Lagniappe and Life

There should have been no reason to cry.

In the house on the road to the Amite river, with memories of Verlinda Harrell’s ferry stirring in the breeze and the old Baton Rouge-Springfield road still leading down to the crossing, the pace of life was slow — easy and enjoyable.

Part of a world perfectly designed for childhood wandering, its Spanish moss-draped oaks invited climbing, and the tire dangling from its sturdy limb seemed to demand swinging. On cots arrayed across the screened-in sleeping porch, we dreamed our dreams on mattresses filled with moss in the sweet, magnolia scented air.

In season, we picked lemons, or pecans. In spring, we ate our way through dewberry patches down to the river, where cypress and tupelo drank from the easy current, shadowing and protecting the creatures passing among them.

In such a world, there should have been no reason to cry.

And yet I stood in my great-aunt’s kitchen, tears streaming down my face, undone by profound and obvious misery. Seeing my distress, Aunt Fannie said, “Good heavens, child. Did you hurt yourself?” I wasn’t hurt — at least, not in the way she meant it. I shook my head. “Come see, then. Let’s have some lemonade, and go out on the gallery.”

With lemonade to enjoy, the tears soon stopped. “Now,” she said. “Tell me. What’s troubling you?” Reluctantly, I confessed. “I don’t want to take a nap.” “A nap?” she said. “Who told you to take a nap?” “Beulah. She said I had to lay down and nap.”

Absent-mindedly brushing away one of the dogs, Fannie stood up and headed into the house. “Drink your lemonade. I’ll ask what she said.”

In less time than it took to finish the lemonade, Fannie and Beulah were back, and both were laughing. A common Louisiana phrase, combined with Beulah’s lovely but noticeable accent, had led to misunderstanding. When she offered me a tidbit from the kitchen and said, “Take this for lagniappe,” I interpreted her words as a suggestion that I should “take a nap.” 

I endured years of good-natured teasing about my confusion, until the teasers were taken by death and the incident forgotten. But the word had become embedded into my vocabulary. Eventually, I began to truly appreciate the usefulness and beauty of that unusual word: lagniappe.

The word itself is French Creole, rooted in the Spanish la ñapa —a gift — which itself may be related to the Quechuan yapa  — something added, or a gift.

The word began to appear in the south, particularly in New Orleans, around the mid-1800s; merchants used it to describe small extras, or bonuses, given to customers.

The best early description of the word was written by Mark Twain in his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi:

We picked up one excellent word — a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word –“lagniappe”. They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said.
We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth.
It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.
The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying “Give me something for lagniappe”. The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.
When you are invited to drink — and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, “What? Again? No, I’ve had enough,” the other party says, “But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe.”
If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says, “F’r lagniappe, sah,” and gets you another cup without extra charge.

The meaning of the word has continued to spread. Dan Gill, garden correspondent for The Times-Picayune, once wrote that “Spanish moss is atmospheric lagniappe in Louisiana landscapes.”

His clever phrase points to a larger truth. Just as shopkeepers, restaurateurs, family, or friends will extend lagniappe from time to time, so the world offers us lagniappe: unexpected and wholly undeserved gifts that lead to delight and appreciation.

Piles of vividly colored milo in Kansas; a ladies’ tresses orchid in Arkansas; the aerial courting display of a great white egret in Texas: each in its own way is lagniappe, the “something extra” that adds beauty and interest to our lives.

In her characteristic way, Annie Dillard suggests the existence of lagniappe in nature when she writes:

This, then, is the extravagant landscape of the world: given with pizzazz, given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.

That sense of extravagance, that exuberance and beauty I see everywhere in nature  has led me develop a new blog site titled, “Lagniappe: Images and Incidentals.” As I say there:

I love to write, and “The Task at Hand” always will be my primary site: my place for essays, stories, and poetry. On the other hand, photography has opened new worlds to me. Now and then, I take special delight in a photo, and have wanted a place to post those I enjoy.

Now, I have that place. A link to “Lagniappe” is available at the top of this page, just as a link to “The Task At Hand” is found in the same spot on the new page.

In certain circles, it’s considered poor form to laugh at our own jokes, and I suppose some might consider it in bad taste to enjoy our own work.  But I do take pleasure in many of my photos, and I hope you do, too.

They’re for lagniappe.

Comments always are welcome. To hear “lagniappe” spoken, click here.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron

heronwingbwr 

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings
open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself —
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn’t a miracle
but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
“Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”
~  Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome. The photo of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, is mine.

Analog traveling, Part 2 ~ Landmark and Lifemarks

pawneeblackPawnee Rock ~ George Sibley’s “remarkable rocky point”

Tempting though it may be to imagine early Santa Fe trail surveyors as a grim, distance-obsessed lot, pressing across the plains in sixty-six foot increments while their lagging chainmen whined and complained, there was more to life on the trail than measured miles and weary feet.

Survey parties camped each night by necessity, but occasionally they stayed in the same spot for several days: a decision sometimes dictated by  circumstance — a swollen river, delayed messages, Indian threats — but just as often occasioned by pleasant surprises. Rich grasses, good timber, or an abundance of game were gifts along a dangerous, difficult road, and gifts were not to be received lightly.
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The Poets’ Birds: Cranes

cranesSandhill cranes ~ Brazoria County, Texas
I call my wife outdoors to have her listen,
to turn her ears upward, beyond the cloud-veiled
sky where the moon dances thin light,
to tell her, “Don’t hear the cars on the freeway—
it’s not the truck-rumble. It is and is not
the sirens.” She stands there, on deck
a rocking boat, wanting to please the captain
who would have her hear the inaudible.
Her eyes, so blue the day sky is envious,
fix blackly on me, her mouth poised on question
like a stone. But, she hears, after all.
January on the Gulf,
warm wind washing over us,
we stand chilled in the winter of those voices.
                                “The Cranes, Texas January” ~ Mark Sanders

Rough, raw — nearly indescribable — the sound of their call alerts me to their presence. On the open prairie, they tease even the most dedicated seeker, bobbing and bending among the grasses: oblivious to our longings.

Still, they comfort. Their hidden voices echo grace and beauty; the rhythms of their beating wings carry on the wind. “Listen,” they seem to say. “We have come, and soon will leave, but for this time, we offer you our world.”

Comments always are welcome. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.  Thanks to reader Bob Freeman, who pointed me to the poem.

The Other Side of the Tracks

img_9607Arkansas Freight

Always, there were the trains. Whistles in the night; the sharp, insistent whining of brakes; the vibration at the country grade crossing as a highballing freight passed by: all hinted at goings and comings, arrivals and departures, denied to us as children.

Fascinated by the trains and intrigued by everything surrounding them, I visited a roundhouse with my grandfather, to see where locomotives lived. From the bridges leading into Kansas City, I admired the terminals and rail yards filled with long lines of cars and chubby cabooses. Always, I wondered at the mysterious letters painted on tankers and boxcars alike: ATSF, RI, C&NW.

Even the tracks provided entertainment.  Encouraging one another, my friends and I laid on the ground, pressing our ears to cold, hard rails in hopes of feeling the rumble of an approaching train.
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How To Bribe A Bison

img_1943

Once on the open range west of Matfield Green, a turn to the north on M Road, followed by another turn west to 60 Road, will lead you to Cedar Creek, the ghost town of Wonsevu, and autumnal ditches filled with partridge pea.

Stop to admire the flowers or the rust-colored grasses sweeping over the hills, and a glint of light might catch your eye. From the road, it’s hard to determine the source. But this is open prairie, unfenced and accessible. Wade into the grasses and climb the hill, and you’ll discover a life-sized, perfectly detailed bison: a sculpture conveying all the strength and solidity of the iconic prairie animal.

Although the name of the sculptor remains a mystery, and I haven’t yet learned who commissioned the work, I like to imagine a rancher placing the bison on its hillside: perhaps as a tribute to early ranchers in the American West who helped to save the bison from extinction. Continue reading