Peace Corps Writers
Bayou Farewell
The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast
By Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985–87)
Pantheon Books
March 2003
336 pages
(Buy this book)

Dark Star Safari
  Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64)
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MIKE TIDWELL'S IMPORTANT and enjoyable book about the disappearance of the Southern Louisiana bayous reads like a novel as he relates his exploration of the coastal lowlands. He reveals the alarming disintegration of this vast wetlands, which yields nearly 30% of the nations shrimp and crab. He provides a candid look at the mostly Cajun people of the bayous in their own voices to which he adds his own curiosity and research.
     Tidwell begins his journey with a note on accents that explains how he has attempted to preserve “The true color and dignity of their (Cajun) speech . . . by a more limited portrayal, faithfully omitting the th sound and including some of the altered grammar without laying things on too thick.” Using the suggestion of accents, plus writing in the present tense, Tidwell renders his many conversations with the Bayou people in the immediacy of the local lingo.
     The Louisiana wetlands are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most incredible revelations is that the destruction of this thriving fishing industry is a mere 20 years from becoming irreversible. As it is, the sinking of the bayou wetlands is happening at a rate of 25 sq. miles per year. The Mississippi River has not been allowed to flood for more than 70 years due to a series of dams and levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Thus the yearly deposit of silt is no longer being added to the wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi. This interruption of thousands of years of flooding has taken its toll on the fragile marshes which feed and shelter the tremendous bounty of shrimp, crabs, oysters and other fish. In addition, underwater gas and oil pipelines along the bottom of the bayous have increased the erosion factor.
     Bayou Farewell is foremost a travel book which explores several major bayous and their inhabitants with a sensitivity that also penetrates to the problems of the disappearing wetlands. Tidwell also catches the poetic specialness of the sunsets and the waterfowl and the sad ghosts of sinking cemeteries and forests that dot the marshlands. The adventure comes out of the exotic locale, but also out of Tidwell’s willingness to get out on the water to talk to the shrimpers and fishermen and record what these people have to say about their history and their present life.
     In his first trip down the bayou, Tidwell “thumbs” rides on several shrimping boats and crabbing skiffs. Papoose Lewdet, a shrimper, agrees to take Tidwell downstream.

 “You ever been down de baya before?” Papoose asks in his heavy Cajun accent. Down here the word “bayou” comes out “baya” and “down de baya” means, in effect, “our home,” chez nous, that watery rural Louisiana place located at the very end of the world just the way locals like it. Not too many outsiders, lost or otherwise, wander this deep into the region. And certainly none walk up asking for rides aboard working shrimp boats . . .”
     “No,” I tell Papoose, lowering my backpack to the wharf. “This is my first trip down here.”
     What about shrimpin?” he asks. “You know anyt’ing about shrimpin’?”
     “No,” I say again, confessing my knowledge of Cajun fishing customs is nil . . . I just want to float down the bayou with you,” I say. “That’s all. It doesn’t matter how far you’re going. I’m just traveling. I just want to get downstream.”
     Suddenly he looks a bit less confused. He doesn’t exactly smile, but the idea starts to sink in.
     “Just travelin’, huh? Like a tourist?”
     I nod.
     “Well, okay den. Why didn’t you say so? Put your pack in de cabin.”
     I see his hand, still stained with engine grease, suddenly outstretched toward mine. I cross the wharf and shake it. I can take you as far as Leeville, an hour and a half down stream. I’m going shrimpin’ down dere right now.”

Throughout the book, Tidwell meets Cajun, American Indian and Vietnamese fishermen as well as oil and gas workers, all of whom provide hospitality and interesting conversation. At every turn of these incredibly beautiful waterways, which are described with a delicate appreciation, we learn the specifics of how and why these marshlands are disappearing.
     Further down the bayou in Leeville, Tidwell meets up with Tim Melancon and his son Tee Tim (Tee is a sort of designation of Junior), a teenager who is a crabber and will ferry Tidwell further down the bayou.

After just one day on the marsh I’m starting to understand just how bountiful this waterscape called the Louisiana bayou country really is. Drop a hook off Tim’s wharf, he tells me and you’ll reel in a speckled trout or redfish or black drum for the skillet. Lower a baited crab cage and you’ll come back tomorrow to find a half dozed of the most succulent blue crabs the world has to offer. From spring to fall you can trawl for brown shrimp, white shrimp and sea bass, then hunt to your stomach’s content from November to January when the blue-winged teal and gray ducks darken the sky in their annual migration. Not to mention alligator hunting in September, trapping otters and muskrats for fur in the winter . . . .
     “We’re de last of de Mohicans,” Tim tells me. “We still live off de land. Ever’t’ing we need is right here. To be honest, I never had a job in my life.”

     When Tidwell asks about losing the land, Tim replies:

“Losing it? Hell, here in Leeville, we done already lost it . . . Look around.” Later we pile into Tee Tim’s crab boat and . . . . A few hundred feet away, just before Route 1 crosses Bayou Lafourche atop the rusting Leeville Bridge, Tim points toward a watery stretch of marsh grass oddly littered with bricks and concrete.
     “It’s a cemetery,” he [Tim] says.
There, shockingly, along the grassy bayou bank, I can now make out a dozen or [so] old tombs, all in different stages of submersion, tumbling brick by brick into the bayou water . . .

After his first trip to the region, Tidwell returns in the early spring to go out on the shrimpers, witness the Cajun festival that opens shrimping season and live on the water for a time. He also goes deeper into his own reasons for writing the book, “If one of America’s greatest riches was about to perish, I wanted at the very least to help sound the trumpets of its passing and maybe, just maybe, bring into sharper focus the possibility of its last-minute rescue.”
     Further on we get casual snapshots of the plant and wild life, as Tidwell drives further back into bayou country and encounters Indians who are members of the United Houma Nation. Later he visits a village and spends time with a native healer among these Indians who were pushed from the mainland to the furthest reaches of the swamps.
     Another cause of the sinking land and fragile condition of the coast are the number and extent of the trenches dug throughout the bayou country to accommodate the huge oil and gas drilling the goes ever deeper and further into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the 1930s, at almost the exact same time the lower Mississippi River was finally conquered for good with levees, oil exploitation began in earnest throughout the bayou region . . . . Early on, the big companies — Texaco, Amoco and others — launched the practice of extensive canal dredging . . . . As a result, there are few stretches of Louisiana marsh today that are not scissored by at least one or two canals . . . (which) trigger disastrous erosion.

Near the end of the book, the author manages a trip on an oilrig service boat where we get a full picture of the huge oil and gas operation that rims the Louisiana coast and continues far, far out into the gulf.
The main remedy to preserve the bayou seems to be to allow the Mississippi to flood in a controlled manner. Several smaller experiments exist. Tidwell visits the Caenarvon Freshwater Diversion Project for a first hand account of how the land can be restored in a relative short time. The plan is there, the will is there, but the politics remain to be played out.
     Bayou Farewell is a great travel book and a sobering look at a land that is nearly lost. Tidwell’s ingenious spirit and curiosity allow the people of the region to speak for themselves while he provides an honest glimpse into their lives. We also hear the voices of those who are working to save the Louisiana wetlands. This book richly informs those of us who had no idea that this area of the country is in such desperate shape, and should inspire many more people to work to save the bayous of the Southern Louisiana coast. Mike Tidwell has done his part by sounding the trumpet in a very clear and compelling voice.

Will Siegel works as a technical writer in Boston. He is completing a novel Kennedy in the Land of the Dead, which begins in the Peace Corps.
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