When a writer from back East prepared to board a small plane in Houma to get a bird’s-eye view of the marshes and barrier islands of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, his guide told pilot Bruce Stamey that he intended to write a book on Louisiana’s coastal land loss.
“You better hurry!” the pilot warned him.
Fortunately, Mike Tidwell took that advice and managed to publish “Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast” before southeastern Louisiana’s ever-diminishing coastal marshes wash away altogether.
The crisis is nothing new to us, of course. Whenever we go fishing, we see open water where some coastline used to be. Every January, we drag our Christmas trees out to the curb so they can be recycled into underwater sediment traps in bays and abandoned canals. Every time Louisiana officials update the state map, we see that Plaquemines and Terrebonne parishes have given up more and more land to the Gulf of Mexico.
And as goes the marsh, so go Louisiana’s fisheries. If the land loss — now up to 25 square miles per year — continues, the long-term impact could be the eventual decimation of our seafood industry. It’s that serious.
Commercial and sport fishers have bemoaned the situation, as have bayou-bred environmentalists like Windell Curole and Kerry St. Pé. Local journalists have told the story. Elected officials have paid it extensive lip service. But as real as the crisis is, it has yet to blip on the national radar.
Maybe Mike Tidwell can do something about that.
“While Louisiana’s coast continues to implode, creating the fastest-disappearing land mass on earth, the story of its demise remains stubbornly unknown to most Americans, ” he writes.
In “Bayou Farewell, ” he puts forth a compelling argument: Louisiana’s vanishing coastal wetlands are not a local problem but an American calamity of the first order. At risk is the very balance of nature here, for the marshes provide vital breeding areas for Louisiana’s shrimp and crabs, which in turn support indigenous species of fish and birds and bayou Cajuns, for whom shrimping and crabbing are both a livelihood and a central part of their culture.
To make his case, Tidwell rounds up the usual suspects: saltwater intrusion from oil field canals, soil subsidence, global warming and, most significantly, the long-term loss of replenishing nutrients from Mississippi River floodwaters now contained by the river’s levee system.
Tidwell is an environmental activist at heart, but he didn’t win acclaim as a freelance travel writer and author of five previous books by scaring away readers with stultifying scientific treatises. He knows how to tell a good story, and he tells this one, smartly, from the decks and wheelhouses of shrimp boats plying the waters of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and the Gulf of Mexico.
The staggering facts and figures rattled off by hydrologists and environmental experts pale in comparison to the real-life impact experienced by men like Papoose Ledet and Terry Luke and Big Wayne Belanger, shrimpers and crabbers who have worked Louisiana’s coastal waters for years, like their fathers and uncles before them, and are seeing this sea change for themselves.
Consider this observation from an encounter with crabber Tim Melancon Jr. of Leeville:
” ‘When I was a kid, ‘ Tee Tim says, ‘I remember this canal being so much smaller that you could land your boat on solid ground right over there where that dead tree is.’ He points, again with the (crab-sorting) tongs, to a rotting, limbless trunk just up the canal. It’s in open water, fifty feet from the bank.
“More than the sight of the tree, it’s those five simple words that amaze me: ‘When I was a kid . . .’ It makes Tee Tim sound like an old man looking back on a long lifetime. In reality he’s seventeen, looking back maybe 10 years. It’s happening that fast.”
Tidwell hitch-hiked up and down the bayous and in and out of the gulf on shrimp boats, skiffs and crew boats to see for himself the world of the Louisiana coastal marshes through the eyes of those who live and work there. The experience provided him great fodder for tales of shrimpers, traiteurs and other bayou folk.
But in the background, always, is the looming threat that their landscape, and by extension their way of life, is approaching the point of no return.
While capturing the curious character of the Cajuns living in relative isolation at the ends of the roads and bayous, he doesn’t miss the irony that they could be staring down another expulsion from their homeland, much like that experienced by their Acadian ancestors in Nova Scotia 250 years ago, except that this time it could happen because their homeland literally washes away.
Tidwell has done his homework where it matters most. This is a remarkable work, one that should be read by every Louisiana resident and read twice by members of Congress and the state Legislature. If Tidwell finds the national audience he’s looking for, so much the better for all of us.
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Originally published in The Times-Picayune, March 16, 2003.
THE RICH LIFE AND TRAGIC DEATH OF LOUISIANA’S CAJUN COAST
By Mike Tidwell