Before words become language, we experience them as sound and rhythm; only later do those sounds fill with meaning, giving substance to memories that endure throughout the years.
Reading the phrase ‘teddy bear,’ I remember my own stuffed childhood favorite: its limp paws; the worn brown plush on its left arm ; the missing faceted, jet black button-eye. But if those words are spoken with a bit of a lilt, emphasizing the rhythm and rhyme, I hear again the sudden slap of summer jump ropes; the girlish giggles; the hissing intake of breath as I struggle to match my movement to the words.
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.
Childhood rhymes rarely are lost; flowing beneath the surface of consciousness, they occasionally erupt into bits of verse or snippets of song that serve as fodder for the word play so many of us enjoy. Reading about Hurricane Ida’s incursion into Louisiana’s bayous and talking with a friend whose home miraculously survived, I thought again about two natural features of bayou life: alligator scutes and garfish scales. The sound of their names brought to mind a pair of verses 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.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
‘Snips and snails’ sounded so much like ‘scutes and scales’ it was impossible not to transform the latter into ‘suits and sales’ for a new bit of doggerel.
What are city folk made of?
Suits and sales and ‘lectronic 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.
Cajun country — south Louisiana’s intricate web of salt marsh, bayou, and swamp — is populated by a complex mixture of Houma and Chitimacha tribespeople, Cajuns, and Creoles, not to mention the assorted Germans, Spaniards, and Czechs who showed up, liked what they saw, and stayed. But beyond nationality or ethnicity, anyone 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.
Crawfish may be the most widely-recognized of Louisiana’s critters, as well as being the totem of La Louisiane. Some call them crayfish or crawdaddies. Others know them as mudbugs, but in Louisiana they’re crawfish. A mainstay 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” hardly describes it.
For the good people of Breaux Bridge, Thibodaux, or Houma, Tualatin, Oregon can brag all it wants about having the oldest crawfish festival in the country, but in the self-proclaimed Crawfish Capitol of the World, when they throw their annual festival celebrating the iconic little critter, les bon temps tend to rouler with a vegeance. There’s Cajun and Zydeco music for dancing, crawfish races, crawfish royalty and enough crawfish piled onto the tables to satisfy even the most voracious appetite.
When someone meets a heap of boiled crawfish for the first time, there’s often a delicate, barely perceptible shudder, and you know what they’re thinking. Yes, crawfish live in the mud. Yes, they look more like a bug than 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 on the bayou, and get a fine taste of culture along with your food.
While crawfish burrow deeper into the mud to avoid becoming dinner, a different critter roams the bayous with dinner on his mind: the American alligator.
Everyone knows the strength of alligators — especially the damage their teeth or tails can inflict — but hidden beneath the surface of their skin is a marvel of evolutionary engineering. Embedded bony plates called ‘scutes’ or ‘osteoderms’ not only serve as protective armor, they also help to regulate the reptile’s body temperature. Filled with blood vessels that collect and distribute the sun’s heat, scutes function very much like a collection of solar cells.
Seen from the outside, the elegance and effectiveness of the scutes’ design is obvious. By raising the skin of the cold-blooded alligator into rows of tiny ‘mountains,’ scutes increase the amount of exposed surface, allowing heat to be collected more efficiently. As is so often true in the swamps, it’s what’s under the surface that counts.
Meanwhile, more shy than its namesake and somewhat reticent, the fish known as the alligator gar lives much of its life half-hidden from view. Because a buoyancy bladder connected directly to its throat gives it the ability to breathe air, it can bask just below the surface of the water; in midsummer heat, it often lazes away the afternoon in the shadows of docks or pilings.
Despite its size — as much as several feet long — the gar’s tendency to hang motionless in the water can make it difficult to spot. A huge splash and roiled water often are the first signs of its presence. When a garfish decides to surface and roll, offering a look of primordial contempt in the process, it seems as though prehistory has come to visit in the form of a fish that already populated rivers during the Cretaceous Period.
Rickey Verrett, known on Bayou Dularge and beyond as Bayou Fabio because his long blond hair reminded people of the actor, is one of the few who capture, clean, and sell gar commercially; over the years, he’s honed the process as sharply as his knives. Many consider the fish’s firm, mild meat to be quite tasty; if you have a gar in your cooler and do a bit of browsing, you can find online recipes for garfish cakes, gar nuggets, deep-fried gar, and gar balls.
Scaling the fish isn’t easy. Interlocking, diamond-shaped scales provide an armored protection that equals that of alligator scutes. Used by Native Americans as arrowheads, they’ve also been incorporated into jewelry, Christmas tree decorations, and various sorts of bayou souvenirs by artists dedicated to fashioning delightful bits of beauty from an arguably ugly fish.
Crawfish, alligators, and alligator gar: each continues to survive — even to thrive — in the midst of a changing and precarious world. Perfectly adapted to their environments, they reside at the world’s edges and interstices, where time flows easily and clocks have no meaning. In the swamp and along the bayous, their time is measured by the rising and falling tides: by the ending of the seasons, and by the seasons’ unending return.
Occasionally some smart and sophisticated city-dweller, newly arrived on the bayou, decides to share an opinion or two: crawfish are disgusting, alligators dangerous, and gar unbearably ugly. What they think of the wetlands in general, or their people in particular, can be equally unflattering. But while the city folk chatter and chirp, the sounds and the rhythms of the swamp-song continue to flow.
Shadowed beneath the surface of the moonlit marsh, the garfish hangs suspended in its pool. Patient, 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.