Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast

Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle for America's Natural Legacy on the Gulf Coast

by Christopher Hallowell

Americans continue to coexist with nature only warily, in spite of our vaunted environmental stewardship. Nowhere is this complex relationship more visible than in the Mississippi River delta in South Louisiana, the country's largest unpreserved wetland. Here, more than three million acres of marshes and swamps nurture more seafood and produce more oil and gas than


Americans continue to coexist with nature only warily, in spite of our vaunted environmental stewardship. Nowhere is this complex relationship more visible than in the Mississippi River delta in South Louisiana, the country's largest unpreserved wetland. Here, more than three million acres of marshes and swamps nurture more seafood and produce more oil and gas than any other region of the country except Alaska. Yet this expanse of raw natural beauty, almost unknown outside the region, is in danger of collapse. New Orleans is in particular danger as sea levels rise and the city sinks, leaving tens of thousands of inhabitants to face the consequences if a horrific storm should strike.

Holding Back the Sea intimately and eloquently exposes the vulnerability of this stark land that spreads along the Gulf Coast, as it literally vanishes — at rate of twenty-five square miles per year, an area the size of Manhattan — so starved for lack of nutrients, so eroded away by ever more severe storms, and so dredged for canals that it is on the verge of being swallowed by the rising Gulf of Mexico. Holding Back the Sea bears witness to an environmental crisis of staggering proportions that not only threatens this coast but has plunged the people who depend on it into a moral quagmire.

Christopher Hallowell uses this crisis as a window through which to clearly and comprehensively examine a cultural characteristic, or flaw, that Americans have historically exhibited: the reluctance to recognize the finiteness of nature — as much a part of this country's history as is its people's independence — while at the same time proclaiming their devotion to it. In Louisiana, this emotional split of using while abusing threatens the entire region's economic foundations and has profound implications for the rest of the country. Louisiana is not alone; its predicament stands beside an array of environmental case studies: clear-cutting in Virginia and Tennessee, exhausting water resources in the Southwest, polluting Chesapeake Bay, filling in wetlands around San Francisco Bay and Long Island Sound, and fouling the Great Lakes.

Through the varied use of narrative voice and rich description, Hallowell, a journalist, writer, and educator, brings into focus South Louisiana's dilemma through the people involved — from engineers to politicians to scientists to fishermen — to show both the marsh's and the people's fragility and vitality. There is no more important topic than the way we use nature and our natural resources and our willingness to defer to nature. Holding Back the Sea is at the heart of that conversation.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Swamps and marshes absorb storms, prevent erosion, cycle water and nutrients, and provide habitat for fish and shellfish. Hundreds of thousands of acres of American wetlands have already disappeared. Here, Christopher Hallowell takes us on a tour of one of the most threatened such areas, the Louisiana delta, where an astonishing 80 percent of annual American wetlands loss takes place, mostly due to poor flood-control practices. Years of centralized planning by the Army Corps of Engineers to build up the Mississippi River's levees robbed the bayous of nutrients, which are normally deposited in the form of rich river silt. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are eating up the marsh at a staggering rate.

Hallowell is sympathetic to the intertwining of nature and culture that has long characterized this region. Oystermen, shrimpers, trappers, and hunters have wrested a living from the delta for centuries. And of, course, there is New Orleans, perilously poised between the river and gulf and thus seriously vulnerable to storms and floods. Only now are people realizing how important these wetlands are to the livelihoods of entire communities. Cajun culture, one of Louisiana's most popular exports, is rooted in the rich loam of the bayous. Hallowell's encounters with a variety of colorful characters, from a trapper named Peanut Michel to George Barisich, "the prince of shrimpers," bring out the issues of resource management that undergird the situation in a poignant way.

Much of the book looks at government efforts to stop the bleeding. But bureaucracy and dissension in the ranks still interfere with existing efforts -- which Hallowell compares, in any case, to "Band-Aids of mud, rock, and hubris" that only blunt the inexorable surge of water. His case study is really about how our attitudes towards nature are under pressure as we bump up against the carrying capacity of the New World. From other coastal ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay to the deserts of the Southwest, "the cornucopia is emptying" -- and hard choices requiring compromise and sacrifice are needed if we are to continue living on this land. (Jonathan Cook)

Carl Safina
This is a book about changing ways of life both in the narrowest and largest senses—how individuals have to adjust, and how society has to adjust. [Christopher] Hallowell has done nothing less than to disclose a complete, fascinating and indispensable world. Holding Back The Sea carries you to that place that is neither land nor sea, for an intelligent look at what hangs in the balance.
Library Journal
Since childhood, Hallowell, director of the writing program at Baruch College (CUNY), has been fascinated by the inner life of wetlands and their infinite variety. While writing People of the Bayou, he came to know the marshes of southern Louisiana. In his new book, he revisits old friends and meets experts to discuss the fate of Louisiana's wetlands and examine options for their preservation and revival. Each of the 12 chapters focuses on a different economic and social aspect of those who live and earn their livelihood in Louisiana's bayou country. The writing is lively and anecdotal, so readers feel that they are sharing the author's journey among the shrimpers, Cajuns, oystermen, oilmen, trappers, engineers, and politicians who are deciding the fate of the subsiding, polluted, and diminishing coastal marshes. Hallowell clearly explains the gravity of the situation, the complex environmental issues, and possible solutions. What results is a greater appreciation of the environmental and cultural riches of this historic area and the role these vast and bountiful wetlands play in our national economy. Highly recommended for public and academic environmental collections and for collections in Southern culture and history. Margaret Aycock, Gulf Coast Environmental Lib., Beaumont, TX Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Southern Louisiana's vast wetlands are on the skids, and Hallowell (Writing/CUNY) explains the reasons behind their impending demise—and the halting steps being taken to bring them back to life. Down where the Mississippi empties itself into the Gulf of Mexico are the wetlands of Louisiana, a wild tangle of grass, bayou, marsh, and swamp that has sustained a unique culture for hundreds of years. As Hallowell (Green Perspectives, not reviewed) understands the place, it is also an indicator landscape, a measure of our environmental regard, for this poor cousin to purple mountain's majesty has until recently been thought of as wasteland, and how we treat the disenfranchised aptly conveys our concern for the greater whole. We haven't done too well by the wetlands. The entire coastal system is tilting into the Gulf and with it is sinking a whole way of life, from food to music, businesses to language. The reasons for the land's subsidence are understandable: a "combination of the Mississippi's levees, the rise in sea level, coastal erosion, and salt water intrusion," but its "restoration is one thing in fact, another in practice, and highly subject to interpretation." And not only is history in jeopardy, but so too are the 2,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines now exposed to the storm surge of passing hurricanes, not unknown in these parts. Hallowell lays before us the major players and their visions of the future, and he imparts a sense of the land's mystery and its anarchy of life—human, plant, and animal. The wetlands emerge in his view as a kind of commons, a place where a variety of human agents work in concert with nature, from oil company canal diggers to shrimpers toCorps engineers to alligator hunters (all of whom he profiles in compact yet mellow style). A fine account, but suspiciously upbeat: Hallowell's local-boy optimism notwithstanding, the wetlands still hang in a very precarious balance. (8-page photo insert, not seen)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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6.12(w) x 9.12(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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 andthe 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.

Holding Back the Sea. Copyright © by Christopher Hallowell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Christopher Hallowell is a professor of English and journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of People of the Bayou, and coauthor and editor of Listening to Earth and Green Perspectives, and he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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