Before words become language, they exist for us as sound and rhythm and the sounds and rhythms of childhood words endure to the grave. Speak to me the simple phrase “teddy bear” and I see a stuffed animal, its paws limp, the brown plush fur worn away on its left arm, one faceted jet button-eye missing. But repeat the words, give them a lilt and a bit of a meter and you may hear what I hear: the sudden slap of summer jump ropes, the girlish giggles, the hissing intake of breath as a jumper struggles to finish with the rhyme.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Touch the ground.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
Show your shoe.
Teddy bear, Teddy bear,
That will do…
Even after language develops as a tool of communication the sounds endure, resonant and pure, flowing just beneath the surface of consciousness. While reading recently about alligator scutes and alligator gar scales, two natural oddities of Louisiana life, I discovered it wasn’t the meaning of the words but their sound which brought to mind a verse once as familiar as my jump-rope rhymes.
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,
that’s what little boys are made of.
Snips and snails, scutes and scales - it was impossible not to smile. Playing with the words, I listened as scutes and scales transformed themselves into suits and sales and a new version of an old bit of doggerel was born.
What are city folk made of?
Suits and sales and Blackberry tales -
that’s what city folk are made of.
What are Cajun folk made of?
Scutes and scales and crawdaddy tails -
that’s what Cajun folk are made of.
In real life, of course, Cajun folk have a lot of friends. South Louisiana’s intricate web of salt marsh, bayou and swamp is populated by an equally rich and complex mixture of Houma and Chitimacha tribespeople, Cajuns, Creoles and an assortment of Germans, Czechs, Spanish, Irish, and Blacks who showed up, liked what they saw and stayed. The truth is that everyone who loves or lives in Louisiana has a fair portion of scutes, scales and crawdaddy tails in their makeup. The fun lies in discovering what that means.
Certainly crawfish are the most widely-experienced of the trio, the totem of La Louisiane’s tribe. Yankees may call them crayfish or crawdaddies and Texans may rhapsodize over their mudbugs, but in Louisiana they’re crawfish. Eaten in gumbos, etouffees, pistolettes and pies, crawfish crawl onto every gimcrack imaginable: tee shirts, mugs, key chains, beads, beer-bottle openers, sun visors, bikinis, playing cards and plastic bibs. “Ubiquitous” barely begins to describe it.
For the good people of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, places like Tualatin, Oregon can brag all they want about having the oldest crawfish festival in the country, or the artsiest, or the cheesiest. In the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capitol of the World, when they throw their annual festival celebrating the iconic little critter, les bon temps rouler with a vegeance. There’s Cajun and Zydeco music, dancing, crawfish races, crawfish royalty and enough crawfish piled onto the tables to to satisfy even the most voracious appetite.
Occasionally you’ll see someone who’s meeting a heap of boiled crawfish for the first time. You’ll catch that delicate, barely perceptible shudder and you know what they’re thinking. Yes, crawfish live in the mud. Yes, they look as much like a bug as a lobster and yes, to fully enjoy that pile of savory goodness you do need to pull off the heads. But if you can get past all that, you’ll pass a good time, as they say in crawfish county, and get a fine taste of culture along with your food.
While the crawfish are busy hunkering down into their mud, trying to avoid becoming dinner, other inhabitants of the bayous and swamps are watching for someone else who might have dinner on his mind: the American alligator.
Everyone knows the strength of alligators – the damage their tails can inflict, or their teeth – but hidden beneath the surface of their skin is a marvel of evolutionary engineering. Alligator scutes, or osteoderms, are embedded bony plates which serve as protective armor. They also help regulate the reptile’s body temperature. Each plate is perforated with blood vessels that collect the sun’s heat and distribute it through the body, functioning very much like a solar cell.
Seen from the outside, the elegance and effectiveness of the scutes’ design is obvious. Raising the skin of the cold-blooded creatures into rows of tiny “mountains”, they increase the amount of surface exposed to the sun and allow heat collection to take place with greater efficiency. As is so often true in the wetlands and with its creatures, it’s what’s under the surface that counts.
While shy and somewhat reticent, the fish known as the alligator gar does live much of its life only half-hidden from view. Because its buoyancy bladder is connected directly to its throat, it has the ability to breathe air and often will bask just below the surface of the water.
Despite the gar’s large size, its tendency to just “hang out” can make it difficult for an untrained eye to spot its presence. I spent years being startled by the creatures, looking around the docks and asking “What was that?” after a huge splash and roiled water suggested something big – an airplane part, perhaps – had fallen from the sky. Invariably someone would grin and say, “Tha’s a gar, sweetie”, but not until last year was I looking at the right patch of water at just the right time. When the garfish decided to surface and roll, giving me a look of primordial contempt in the process, it was as though prehistory had come to visit in the form of a fish, one that already was populating rivers when dinosaurs trod their banks during the Cretaceous Period.
Bayou Woman Wendy Billiot’s friend, Bayou Fabio, has the capture, cleaning, sale and distribution of gar honed as sharply as his knives. While I’ve not found a recipe for Garfish Etouffee, the meat is eaten and even favored by some. If you happen to have a gar in your cooler and do a bit of browsing, there are online recipes for garfish cakes, gar nuggets, deep-fried gar and (are you listening, BP?) gar balls.
Scaling the fish is no easy task. The interlocking, diamond-shaped scales provide armored protection much like the alligator’s scutes. Hard enough to be used by Native Americans as arrowheads, they’ve also been used for decorative purposes. Today, artists and craftspeople, especially jewelry-makers, are fashioning delightful bits of beauty from what has to be one of the world’s ugliest fish.
The crawfish, the alligator and the alligator gar – each continues to survive and even thrive in the midst of a changing and precarious world. Unique and interesting, perfectly adapted to their environments, they remain denizens of the world’s edges and intersections, reminders of a world where clocks have no meaning and where time is measured only by the rising of the tide and its fall, the ending of the seasons and their unending return.
Now and then, some smart and sophisticated city-dwellers arrive on the bayou and share an opinion or two – that crawfish are disgusting, alligators dangerous and gar unbearably ugly. What they think of the wetlands in general or their people in particular is hard to say. But while the city folk chatter and chirp, just below the surface of consciousness the sound of the swamp-song flows.
Shadowed beneath the surface of the moonlit marsh, the gar hangs suspended in its pool. The very embodiment of patience, the alligator watches and waits, parting the smooth cordgrass with his snout. And where the water meets the land and the land dissolves away, the life of a people goes on. Scooting around obstacles, scaling walls of prejudice, living out their lives with ingenuity and verve, they tell one another tales of blessings piled higher than the crawfish on their tables. Scoots and scales and crawdaddy tales – that’s what La Louisiane is made of.