There’s an image of the bayou that’s common among us non-southerners, and it probably comes from popular music. We imagine a picturesque swamp, with Spanish moss hanging down to the water, alligators and cottonmouths everywhere, and small settlements randomly distributed throughout a trackless labyrinth of channels and backwaters, but where the exotic inhabitants enjoy great music, food and beer. This was certainly the image I had when Glen told me back in college that he had grown up in Cut Off, on Bayou LaFourche. It turns out that my misunderstanding of the bayou was in keeping with my general lack of knowledge of everything about Louisiana.
Bayous are actually the linear bodies of water which flow through (and organize) the low-lying coastal region along the Gulf. As in New Orleans, the highest land is usually along the waterway, as soil from upstream is deposited there. This natural feature combines with the cultural feature of how land tenure was set up in Louisiana – people owned a length of waterfront, and then had deep lots that ran back from the water. Later, these large parcels were sometimes subdivided, so you get the pattern you can see here in Cut Off – Bayou LaFourche in the center, a main road flanking it on each side, and then dead end roads perpendicular to those.
This way of making a linear settlement pattern has interesting consequences. When people got around mainly on the water, having a bayou in the middle of your town wasn’t a problem. But when cars became more dominant, frequent bridges became more necessary. But then a conflict arises with boats: the Gulf Coast has a few enormous bays and natural harbors, but otherwise doesn’t have the same frequent occurrence of small harbors, as in the northeast. The bayous are the long, linear harbors for the coast, so big ships frequently head up these small channels, as here in Lockport (which is over 40 miles from open water).
Another interesting consequence relates to cars – Glen said the car they own now in New Orleans is the first one he’s had with electric windows. When there’s a reasonable chance that the car you’re in might end up in the water, you want to make sure you can always roll those windows down.
We then went through Lockport, where an east-west canal intersects the bayou. The town bank was converted to a local history museum (Glen and Michelle designed the exhibits), and Glen asked me what style the building was. I had to say eclectic – it was a pretty sophisticated and amusing little building to find there – a late 19th century commercial building / castle with influences from Furness?
It’s the closest historical precedent I’ve come cross, although the freeboard is a lot less (better for hauling in the catch, worse for accommodations below) – so I’m afraid it’s a lot better-looking than my boat.
Glen’s mom had invited us to lunch at their family home, which was really enjoyable. She grew up in Cut Off, and has spent her whole life there, although being 90 she now sometimes stays in New Orleans with Glen and Michelle. I loved hearing about how Glen’s father built the house himself. It started out relatively small, but as the family grew he just added more rooms. One day when he was fishing in the Gulf he came across a floating section of wharf that had broken loose from someplace – which provided enough wood to build a new kitchen and dining room. Glen also mentioned that for about 20 years his dad had been working on a 40-foot fishing boat in the yard made out of old steel cisterns, which never got finished. I met Glen’s dad once in college, and now I realize how well we would have gotten along.
We saw a few other sights in Cut Off, but unfortunately the dance hall where Glen’s parents met had closed. (I remembered the stories he had told of that in college, of how every person in town, no matter what age, showed up there on Friday night for a dance.)
Glen’s mom told us that when she was young, the dirt road to Grande Isle ran on solid land all the way. Southern Louisiana is disappearing at the rate of 3 acres per hour – a combination of subsidence, the levees along the rivers and bayous keeping the particles in the water from replenishing the land, and climate change.
The causeway was built to service the new port at Fourchon. With the growth of the offshore oil rig industry, a deep water, larger port was needed, so Fourchon was enlarged to accommodate the shipping. It is the weirdest port I’ve ever seen – you can barely see the water. The access roads are lined with large commercial shipping facilities, and you can see the ships beyond, which appear to be stuck in the marshes. It is completely different from what I’m used to as a large harbor on either the east or west coasts, continuing my general disorientation that began as soon as we hit New Orleans.
We finally arrived at Grande Isle, a old resort town which is apparently the only Gulf beach in Louisiana which can be reached by a road. It’s been hit by many hurricanes and floods, and the new building type reflects this history (not many old buildings left):
As we stood on the beach looking at this scene, the insane irony of southern Louisiana was apparent. The oil and gas industry is the mainstay of the Louisiana economy, both these offshore rigs and refineries located up the Mississippi. The burning of fossil fuels is primarily responsible for climate change, and the rising of sea levels. This is already being seen locally, and the $350 million causeway was necessary to ensure that the traffic thats services the industry could still reach Fourchon as water levels rise and the land disappears, so the oil and gas could still be pumped. It’s a vicious circle that will play out until it just can’t work anymore, and the traditional landscape of the bayou will disappear, along with many other places. One of the themes of this trip has been the Climate-Change-Farewell-Tour; we haven’t been to a place yet where this has been more evident.