Endangered swamps

It’s a world filled with Spanish moss, French verbs and Cajun cookin’, where people with names like “Knuckles” and “Papoose” make their living on the water, hopping from bayou to bayou in search of the best seafood catch, leaving their families on shore to pray for their safety. It’s also a world that is quickly disappearing, Mike Tidwell tells us in his book Bayou Farewell.

Throughout Tidwell’s travel piece-turned-environmental exposé, he reminds the reader that the land depicted in his book is literally disappearing, sinking softly into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and taking with it the wildlife and culture that defines Louisiana’s Cajun coast.

Tidwell tells us we have no one but ourselves to blame. Human manipulation of the Mississippi River has deprived the area of the land-building sediment deposits that sustained it for so many years. Combine this with the destructive practices of oil companies and the American public’s general ignorance of most things environmental, and you have a state that’s losing 25 square miles of land each year.

What’s remarkable about Tidwell’s book is not so much the horrible phenomenon he reveals, but that, for the most part, he manages to convey it without losing himself, or the reader, in long diatribes about tidal forces and continental shelf depths. Instead, Tidwell stays true to his original intent: to travel up and down the Bayou, absorbing and depicting its people and their culture, revealing a unique but generally unsung aspect of American life. Even in the face of environmental disaster, Tidwell doesn’t forget to focus on the coast’s people. Rather, he uses them to tell the broader story of the land and its inhabitants, one of endurance, mourning and — if actions are taken to reverse the land’s subversion — hope.

Tidwell describes people like Knuckles and Rose Mayeux, a shrimping couple who let him tag along for a night of work, and Tim Melancon, another shrimper who opens his home and boat to Tidwell even after his wife and son have left him for a life that doesn’t include baiting crab-traps. He also looks beyond the Cajun community, making a point to describe the customs and stories of the region’s Native American and Vietnamese communities.

Through these people and their stories, Tidwell avoids bogging his book down with environmental facts and statistics. Rather than telling his readers how much land has been submerged in the past five years, he illustrates the loss with descriptions of sunken forests and underwater cemeteries, motifs that reappear throughout the book and serve as evidence, he says, that “the bayou is swallowing the dead here.”

Bayou Farewell is not without its faults. The vivid vignettes and portraits Tidwell paints of Bayou communities are sometimes broken up by environmental tirades. And like any nonfiction writer, Tidwell can’t escape the facts. He includes statistics and measurements about the Bayou’s land loss, its diversity and its wildlife, and while most of this is interesting, it sometimes becomes a little redundant. The chapter devoted mostly to describing the brown shrimp migration, for example, was more than a little dull at times.

But for the most part, Tidwell’s book is a fascinating read. He serves to teach and entertain, by combining the storytelling techniques of fiction writers with the fact gathering of reporters and nonfiction writers.

However, Tidwell’s true talent lies not in his artful depiction of the region’s demise, but in his ability to make the reader care. He makes us miss a place we may have never visited and a people we have never known, before they are gone. It’s not only a bittersweet look at a disappearing way of life, but a call to arms: The Bayou can be saved, but it must happen soon.

Katie Walton is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected].

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