Title: Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Coast
Author: Mike Tidwell
Genre: Non-fiction: Nature
The Cajun coast of Louisiana is home to a way of life as unique, complex, and beautiful as the terrain itself. As award-winning travel writer Mike Tidwell journeys through the bayou, he introduces us to the food and the language, the shrimp fisherman, the Houma Indians, and the rich cultural history that makes it unlike any other place in the world. But seeing the skeletons of oak trees killed by the salinity of the groundwater, and whole cemeteries sinking into swampland and out of sight, Tidwell also explains why each introduction may be a farewell—as the storied Louisiana coast steadily erodes into the Gulf of Mexico.Part travelogue, part environmental exposé, Bayou Farewell is the richly evocative chronicle of the author’s travels through a world that is vanishing before our eyes from Goodreads).
Thoughts: The southern coast of Louisiana, consisting of marshy wetlands, small islands, and miles upon miles of twisting and turning bayous, is the fastest disappearing landmass on earth. And yet almost no one outside of Louisiana has heard anything about this looming environmental disaster. The southern coast contributes billions of dollars each year to the state’s economy and Louisiana alone produces around 30% of the nation’s seafood. Not to mention the fact that the southern wetlands protect the rest of the state from inundating waves and disastrous flooding from hurricanes each year. In addition, the wetlands are nesting and breeding territory for thousands of birds, a rest stop for those birds migrating, and a home to hosts of other animals including alligators, dolphins, snapping turtles, crabs, shrimp, and other land and sea creatures. And even though a plan that experts agree would halt the land loss and, over time, actually build new land, was first proposed in the 70s, it has not become even close to being implemented. Bayou Farewell follows Tidwell as he travels the bayous of southern Louisiana on shrimp, crab, and oil boats, working and staying with Cajuns, Houma Indians, and the Vietnamese who settled en masse in the Louisiana wetlands after the Vietnam war, and those scientist and environmentalists working to save this quickly disappearing wetland.
The reason for the wetlands turning to ocean at an alarming rate, of houses and whole communities turning to open sea water is simple: in 1927, after the Great Mississippi Flood, the worst flood in US history, the Mississippi was dammed and placed under control with a series of levees. Bound on all sides, the Mississippi can no longer flood naturally and release its tons of sediments it gathers on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, it dumps this earth uselessly into the continental shelf. With the wetlands cut off from the Mississippi, it can no longer receive the sediments and dirt it so desperately needs and the land, hounded by waves, begins to disappear. The situation is made worse by the fact the bayous are crisscrossed with literally thousands of miles of canals built by the oil industry to make the laying of pipe underneath the bayou easier. These canals erode at an alarmingly fast rate and literally eat the earth away, causing more devastation.
Scientists believe that it took 7,000 years for the Mississippi and its sediment load to create the Louisiana wetlands. In the past century a third of this land has disappeared, due just about entirely to human interference. But the process can be slowed and even reversed if the Third Delta Conveyance Channel is built. First proposed in the 1970s, the idea is to build a man-made river bottom and to let around a third of the Mississippi divert its current levee restrained course north of New Orleans and let it flow to the south. This would ensure that life-giving sediment reaches the areas that need it most and, slowly, the loss land would be halted and, with decades, reversed. It is unlikely that the conveyance channel would restore the wetlands to its original state- too much has been lost- but some land can be recovered and the fishing and shrimping economy that so many depend on would be sustained. Unfortunately, the plan would cost billions of dollars and Louisiana is chronically short on funds. But the solution is there. Within a decade or two the coast will be so eroded that it would be impossible to restore it; it will be gone forever. It is critical to act now to ensure this unique environmental and cultural pocket of America survives.
Tidwell does an excellent job describing the dangers facing these wetlands and the people who inhabit it. The area is the cultural bastion for the Cajun culture and thus is an area close to my heart as I am Cajun on my father’s side. The situation as it stands now is very bleak, and as far as I am aware no meaningful progress to make the Third Delta Conveyance Channel a reality has been made since this was published, but I remain hopeful.
Besides describing the environmental crises, Tidwell does an excellent job telling of the crisis facing the people who depend on the bayou for their livelihood. He describes with great sensitivity the issues facing those literally watching the land recede before their eyes. He spends time with Cajuns, Houma Indians, and Vietnamese depicting these unique cultures and their concerns fairly and without judgement. To be honest, I would have preferred less time dealing with Tidwell and his personal experiences and more time with those fighting to save the bayous and wetlands from utter destruction, but I did enjoy the fact that it gave me a chance to ‘meet’ the people of the bayou.
This book was published in 2003, before Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, both of which caused terrible damage to the area environmentally, economically, and emotionally to the people themselves who lost homes, jobs, or their lives. I can’t help wanting to know how the coast was affected by theses events- how much marsh turned to sea by Katrina, how the health of the water and the animals were effected by the oil spill, and whether these events intensified the urgent need to save this landscape in the eyes of government officials who so far have acted frustratingly slowly to effect desperately needed change.
But that will have to be something that I find out on my own. I am not sure how many other books are out there on the topic of Louisiana’s disappearing coastline, but I know that there are tons of books out there on the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina. I’ll have to do some research and see which ones interest me the most, but this is a topic that I would like to explore more in the future (I’m open to suggestions if anyone has any!).