- Historic Sites
With astonishing tenacity, the people of the rich river-mouth region of the Mississippi have remained what and where they are through two and a half centuries
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Just a few decades more, or so we are told, and the process of the homogenization of America will have been completed. All regional personalities will have been sanitized out of existence, and the national culture will be a bland, predictable, and packaged product. Probably this is not a prospect we need immediately contemplate. This is a hell of a big country, as the poet Charles Olson said, and it will take considerably more time and enterprise before it can be so reduced. Here and there, you can still find places that have remained faithful to themselves, places where the past has been preserved so that it seems to well up around you. In such places, admittedly fewer by the year, there is a sense, strong as a voice and conveyed even to the visitor, that something has happened here.
The Barataria region that lies south of New Orleans and west of the Mississippi is one such place. Cut off from a wider world on all sides by wetlands, bayous, lakes, bays, and at last by the great Gulf of Mexico itself, the region still gives the visitor that sense of haunted isolation and perilous tenacity felt a hundred years ago by Lafcadio Hearn when he came down from New Orleans to visit the storied islands, Grand Isle and Grand Terre. Hearn wrote then of the “feeling of lonesomeness that is a fear, a feeling of isolation from the world of men—totally unlike that sense of solitude which haunts one in the silence of mountain-heights or amid the eternal tumult of lofty granitic coasts: a sense of helpless insecurity. The land seems but an undulation of the sea-bed: its highest ridges do not rise more than the height of a man above the salines on either side—the salines themselves lie almost level with the level of the flood tides; and the tides are variable, treacherous, mysterious.” In such a region people do not think too readily of mobility or of radically altering things, for the power of nature to dispose and dictate is too close, and there are constant reminders of it.
But there are few visual reminders of the past other than geography, for the Baratarians are subjects of both the Mississippi delta and the Gulf of Mexico. The one rots and buries beneath deposits and floods; the other tears up and sweeps away in winds and waves. So, much of what was lies beneath what is, and much more has been consumed by the gulf. Yet the Baratarians have remained what and where they are through two and a half centuries of time, nature, and history, surviving always the newest forces of change, adding to themselves through that survival. Their names are those of the earliest settlers, their customs accretions of all that has happened there. Atop the marshy midden of their past, they keep all of it much in mind.
The heart of Barataria lies in its islands, Grand Isle and Grand Terre. Farthest from New Orleans, exposed to the Gulf, and guarding entrance to the region, they have attracted fishermen, pirates, plantation owners, resort and oil entrepreneurs, as well as writers, artists, and naturalists. Until very recently there was but one way to get there: boat. No roads led down the Mississippi to their proximity, nor did any on the west side of Barataria Bay, where the land mass stretches almost within reach of Grand Isle. You had to take a lugger or a cut-down steamer downriver a bit from New Orleans and then swing off into one of the channels that fed into Lake Salvador. From there you sailed—or scraped if by steamer—down through a bewildering tatter of islands, swamps, bays, and passes, gradually leaving behind the rice fields and sugar plantations and entering the semiaquatic world of the Baratarians: cypress groves, quaking prairies of water plants and grasses, tiny uninhabitable chénières—shell mounds rising just above the water and foliaged by dwarfish oaks. On the larger ones there were fishing villages of palmetto and cypress huts, built after the fashion of the aborigines, and in these a wonderfully mixed population of Malays, Chinese, French, and Spanish. At last the whispers of wind in your face grew steadier, the bay brightened and yawned, and at its mouth lay Grand Isle and Grand Terre.
There is still no way to get there by road down the east side of the bay, but there is now a circuitous route that takes a wide westward arc from New Orleans and then follows Bayou Lafourche to Caminada Pass, where a bridge now connects Grand Isle with the mainland.
You exit New Orleans over the Huey Long Bridge. On the other side the special geography begins with the built-up road bed that runs between the swamplands. In the ditches families stand with nets and poles and buckets of bloody bait going after crawfish. At Raceland you turn southeast, and a few miles farther a roadside store sign tells you that this is not Howard Johnson country: JUMBO POBOYS BOUDIN HOME MADE HOG HEAD FILÉ CRACKLIN. Inside are these distinctly local items and also machetes, tackle, turtle meat, and talk in lilting Cajun about beer, parties, and fishing.
From here down you increasingly feel the presence of the delta and the unseen gulf, the land lying low and submissive under its cover of fresh marsh vegetation: maiden cane, alligator weed, bull tongue, pickerelweed, and water hyacinth. Across the bayou are scattered tough, craggy cypresses dripping moss. The little towns of Lockport, Larose, Cut Off, Galliano, and Golden Meadow are still primarily bayou fishing towns.