the past overflow the present, that person might see a different scene along these banks. There (is) was a family living there, right there, perhaps 100 feet back from the bank. They have a farm nearby where they grow what we would call a truck garden today, and they have a pieux (picket) fence around the yard to keep the livestock from the kitchen garden. They have a porch and there is an old man in a rocking chair looking out at the bayou traffic, much as we would do now in a different scene. The woman comes out to the porch and yells to a neighbor across the bayou that the coffee is ready and to come over to do some quilting. A child chases a dog around the back of the house and out the back gate. The dog and the child have equal protection for their feet.

Down the bayou a little way there is a store where much of the commerce for the community takes place. Things that cannot be made by hand are available there, foodgoods and sewing supplies and gasoline for the little engines that almost always can be heard around you. Kerosene is what makes the days longer by holding back the night, and some of the people use it to cook with too. For baking, wood stoves are still used, and even for keeping premature babies alive until they can regulate their own body temperature. Sometimes the store might double as a place of casual ease if the items for sale include alcohol in some or all of its guises. And sometimes a local product would find its way into the store to compete with the fancy brands, and was usually preferred.

That lady will give birth soon but you can hardly tell, what with the layers of clothing intended to hide the situation. She knows of at least two midwives who will come over when called. She has eight other children and is not very concerned about the birth, though her husband is. As though to point out the other end of that cycle, the boat passing you pulls into the bank ahead and people get out of it carrying flowers. They walk over the bank and to a level place on the highest ground, where there are markers that have the names of those no longer here. Some of the markers are wooden, and some are made of concrete.

To memorialize the coming and goings of human souls, there are three churches on these banks. One is Catholic, ministered by Father Gobeil whose home parish is in Charenton, many miles away by boat. The Baptist mission is sponsored by Rev. Ira Marks. He chooses to build a school here too, and you can see it around the next bend. The Methodist mission is a good neighbor and helpful influence on The Chene. If not for our willingness to bring back the past, these things would be gone now.

It is morning, and over there people are getting into boats, some going up the bayou to where the timber is being cut, others with long coils of cotton line for the trotlines that feed their families or might produce fish to be offered for sale. As each engine starts with a turn of the flywheel, everyone knows who is going out because each boat makes a distinctive sound. A net fisherman looks toward the sounds as he stands on the bank beside a large tub of hot black tar that is steaming in the cool morning air. The fisherman lowers his net into it and then raises it, beating off the extra tar, before allowing the dipped net to cool. Without this the cotton net will rot very quickly, but with it he gets more time before he has to replace it. He and his wife knit new webbing almost every night by kerosene lamp, and the kids learn to do this too.

So, from Bayou Crook Chene, to Bayou Chene, to Bayou Jean Louis and Bayou de Plomb, the common factor is the sound of the little marine engines. You can hear it everywhere, daylight hours are seldom without it. And even though we have not moved away from these scenes we can relive with imagination, we have to come back to the present time, maybe a little reluctantly. But here too, and now, the sounds of the put-put boats are all around us thanks to the men and women who carry the tradition of the engines forward. We are floating on the narrowed waters of Bayou Chene but the boats and the sounds are still with us. And on this day, thanks to Ory Mendoza and his friends, there are 13 reminders of how it once was on Bayou Chene.

In addition to the boat belonging to Ory Mendoza, the other boat owners on this pilgrimage were: David Prejean, J.B. Castagnos, Tony Latiolais, Jerilyn Latiolais, Steve Allemand, Dana Mendoza, Jr., Wayne Morvant, Bob Legnon (+Dick Gibbens), Bill Garlington, John George, Tom Pierie, Tom Pierre, Jr. Riding herd in outboards were Justin Mendoza, Larry Larson and Gerald Clutre.

The Atchafalaya River stage is at 14.0 on the Butte La Rose gauge. It should remain there for about a week more. The Ohio and Mississippi are both pretty quiet. The crawfishermen get a little more time to bring in the bugs.

Rise and Shine, Jim