A Report from the Bayou


in Archive


Down in the bayou, spring comes around mid-March, but no one takes it seriously. Within a couple of weeks, the temperatures are so hot that everyone has forgotten spring. It is like a ghost, barely there when it is there, and barely remembered when it goes. The season that came before spring is hard, by the way, to call winter. It just isn’t cold enough by northern standards. Some of the trees down here do drop their leaves in the colder months. Maybe they do it just for fun. The people and fauna and flora of the Louisiana bayou all have a tendency to quirkiness. The fact that some of the trees pretend to a more northern nature is looked upon with indulgence.

Everything is mixed-up in the bayou. Half the vegetation acts perennial, half acts deciduous or in some variation between the two. That’s the Creole way, the Cajun way — a certain mixing of natures. Spring in the bayou is therefore less of an event than it is in other parts of the country. Seasons in general aren’t easy to differentiate. The question is whether this fact holds any particular import. I believe that it does.

This bayou country is under a terrible threat, an existential threat born of changes in the climate. It is a threat that asks to be considered in biblical proportions and with biblical terms. You’ll remember from the Good Book that, early on, God became much displeased with his creation, mostly due to the shenanigans of the human folk. God decided to blot the whole thing out. He sent a flood and the flood was meant, initially, to kill all living things, especially the aforementioned bipedal human creatures who had managed to excel all other crawling, walking, and writhing things in matters of wickedness. This flood was going to be the end.

It was once pointed out to me by a preacher-woman by the name of Debbie Blue that this whole episode in Genesis is mighty strange. God has, after all, recently declared creation both “good” and, even more emphatically, “very good.” This is high praise from God. But things go downhill quickly, what with the discomfiture between Cain and his brother Abel, the mysterious doings of the Nephilim, and other episodes of bad behavior. Finally, God gets fed up. As Ms. Blue pointed out to me, God takes the attitude of every creator, every artist. At first, he loves what he has created; he can’t get enough. This is so very good, he says. And then a few days later, he has serious second thoughts. “What have I done?” he asks himself. “This is terrible.” And finally, “I’ve got to destroy it completely and start over.”

A good theologian knows how to read past and around the stories of Genesis. We can’t really think of God, in his absolute oneness, as capable of such wild vicissitude, of changing his mind, of creating a world that spirals out of his control and which he, at times, wishes to destroy. A good theologian realizes you’ve got to read Genesis allegorically. The tales are a way of getting at big problems, world problems, cosmic problems, by means of a story. The “truth” of these biblical narratives is by way of what C.S. Lewis once called “true myths.”

Down in the bayou, though, I’m not feeling so sure. In the indeterminate, soggy land of the bayou it is possible to entertain the idea that one of the infinite possibilities in the infinite “mind” of God is the possibility of being mixed-up. The Godhead itself vacillates, maybe, in its own sort of way. And who are we ­­­­­­­— ground-crawlers and swamp-sloshers — to tell the Godhead whether or not it is allowed to vacillate now and again?

The thing that God says to Noah after the Flood is over (and to all mankind by inference) is, basically, “I won’t do it again.” It’s as close to a cosmic apology as you are ever going to find, biblically speaking. It’s a hell of a lot more than Job ever got for his troubles. Job does get his stuff back, eventually, but he never gets a promise or an explanation. Noah gets a promise that is meant to hold forever or at least until the absolutely final deluge, if an absolutely final deluge is what’s actually in store. God isn’t clear about this. And that is God’s prerogative.

But what God promises Noah is the end of flood-like cataclysms. He tells Noah that a sign and seal of this covenant will be the seasons. As the King James Bible puts it, God tells Noah, “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” That’s to say, rains will generally come during one period of the year, dry times another. There will be summer and spring and regular cycles by which we, land tillers, will be able to harvest, reap, and sow. It is because of the covenant God makes with Noah that we are able to speak of seasons at all, that we are able to say, as does the writer of Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season.” In a way, the making of a reliable cycle of seasons is the completion of God’s act of creation from those six big days at the beginning of Genesis. But the world God created then was the world of Eden, when all of nature was a glorious unity. There was no need for seasons because Adam had not yet screwed up and condemned his progeny to plough the hard earth and eke out a living from the crops.

God is, presumably, so annoyed during the period right after the Fall that he hasn’t yet decided what the future will be for man. This is a confusing time. The terms aren’t set yet. Paradise is over but the Flood is still to come. It is during this time that Cain and his brother, Abel, try to make friends with God again. Abel gives God some animals as an offering. God likes this. Cain gives God “fruit of the ground.” God is less happy about this. God is, so to speak, not yet fond of farmers. Cain has jumped the gun. He has done his farming before it is time — literally, he has farmed before there are the proper seasons for it. It takes the Flood and the second creation of God’s covenant with Noah before God cools down and figures out how he is going to handle these Man creatures. By the covenant with Noah, God says, “Okay, I am ready for you people to settle down into a life-cycle that can be relied upon, both by you and by me. I will separate the waters again, as it were, one last separation to complete creation. I’ll give you periods by which you can grow and harvest and all of that. This is the new world.” And so man goes about, after that, being a seasonal creature and generally obsessing about the weather.

Driving on the roads that go over and around parts of the Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana you can go for miles and miles and never be quite on land or quite on water. There are trees along the roads, but the trees grow right out of the swamp. You could take a small boat and boat around under the concrete pylons that hold up the roads. But boating these areas can also be difficult, since the water is often so very shallow. It is land that is too wet to be land, and too dry to be lake or river. The people of the bayou are best described therefore as a kind of amphibian, neither fish nor fowl, you might say. They hover somewhere between land-dwellers and water-dwellers. They muck around in the mud more than normal folk. You have to wonder about people who muck around in the mud. Mud is primal stuff. How many creation stories feature a god forming living beings from mud-stuff? The mud-muckers of the bayou eat plenty of crawfish, and your crawfish is an odd creature. Some people down here call them “mudbugs.” They are bottom-feeders left over from a previous age of Earth. They are Mesozoic, maybe even Paleozoic. Mudbugs have seen it all. A crawfish pretty much eats mud and then is eaten, in turn, by the mud-muckers. That’s the primal sort of stuff that happens down in the bayou.

When you think primal, you think of something before time, beyond time. But there are towns and communities in the southern part of the Louisiana bayou that simply aren’t going to exist for too much longer. The water is coming for them, slowly — if it happens that way — quickly if and when another Category Five storm crashes through. It will happen, though, one way or another. The seasons become ever more unstable. The waters will come. So, the people of the bayou live in liminal time. They live at the boundary of time and space. Between land and water, between existence and its other. The people of the bayou are at the edge and they know it. This was the feeling captured by the surprise hit movie of a couple of years ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Life on the bayou was always something mixed-up. Now it has become a mixed-up place on the edge of a precipice. It sometimes feels as if time has slowed to a crawl down here. This is the same feeling as can be experienced in moments of great danger. A calm descends in those moments, and within the calm a heightened appreciation for each instant as the crisis unfolds. In the event of crisis we sometimes learn, paradoxically, how to wait. Down in the bayou, a person can learn quite a bit about patience. Patience, it turns out, has little to do with indifference or passivity. It has everything to do with being highly attentive to the play of great forces over which you have no direct control.

The secret of the Cajuns is that they were never really Americans and never really learned how to be Americans like everyone else. They were French and they were exiles from Nova Scotia and they were Spanish (sort of) and then, finally, they were swamp-dwellers. The secret strength of the Cajuns comes from the fact that they never worked the land in earnest and they only grudgingly (and recently) acceded to agriculture and “work” as people normally understand it. It is only in the last couple of generations that Cajuns have been pulled into anything resembling contemporary American life. Many a Cajun would still prefer to mosey about the swamp in a flat-bottomed boat, plucking things to eat from the murky waters.

In this, the Cajun can be considered antediluvian, but post-Lapsarian: after the Fall but before the Flood. Cajun country is not Eden. Cajun country is like the time of Abel, not of Adam. Cajuns in the swamps and bayous live in a time like that time before God made the covenant with Noah, before God made the seasons, before he gave the Earth to the farmers. Cajuns live in the time when that first farmer, Cain, whacked his brother in anger and frustration. Cajuns live in a simmering swamp where you can’t tell the land from the water or one season from the other. They live, still, in many places of the bayou, like the early generations after Adam, waiting for a great reckoning and for God to make up his mind about what to do with a wayward creation. Here in Cajun country, the waters are rising. It doesn’t seem crazy to think about a Great Reckoning. It doesn’t seem strange to spend long hours in the middle of the hot day thinking about the Flood, wondering about the terms of that old covenant God made with Noah, hovering in a liminal mindset in these liminal places at the end of the world. • 11 April 2014