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Holding Back the SeaThe Struggle on the Gulf Coast to Save America
By Christopher Hallowell
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Christopher Hallowell
All right reserved.
Jim Daisy's Legacy
Now Jim's dead. His nephew, Jeff, tells me this, leaning over the balcony railing of his big square house up on stilts on Bayou du Large, looking down at me, and not looking too friendly. The house rests on a forest of stilts. Between their trunks I can see a half-submerged lawn to the rear of the house. It is littered with the sunken wrecks of toys, as the surrounding marsh inexorably sinks and the Gulf of Mexico creeps closer. Beyond the lawn, skeletons of drowned live oaks and cypress predict the future, their naked arms raised to the beating sun
"Uncle James, it must have been 'bout three years ago that he passed on; he mus' a been 'bout sixty-eight years old." Jeff bit at his thick red beard, as if wanting to grab back the words he had just spoken. "Why you askin'? " He did not know who I was, only that I was not local. I did not look like a tourist, and probably not like an oyster dealer, either.
The only other strangers to come down the bayou are selling religion or some kind of sustenance for the emotions or the heart. To the five hundred or so residents of Bayou du Large, and most other South Louisiana bayou towns, such people are nettling, an irritant reminding them of the precariousness of their lives as thecontemporary world, ordinarily visible only on their TV sets, now encroaches with greater frequency, generally from the north. Then, from the south come the Gulf's waters. Both are on the verge of sweeping away the lives of these people.
It had been ten years since I had driven down the oyster shell-lined road along the bayou. Both the road and the bayou begin on the Gulf side of Houma, dividing flat land cleared for sugarcane, both traveling straight south. Then they undulate sinuously across the land, and the road -- which came long after the bayou -- is hard put to keep up with the bayou's sensuality, pitched too hard into its curves, sometimes seeming to stumble right into its slow water.
The fields give way to palmetto scrub as the bayou winds toward the Gulf and the fishermen's houses and boats begin to cluster its edges like oysters on a reef. Things are messy down here. Rusting engines, smashed up cars, metal struts, tanks, all sorts of stuff that are hard to figure out, line the road on the bayou side.
Abandoned shrimpers and luggers lurch up on the banks like they plowed right into the mud after a bad night. Their carcasses rot fast, turning muddy and green. Down here, people don't get nostalgic about boats. Their lives depend on them; when the stem keels and ribs begin to rot, they're through -- stripped of their equipment and set out to die. Planking is another matter; it can be replaced. On the other side of the bayou, naked Lafitte skiffs, with a woman's curves in the bows and a big square tail, lie upside down with ribs bare waiting for new cypresses. During winters, older men up and down the bayou caress designs for their boats with pencils onto paper napkins over supper and lay them out on crawfish-chimneyed lawns early in the spring. Young men buy fiberglass.
Down by the shrimp processing plant, tilting into the bayou where Falgout Canal meets Bayou du Large, a developer has gotten hold of a chunk of sugarcane field. Big square fishing camps up on stilts, ready for future hurricanes, dot the cane stubble. Their plastic clapboards are painted suburban America colors and they have green tin roofs. They look strong and foreign.
But the house across the street is Jeffs, not Jim's, and when I get out of my car and crunch across the shells toward it, he stirs up on the balcony, and comes to the rail, leaving the blond woman he has been sitting next to on the old car seat up there that they use for a couch. I feel uneasy under his hardening eyes. I tell him who I am, that I wrote a book some twenty years ago that mentioned his uncle.
Jeff's face transforms like an invisible hand peeling a mask from it. "Why, I remember you," he says, a softer light now in place of the glare. "I was a kid when you was here. I remember that time you came back from Buckskin Bayou. I was standin' right over there and everyone was talkin' about the fella from up north that went dredgin' with James." I don't remember Jeff. I remember a lot of kids scampering around then, mostly Willie Junior, because he loved oysters so much. Now Jeff is twenty-seven with a house of his own -- a big one on stilts, a woman, and at least one child, judging from the toys scattered about.
The woman comes to the railing. She is slender and wears a gold-plated necklace and earrings. "I didn't know your uncle was in a book," she exclaims. "Why didn't you tell me?" Jeff looks kind of embarrassed, then irritated, and then tells her that he thinks his aunt Rachel has a copy somewhere. I don't know if she and Jeff are married but she seems to be living in the house. She says she is from Houma, a city of 30,000 about twenty minutes north of Bayou du Large. She says she never knew that Bayou du Large and its little world of oyster luggers, oystermen, and marsh life existed until four years ago when she met Jeff at a dance. Jeff gives her another irritated look for some reason, maybe because he, like too many bayou dwellers, knows that people here don't quite fit into the rest of America.
Excerpted from Holding Back the Sea by Christopher Hallowell Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Hallowell.
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