Because of levees built to protect people from flooding by the Mississippi and canals built by oil companies, large chunks of land the size of the island of Manhattan are disappearing every 10 months.
This is the land of John James Audubon, and the author saw firsthand enormous flocks of birds: pelicans, roseate spoonbills, ibis, and many more. More than 350 different species of birds call this area home, but not for much longer. The land they use for nesting as well as their food -- shrimp, crab, oysters and more -- is fast disappearing.
"We're sinking," a shrimper told Tidwell. "Dey say every twenty minutes or so, a football field of land turns to water in Louisiana."
Most of the land that's sinking is marshland, and without marsh, there is no shrimp. So the birds lose their source of food, and the Cajuns of Louisiana lose their livelihood, their land, and their way of life.
Tidwell went out shrimping and crabbing with the locals, encountering endearing characters like Tee Tim and his parents, Tim and Phyllis, Papoose, and Knuckles and Rose. Everywhere he went, people welcomed him, housed and fed him, sharing the little they had with him. "We're poor," Tim's wife, Phyllis, told him. "Sometimes when shrimp prices are high, we're middle class for a few months, but den we're poor again."
The Cajuns of the bayou are not in this business for the money. Whether it's oysters, crabs or shrimp, the life is hard, the living is not easy, and the returns are often just enough to survive. But they live off the land, or more precisely off the water, "de last of de Mohicans," to quote Tim.
For 7,000 years the Mississippi deposited silt along the banks of Louisiana, building rich alluvial land, until people decided to interfere with nature; the river now spills its rich sediment directly into the Gulf of Mexico.
Deprived of its replenishment, the bayou is sinking fast, destroying the ecosystem and the lives of countless Louisianans, not only Cajuns and native Houma Indians, but also the more recently arrived Vietnamese immigrants.
The worst part is that nobody outside of Louisiana is aware of the problem and, it seems, nobody cares. Unfortunately, Louisiana has been plagued since its inception by corrupt politicians, the most famous being "the Kingfish" Huey Long and the most recent, former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for extorting applicants for riverboat casino licenses while in office.
The locals seem apathetic about their plight and loath to lobby Congress and the federal government for help. They don't believe any of the money, even if any were allotted to help them, would ever make it down the line. It would end up, as usual, in the pockets of a few privileged politicians.
Mark Davis, a conservationist, told Tidwell that the loss of the bayou was "the greatest untold story in America." The more Tidwell saw, the more affected he became. The sense of urgency comes through in his writing, and through him we come to love the bayou and its people, and pray for their survival.
Father Pilola, a Catholic priest, told him, "What I love and admire about these people is how passionate they are about life. They eat, they drink, they enjoy themselves. It's a joie de vivre you just don't see anywhere. Most Cajuns are really content with their world and who they are and their work on the water. They're not trying to make a killing, a million dollars. They save plenty of time for family and church and good times."
As they say in Louisiana, "Laissez les bon temps rouler" -- let the good times roll. But this joie de vivre, this zest for life is now tinged with bitterness as Cajuns see their land, their livelihood and their culture disappearing.
Can anything be done? Yes, but Tidwell warns it has to be done fast and it will be expensive: $14 billion. On the other hand, if nothing is done it will mean losses of $100 billion in jobs, infrastructure, fishing, wildlife, and increased damage from hurricanes, according to a report called "Coast 2050: Toward a Sustainable Coastal Louisiana."
Kerry St. Pé, a conservationist and marine biologist who grew up in the bayou south of New Orleans, spent his childhood exploring the marshes and cataloguing every living thing in it. "My dad used to say we never could keep a glass jar inside our house because of all the pets I made out of turtles and frogs and minnows and crabs."
He, more than anyone else, understands the gravity and the urgency of the situation. His most important targets were the oil companies, and he won a major battle when he was able to demonstrate that their common practice of dumping toxic brine was killing the marsh. The practice was banned the year his report was made public. But there's still a lot more to be done. St. Pé took Tidwell up in a small airplane, the better to see the devastation to the coast. As the pilot joked, "You better hurry!" They fly over some expanses of gold-green grassy areas, but the majority of the land is broken up into clumps and tufts surrounded by water, with bleached and blackened trunks of dead trees protruding from their watery grave. Everywhere he went, Tidwell saw telephone poles sticking up out of the water, and entire cemeteries floating away. To quote St. Pé, "A complete waste of a God-given gift."
The author points out that the Florida Everglades, deservedly, received $8 billion in federal aid when that area was threatened, and the city of Boston, deservedly or not, $14 billion to build an underground highway (known as "the Big Dig"). But there is very little national awareness of the disaster looming in Louisiana. As Tidwell says, unlike manatees, wolves and grizzlies, "shrimp and muskrat simply don't make sexy calendar covers at fund-raising time."
As well as going out with the local fishermen, Tidwell spent time with a local healer, Lawrence "King Coon" Billiot, a French-speaking Native American. This "traiteur," or healer, spends his time curing people along the bayou for free. Along with herbal remedies and direct touch, a kind of gentle chiropractic manipulation, Lawrence also uses smoke -- a traditional Native American tool -- and prayer. The skeptical Tidwell had been suffering from chronic back pain and had tried everything: osteopaths, acupuncture, pills, chiropractors, and reiki. Nothing seemed to help.
Lawrence, to Tidwell's amusement, gently turned his head from right to left and back again, gave him a hug and a squeeze, chanted some prayer and told him, "Just leave all your back pain here wit' me. It's mine now." Amazingly, it worked.
Tidwell also managed to speak to members of the Vietnamese community, who mostly keep to themselves. Hardworking refugees, they also stand to lose their land and livelihood, all over again.
Like Tidwell, readers will not want to leave the bayou, at least, not without assurances that it will still be there when we visit again.
"My travels along the coast are almost over, and the sadness that comes at the end of any meaningful journey is now compounded by the very real possibility that I will never pass this way again. Not because I don't want to, but because the place won't exist. It might be gone. In all my travels around the world I've never even imagined such a place could exist. The traveler is supposed to go away, not the destination."
Is anything being done at this time to save the Louisiana coast? A small part of the rescue package has been implemented. An artificial diversion of the Mississippi, 23 miles upriver from New Orleans, has been completed. It is expected to preserve 33,000 acres of marshland. But, much more is needed, and quickly, before it is too late. And in this case, prayer and smoke alone won't help.
Tidwell is a well-known travel writer and the author of four books. He is the recipient of an NEA fellowship and two Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism. A native of Tennessee, on the banks of the Mississippi, he now lives in the Washington D.C. area.
(Pantheon, $23.00, 348 pages.)
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