Land’s End

The following is an excerpt from The Amazing Crawfish Boat, which examines how people in south Louisiana think about the relationship between land and water and, in the process, come up with wonderfully creative solutions. With the Flood of 2016, it’s a useful reminder of what people empowered to solve things locally can actually come up with larger, global solutions.

This all started with the storms. In 2005, residents of Louisiana found themselves struck first by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and then struck by the national debate that followed. The physical storms drove people from their homes, the discursive storms drove many more to despair. As residents watched for news of what was happening all around them, they were also privy to what others were saying about them, to the questions they were asking: Why did people stay? Why did they build there in the first place? Why would they want to re-build there?

More than anything, the questions were about land. What was land and what wasn’t land. It makes no sense, many argued, to build, or re-build, a city, on land so, well, not land. The consensus seemed to be: too much water, too little land, too much risk. Even two years later, reporting on the state of things in New Orleans, National Geographic seemed to sum up the national consensus that emerged in the post-storm moment and had consolidated into a kind of truism with its lede to to a story on the second anniversary of the storms:

The sinking city faces rising seas and stronger hurricanes, protected only by dwindling wetlands and flawed levees. Yet people are trickling back to the place they call home, rebuilding in harm’s way. (Bourne 33)

Those five adjective-noun pairs — “sinking city,” “rising seas,” “stronger hurricanes,” “dwindling wetlands,” “flawed levees” — build to a kind of apocalyptic inevitability that underlines the absurdity, and undermines the actuality, of living on what is clearly for outside observers a frightening landscape. Residents were, after all, “rebuilding in harm’s way.” It was as if they were residents of Tokyo foolishly putting buildings back up after Godzilla’s latest rampage.

More than anything else, it was the debate over the landscape, the very state of the land on which the state itself was built, that caught my attention. There seemed an enormous divide between the perception of non-residents and the perception of residents. Where one group seemed terrified by the ambiguity of land that was both wet and dry, the other seemed either to accept the ambiguity or to gravitate to the possibilities.

It reminded me of a rather bizarre psychological experiment that I had once read about that claimed to prove that human origins on the African savannah were to be found in the response of contemporary humans to certain environments. Testing hundreds of subjects by showing them images of various kinds of landscapes and asking them to give various kinds of responses to what they saw, the study argued that there are universal responses to environments. When shown pictures of meadows, test subjects reported feeling happy and talked about walking through the meadow. When shown pictures of swamps, however, participants felt anxious, depressed even. I remembered reading the study’s report and digging in the notes to discover who had been polled. Sure enough, the subjects were all drawn from the same urban environment, in the Northeast I believe, in which the psychologist himself lived and worked. No wonder, I sighed. What do those people even know about marshes and swamps? My father may not know much about meadows, but put him in a boat in the middle of a swamp with enough cold drinks and snacks to get him through an afternoon, and he is happy as can be, no matter whether any fish get caught or not.

Even from such anecdotal evidence, it seemed obvious to me that the landscapes which one inhabits have a significant role in shaping how you understand not only your own landscape but those of others. Having grown up in Louisiana and later lived in other parts of the country, the differences in possible perspectives was not lost on me. I remembered all too well when I first moved to southern Indiana to go to school. One of the first things that greeted me, delighted and baffled me, was the journeys one could take through the earth itself. Roads rolled up and down hillsides, but then, faced with too sharp an incline or too curved a path, they just cut right through the landscape, and I found myself driving through great arcs of limestone. Every semester, geology students would gather in these cuts, and while others traveled from one town to another, they would travel millions of years back in time, back to life’s origins in the cretaceous and oolitic periods.

Seeing those great rifts in the earth, I remembered overhearing conversations among neighbors about basements for buildings that could not be completed because they had struck bedrock. Growing up in Louisiana, I had never imagined bedrock was anything more than a metaphor. It was as unreal to me as the doornails to which the dead are so often compared. Bedrock was a part of the landscape which could not be transformed, which for a boy from south Louisiana is both a mystery and something of an idyll. Having gotten stuck in my fair share of mud holes that looked more solid than they were and having come close to stepping into water so covered in duckweed or water hyacinth that it looked like an extension of the land which it bordered, I had always thought of land as fundamentally ambiguous.

Louisiana’s Topography

It made me realize that, on a map, Louisiana looks like a capital L. The southward stroke starts broad reaching from Shreveport through Monroe to Tallulah, narrowing as it sweeps past Alexandria. The eastward stroke seems almost equally wide as the one before it, but looks can deceive: our letter is not as solid as it appears. Nor is it as plain. Instead, it is elaborate, fringed with cheniéres and ancient levees reaching out into the Gulf of Mexico. None of this is obvious to the casual eye surveying a map. But to those who live there, or who have traveled there, there is a vivid sense of how tightly Louisiana Highway 1 hugs Bayou Lafourche as it makes its way to Grand Isle. Sometimes the shoulder is as narrow as a teenager’s on his first date. The same is true of any number of roadways reaching as far down as they can from the coastal prairie land into the gulf itself: highways and waterways wrestle each other for right of way, pride of path.

But as the National Geographic article made clear, reflecting a larger national discourse, such a landscape is alien, and alienating, to many. Too much water mixed up with the land.

The most common misconception of south Louisiana is that much of it is naturally occurring wetland. Even sensitive observers can miss the truth. Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his youth criss-crossing the country with his father, recording songs and melodies that they both feared would soon be lost forever in the face of the onslaught of commercial music. His exposure to an earlier American landscape made it possible for Lomax to return again and again to places he knew were rich in intelligence and beauty that other observers might overlook. His commitment and the wealth of materials he made available inspired many, including myself. He spent considerable time in Louisiana at various moments during those tours, and it was only natural that later, when he embarked upon his series of documentaries celebrating what he called “America’s patchwork culture,” he would return to Louisiana, marking his time there with not one but two out of the five films: one on jazz in New Orleans and one set in what is commonly known as “Cajun country.”

The latter films is in fact titled Cajun Country, and it begins by first introducing you to a number of musicians, like Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee and Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. Lomax gives a quick version of the usual history of the area and announces to his viewer that the film’s subtitle is drawn from an old Cajun saying, “Ne lache pas la palate” (Don’t drop the potato), which is a local saying sometimes still heard to remind someone to hold onto the things that matter. As if seeking to ground his discussion in the landscape which provided the proverbial potato, Lomax plunges the viewer onto a fog-darkened road. Two signs creep past the camera. The first says “Mamou 18” and the next “Soileau.” Mamou and Soileau are places, one gathers, somehow to be founded in this misty, mythical land. Strange sounding places, but places nevertheless. You’re in one, Soileau, and you’re headed toward the other, Mamou. Lomax confides to the viewer: “I want to share with you one of my most extraordinary experiences: driving down a misty road, past shining silver marshes that are so typical of that area. Of course, it’s all low-lying. You’re always draining water so you can farm. It’s a rice area.”

There is no marsh between Soileau and Mamou. It’s a rather high part of the larger prairie system, about seventy feet above sea level in Soileau, that, as you follow the highway, plunges down to a mere thirty feet above sea level when you cross the Bayou Nezpiqué, and then slowly climbs again to around sixty feet as you drive the remaining miles to Mamou. Such changes in elevation do not reveal a striking topography, but, rather, a more gentle one, one requiring some time to come to see its rounded ridges and soft swales. The road ahead in the film is indeed misty, and much of the landscape as one travels around south Louisiana looks like what is seen through the lens of the camera: roads curve and bend to follow bayous and rivers. At other times, they cut straight across a landscape which everywhere seems to be inundated with water. In the summer, especially, grassy rice stems crowd the water, making the fields look a lot like marshes to an untrained eye.

But it isn’t marsh, it’s prairie. Buffalo once roamed here, later replaced by herds of cattle when Cajuns ranched the area, and, now, a range of descendants of Cajuns and Germans farm rice, soybeans, and crawfish. Many of the farmers insist that the land is not good for much more than that because the top soil is so thin: in some places it is only a few inches deep. Beneath it is a tough clay pan that is impermeable to almost everything: water holds on it or runs off, trees have a hard time rooting in it.

View of the route Alan Lomax took to get from Soileau to Mamou and the changes in elevation he experienced without necessarily realizing it.

Like many visitors to Louisiana, Lomax was not there to see the land. The fields he describes as marshes were mere backdrops for what he is really there to see: the “bedecked riders” of the courir de Mardi Gras, which is sometimes called the country Mardi Gras, or the Cajun country Mardi Gras — though it is also practiced in some Creole communities as well. (There is a Creole one in Soileau, for example.) Any Louisiana Mardi Gras, no matter whether city or country, is spectacular. That is its job.

The spectacular nature can consume and confuse people, as folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has observed[1]. They think that that is all there is to see. Were one to try to compile an image of the state from its many representations in both fictional genres like novels and films as well as nonfictional genres like journalistic accounts and documentaries, two things seem to be intertwined: Louisiana residents seem to live in a perpetual party and if they don’t live either along a street in New Orleans or a plantation along a bayou, then they live in the swamp. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a film set in Louisiana that didn’t involve New Orleans, carnival, or alligators slipping ominously into dark, murky waters? In virtual Louisiana, there is no northern part of the state which joins with the rest of the south. There are no ordinary people living in suburban ranch homes with quaint, brick facades. Instead, everyone lives in a somewhat dilapidated — maybe careworn is the word that appears in scripts — wooden shack. They speak with an accent you haven’t otherwise heard. If they’re not drunk, then they are probably involved in some odd, religious practice which produces a similar altered mental state.

Many of these frequently occurring representations of Louisiana can be glimpsed in a film like Southern Comfort, which features a band of English-speaking National Guardsmen fighting to survive a gauntlet of Cajun hunters whose pirogues, of all things, they have stolen. The resemblance to the previous decade’s Deliverance are pretty overwhelming, with toothless, sodomitic mountain men being replaced by French-speaking, swamp dwellers who also know how to throw a good party, albeit one of the creepiest parties you’ll ever see, with happy folk music playing as the two remaining heroes circle through a hunting camp, trying to kill their two remaining pursuers. The camp itself is, of course, located in the swamp and as people stomp inside one tin metal shanty, our heroes wander among men boiling crawfish and slaughtering enough pigs to feed a small town.

The film repeats common notions that reveal more about outside anxieties about Louisiana and its people than anything about the place itself. Its 1981 release must have quickened the resolve of the two young scholars, Ancelet and historian Carl Brasseaux, who had set out to try to undo some of the stereotypes. Joined by others in a research program that, under the auspices of the Center for Louisiana Studies, was ambitious in its depth and range, Ancelet and Brasseaux focused their efforts principally in giving the Cajuns and Cajun culture a proper history, with Ancelet focusing on collecting forms of expressive culture and Brasseaux seeking to establish the actual history of a group that had largely come to be imagined as Louisiana’s alternative other: not black, but still similarly stigmatized.[2]

What the Cajun studies scholars wanted was an acknowledgement of the contribution of the communities who had, acting through the dynamic, and durable, fabric that only a collective of individuals can have, survived the crush of modernity and, in doing so, transformed Louisiana into a “folklore land.”[3] Many of these communities existed then, and continue to exist in the present, at the fringes of the usual economies. Some of them seemed almost anti-modern in their attitude, seeking to maintain ways of living that emphasized family and community over individual opportunity. This is not universally true for any of the groups, but it is somewhat ironic that the groups which were usually seen as most troublesome when it came to certain political and institutional notions of progress are now the ones for which the southern region of the state is most known.

Like other folk groups in other parts of the country, and the world, Cajuns and Creoles are closely tied to the land in the imaginations of others — be they tourists or journalists or filmmakers. And so it was perhaps inevitable that identifiably strange groups as these were tied to the identifiably strange parts of the Louisiana landscape. And so despite historical research that has established that most Cajuns, something like ninety percent, lived, and continue to live, on fairly ordinary landscapes consisting of fields and rivers or, increasingly in the present, in tidy suburban homes in towns and cities of all sizes, we continue to pair the two.

Such a pairing, by naturalizing people to a landscape, relieves us of the burden of asking how people got there, what they do there, and what they think of the there in which they happen to be. Perhaps just as significantly, by identifying a people with a landscape we also obscure who else happens to be on the landscape. And while it may come as no surprise that African Americans represent a significant portion of the population settled among Louisiana’s bayous, prairies, and towns, it is also the case that there are a surprising number of German families whose history in the region dates back only a little over a hundred years.

Many of the Germans, it has long been assumed, were slowly enculturated into the extant ethnic groups, much like what had happened along the Mississippi in the colonial era. But the Germans who had settled among the prairies and who had come in the aftermath of the Civil War arrived in a region undergoing, in some fashion or another, substantial changes in work force dynamics, to say the least. And it was in this moment that the Louisiana commercial rice industry emerged. It is clear that thanks to both of the World Wars that there was considerable pressure, both official and unofficial as well as internal and external, to Americanize, but much of that acculturation would have focused on matters of language. And I think this is where it gets interesting: like the Cajuns before them, observers have largely focused on the verbal and musical expressions of a group as the lens onto their worldview. If there have been material artifacts included in surveys of folk culture, they have been handmade objects like quilts and pots and, occasionally, houses.

The graceful, curved lines of rice elds, especially of the internal levees that separate one cut from another, reveal the shape of the changing topography of the landscape that perhaps can only be known when you are trying to make things level.

But what about the land itself? We use the word agriculture all the time, and yet those who study culture rarely think to, well, think about those agricultural practices as cultural practices, unless of course we are watching someone cut wheat by hand or work a field with a plow pulled by a horse or ox. Is it because, at least on the American landscape, agriculture is so far from us? Even in a city like Lafayette, where a half hour drive from city center can put you in the countryside among fields of sugar cane, rice, or soybeans, one rarely thinks about what is happening out there. To some degree, this limited view we have is a function of the powerful technology now available to farmers, such that one doesn’t drive past fields filled with people planting or cultivating or harvesting. Instead, one occasionally glimpses a large tractor roaming around an otherwise empty field.

But does the difference between a field full of people and one tractor make the process any less cultural? At the heart of that tractor is a human mind, and that mind is working the field in a way taught to him by his father and his neighbors, and his work will be evaluated by neighbors and by knowing passersby who will direct comments his way wherever farmers gather: at feed and seed stores during planting, at equipment dealers and repair shops during the working season, at mills during harvest, and at bank dinners, agricultural center field days, and churches during slower times of the year.

No, the farmer is never alone. Whether he is riding high up in the cab of a tractor or circling yet another field in his pickup truck, he is constantly assessing the state of things, and possible vectors into the future, based on his own experiences as well as the received wisdom of others. While a number of farmers with whom I spoke either possessed university degrees or had attended college for a time and while many regularly attended field days at the local research station and workshops hosted by various agencies, their day-to-day workings were based on the rhythms they themselves had developed from countless rides with a parent in a tractor on school afternoons, and later tedious hours spent doing things for reasons they didn’t at the time understand. This is how farm work enters the body. Slowly, accompanied by aches and bruises and the occasional cut or gash. The aches come from bouncing in the cab of a tractor or bouncing in the cab of a truck for hours at a time; the bruises and cuts come from wrestling a reluctant piece of gear into place and then having it suddenly snap into place — in such moments, bruises are welcome, since no flesh is left behind.

Intimacy is, perhaps, not the metaphor one expects to find when describing the relationship between working men, large machines, and the earth. But anyone who imagines anything otherwise is far wrong in their assumptions about the nature of this work as to be perplexing to the farmers themselves. Of course, they care for the land. It is the source of their livelihood. It pains them to see land poorly managed. Most farmers in this part of the world own only a minority of the land they work, and more than anything they prefer to rent land from owners who love it as they do. Sure, indifferent owners will leave them to their own, but it also means that they have done so in the past, which means that the land now in their care will need extra attention, if only because they don’t want the land to wreck their machines, which can happen if a plow strikes a stray pipe or large piece of concrete.[4]

Most farmers don’t mind the extra time they have to spend, it quite gives them a chance to get a feel, quite literally, for the lay of the land. Far from imagining the land as either wet or dry, they imagine it as a series of fields divided into cuts. Each cut has its own topography of “hills” and “holes” which will make flooding the field or holding rain water a winning or losing proposition. They will spend hours and hours driving around in a field, pulling a plow or a level, trying to get a sense of a field. Each bounce of their seat, each strain of the engine, puts them in immediate, intimate contact with the land beneath their feet in a way that most cannot imagine. A car striking a pothole while driving down a street is analogous, but few drivers will circle back to go over the pothole again and again, trying not only to determine its precise shape and size but also the best way to repair it. Instead, if the pothole enters the mind at all, it is as an object of irritation, an object that does something to us, to our car. It is not something we act upon, but something that acts upon us. Our response is not to consider its repair, but to defer its maintenance to someone else.

The relationship between humans and land, then, is not only intimate and immediate but it is also active. The eye that roves over fields is part of the body that feels for hills and holes with the tools at hand. The tools themselves are not inert implements but powerful machines, tractors with horsepower ranging in the middle hundreds in many instances, pulling plows, levels, or cultivators thirty feed wide or more. And these devices themselves are made up of rotating disks or blades that move up and down both in response to the earth itself but also in response to adjustments made by lever in the cab and transmitted to the equipment through hydraulic lines.

It is this active imagination that deserves discovery, an imagination that ignores passive distinctions like whether land is wet or dry for active ones like pumping water on or pumping water off. And it is in the fields where water has been pumped on, flooded up for rice and for crawfish, that we find boats that not only easily navigated a field land which had once been dry but now was wet but also leave a field behind, rolling up and out, onto a waiting road.

If, for the rest of us, there is some lingering concern about contamination, that land made wet cannot ever be trusted as land again, then the people living in south Louisiana do not share it: the crawfish boat is the nonpareil of an imagination that is not anxious about the transmutation of land and water. Wetlands are drained. Prairies are flooded. And then drained. And then flooded again. A rolling landscape is terraced to hold rice and crawfish and low-lying fields are leveed to graze cattle.

Most importantly, an amphibious vehicle has arisen to allow farmers to become trappers, catching crustaceans that feast on last year’s crop and selling them to an ever-expanding market. Within this ecosystem exists a machine that fully participates not only in the natural landscape but also in the cultural landscape. There are, for example, no patents on any part of the crawfish boat. This is not because the men who make them are not fierce competitors, nor is it because they are unaware of intellectual property laws or contemporary trends in patents and copyrights. In addition to his boat business, Kurt Venable mills a variety of custom parts for other manufacturers using his own CAM system. Gerard Olinger orders parts from his shop in the middle of Roberts Cove via his satellite service. Both of them are fully aware of the full force of the contemporary legal apparatus surrounding technology. On more than one occasion, Olinger has remarked that local fabricators always fill niches perceived as too small or unprofitable by large manufacturers. Both of these men, and any of the others, are fully capable of pursuing the legal steps necessary to mark some facet or another of the crawfish boat as belonging exclusively to him.

And yet no one does. As far as each maker is concerned, their reputations as builders, and the reputations of their boats — obviously, the two are intertwined — are well known throughout the community. Venable prides himself on making the strongest hulls, Richard on flexible hulls, Olinger on his dual-wheel drives. Each has also borrowed ideas from the others. Such borrowing is not always from direct observation but can often be in the form of indirect reporting: a farmer admires something on another farmer’s boat and then requests that a maker add that to his own boat. Sometimes the addition catches on more broadly; sometimes the logic of the addition or emendation is obvious to the maker in a way that leads to further innovation.

Creativity draws from the deep well of common knowledge and individual experience. Farming, like any other domain, presents a series of problems to be solved, but how those problems are solved are largely determined by how they are framed or understood, and that understanding is itself a function of individual and collective experiences that are constantly being negotiated not only in terms of content but also in terms of context. Thus, the framework for any solution, and thus the solution itself, is really a function of which individuals within a community are involved, which individuals have contributed, and who has accepted their contribution.

Each of the individuals in a community has to be understood as someone not only with particular abilities and self-perceived roles — only a farmer, a farmer who occasionally fabricates something when he needs it, a farmer who actively fabricates for himself and others, a fabricator who farms, or strictly a fabricator — but also in term of personal proclivities. For example, one fabricator is a tinker by personality, another is a born competitor and must win in whatever domain he enters, and yet another is raconteur of exceptional abilities. Together they make up not a homogeneous community, not even a cohesive one, but rather a loose network of individuals who, through their presence, maintain a network of ideas that have evolved over time. Those ideas are, of course, situated in a value matrix that has remained fairly stable for at least three decades, and it is reasonable to assume the stability extends further back in time.

It is an ecology, and there could be no more striking example of the creativity of such an ecology than a modern metal machine gracefully wending its way through the water to the clatter of its small bore engine and then lunging itself onto dry land, where it blithely rolls down the road to the next bit of water. This complex story of simultaneous invention and diffuse experimentation is itself set in a larger, unfolding social and economic matrix which is at the heart of modern American farming, where farm subsidies and price supports for crops are part of growing rice and but not of trapping crawfish.

The crawfish boat is an artifact born of modernity, but it realizes a number of traditional ideas within its various contexts. Traced through these various contexts, the artifact, be it a story or a boat, reveals it is always more than a thing. It always expresses something about the individual who made it and the individual who uses it. When those two individuals are part of a larger group with shared ideas, the artifact cannot help but express something of that culture as well as the landscape on which the group resides and the artifact operates. It is the peculiar charm of the crawfish boat that its destiny was to be born of an ambiguous landscape. Its mobility no matter the circumstance allows us a glimpse into how creativity has been practiced in a particular place at a particular moment in time. Perhaps no more, but certainly no less.

To understand the minds of these makers, we must first understand the landscape on which they work, followed by an examination of one particular set of mechanics, hydraulics, with which they approach problems. With the landscape and machines before us, we are prepared to glimpse the birth of the crawfish boat as it slowly develops into its current shape. That development is a function of men operating in loose networks of both discursive and material exchange that overlap and change shape over the course of the boat’s thirty-year history. Our understanding will be based on a close examination of the thing itself, and from that, we may be able to glimpse how the minds of these men work. Of course, they understand themselves simply to be solving obvious problems posed to them by the constraints that we all face: the place in which they live and the time in which they live. We begin with their place.

[1]. Ancelet has given a number of papers at meetings of the American Folklore Society on the topic of how residents of south Louisiana in general and Cajuns in particular have been represented in various forms of media. He has even taught a course or two at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. One of those courses, entitled “Imaging the Cajun,” paired documentary films, of various quality and accuracy, with the studio films they quite often inspired: e.g., Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay (1953). (Please note that the documentary nature of Louisiana Story has been the subject of considerable debate.)

[2]. In fact, as their studies continued, it became increasingly clear that the Cajun and Creole communities had long been not only socially intertwined but also culturally intertwined, leading Ancelet and Brasseaux, among others, to steadily expand the scope of their research, though they stayed largely within the purview of Francophone groups. To be fair, this had been their initial charge when they began their work and so they mostly sought to complete that work, encouraging others to pursue the many possibilities which their work had created.

[3]. Rosan Jordan and Frank de Caro (1996) take up the matter of how the consistent imagining of Louisiana as a “folklore land” is, in fact, a deferred classism that some early writers in fact embraced as a way to effect their own social mobility. It is, as their essay suggests, not unlike colonial/post-colonial efforts and effects found elsewhere in the world.

[4]. Such occurrences are not unknown in the region. The first oil well in the area was drilled near Jennings in 1901. In the years that followed, a lot of wells were drilled. Both during the boom time, and as production slowly played out and wells were removed, a lot of pipe, concrete, and other materials were left behind in fields. Farmers regularly get their plows dulled on bits of chain and other industrial debris.

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