Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Essay by Donald W. Davis
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
Perception may become reality as oil percolates in our wetlands.
[Editor’s Note: Don Davis is a retired geography professor at LSU who has studied Louisiana’s wetlands and its people for more than 40 years. His new book, Washed Away: The Invisible Peoples of Louisiana’s Wetlands ($49.50, UL Lafayette Press), is an engaging account of the diverse ethnic groups who have fished, farmed, hunted and drilled this complex ecosystem for more than 200 years. The following essay is an exclusive for The Independent Weekly.]
Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are perhaps best described as a sea of grass, a landscape that cannot make up its mind whether it is going to be land or water. As a result, this topographic unit is only slightly above sea level. The landscape is so flat there are U.S. Geological Survey topographic sheets that do not have any contours greater than 5 feet. Superimposed on this geographic province are its people.
To the marsh dweller, this landscape is home and has been a settlement site for more than 200 years. In some cases, up to five generations have lived within five to 10 miles of their ancestors’ original settlement. To these people there is nothing better than sitting on the porch enjoying a sunrise and/or sunset and relaxing in “their” marsh. These wetland pioneers were self-sufficient, accustomed to hardships, fun-loving, gregarious, cooperative and affable. They earned their living from a fundamental understanding and relationship with the land, and the sea, and developed deep local attachments to their immediate realities. They accepted the difficulties of living at sea level as an annoyance and not something that would prompt them to leave their beloved marsh.
|A dead gannet washes up onshore on Elmer's Island.|
This near featureless landscape is the domicile to a broad cross-section of ethnic groups. Even so, the coastal lowlands are a landscape in which humans seem tiny and inconsequential. Their cultivated plots and settlements within this near sea-level green-fringe lands could be washed away in the blink of an eye. Hurricanes were the key annoyance. Even with this unannounced disruption to their lives, what evolved was a vast assortment of wetland-oriented communities founded by numerous ethnic minorities, representing a kaleidoscope of cultures, which mingled and fused together as marsh dwellers.
Unlike their Eastern Seaboard counterparts, who consciously avoided wetlands as settlement sites, early Louisianans considered it undesirable and unsafe to start a community where there were not adequate marshlands. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, pioneers were settling and exploiting the marshlands and adjudicating private land claims. These “wastelands” inhabitants often lived in villages or dwellings perched upon stilts over “semi-liquid soil” or on unsurveyed land that was open to settlement because of lingering confusion over titles and boundaries.
|An aerial view of Pass a Loutre in southern
Plaquemines Parish reveals a sheen of heavy oil.
To many of the state’s inhabitants, Louisiana’s working coast was an afterthought — little more than a surveyor’s nightmare. To these non-coastal settlers, the lasting achievements of humankind could only be established inland, beyond what was perceived as the danger zone. Consequently, for nearly all of Louisiana’s history, the marshes can be best described as “the forgotten landscape,” more a public nuisance that required corrective measures than a valuable environment. For more than 250 years Louisiana’s wetlands were considered a geographic province that should be converted to a more functional, purposeful landscape.
Well before governments decided that these lowlands should be made into something better, this forgotten land was settled in parts of North America, Europe, and other regions of the world. Following in the wake of Indian occupancy, European, African, and Pacific-rim immigrants (English, Portuguese, Norwegians, Swedes, Poles, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Danes, Americans, Scots, Malay, Philippine, Chinese, Italian, Cajun, Isleños, Blacks, Austrian/ Yugoslavian, German, Greek, Irish, Latin American, and American Indian) left their own distinct imprint on the marshes.
|Children on vacation from Rosedale walk
down Grand Isle's oil-contaminated beach.
It is clear that a surprisingly large and ethnically diverse population has historically lived in Louisiana’s wetlands that came to be labeled a “No Man’s Land,” in essence a forgotten human landscape. These resident trapper-hunter-fisher-folk collectively give a human face to the coastal lowlands that have traditionally been studied almost exclusively for their distinctive flora and fauna. Ultimately, each wetlands group has imprinted its respective territory with its own unique cultural values, in the process giving Louisiana’s near sea-level marshes its “personality.”
Most of these settlers were boat-minded people, who were a census taker’s nightmare. Even so, their communities are part of the marshlands’ human story. In such inaccessible, remote, and self-sufficient villages, everyone knew everybody else; there were no secrets in these close-knit communities. In these villages the family patriarch was born into a French-speaking family. He may have learned Spanish from his wife and picked up Slavic from “fishing” oysters. He sold his harvest to Italians and knew enough of their language to ensure he was getting fair market value for his bivalves. In addition, he understood enough Filipino to converse with the workers on one of the wetland’s shrimp-drying platforms, and by necessity learned English through assimilation.
This human mosaic was joined together by the eight economies: Agriculture (indigo, rice, cotton, sugarcane and cattle); fishing (shrimp, oysters and crab); trapping (muskrat, nutria and alligator); commercial hunting; government service (military, lighthouse keeper and refuge caretaker); industry (lumber, oil, natural gas, sulfur and menhaden processing); recreation (hunting, fishing and eco-tourism); and a combination of any one or all of these categories. The importance of each element of this octagon is directly related to the cultural practices and customs of each ethnic minority. Consequently, the cultural heritage and morphology of the marsh dwellers’ natural canvas has continuously changed and evolved, offering fresh challenges; nevertheless, the marsh became home to a highly diverse group of individuals making a living from the area’s renewable and nonrenewable resources.
|Before the spill: Anthony Kap, his mother Brenda Kap
and his stepfather Hong Hean in southern Plaquemines Parish,
making a living as fishermen.
In April 2010 the resolve of Louisiana’s marsh dwellers is disrupted by an oil spill that soon morphs into one of the world’s largest man-made disasters. Initially, there is minimal concern, as many of these folks have endured hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike and the small-scale oil spills associated with each weather event. This incident, however, is different. The spill is in deep water. The “tools” used to stop the gusher are ineffective, and the clock is ticking on the harvesting of shrimp and oysters. Many of these watermen have worked in the oil industry, and this spill is truly an unknown.
When the hydrocarbon industry arrived in the marshes in the early 20th century, the current watermen’s ancestors, for the first time, worked for wages. There was a symbiotic relationship between fishing and working on the rigs or captaining or manning a crew boat. They knew the industry, but this spill is different. There is no apparent end-point; it is a spill of biblical proportions. For the first time one segment of the marsh dwelling community is unemployed, as the oil spill interrupts its occupational cycle.
They are frustrated, and the longer the oil is floating to the surface and moving with the Gulf’s currents, it becomes clear the harvest of renewable resources is in jeopardy. In short, a lifestyle is awash in the effects of an uncontrolled oil spill. It is too early to tell, but a landscape of people may be terminated by an “event” that may alter the marshdwellers’ lifestyle and their beloved marshes. In the past, radical environmental change constituted just another complication to their lives. This event is infringing on their personal space, and they have no recourse but to watch and hope their coast somehow survives.
In the end, the coast is a people place, as they give this topographic element its significance. Otherwise, this landscape would not have any recognizable importance, other than aesthetic. The marsh dwellers are, therefore, the key factor in defining the geography of the lowlands. We can only hope the people prevail. If not, the marsh’s future as a people place may be bleak.
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