Dam Atchafalaya

So. The engineers have calculated, the scientists have pondered, the advisors have advised and the decision-makers have decided. The Bird’s Point levee has been blown apart, the river is being allowed to run free through the Bonnet Carre Spillway and the Morganza Spillway gates are being raised, one by one.

I have no real quarrel with any of this. I’ve followed the decision-making process as best I can, and I understand the rationale. But like so many who claim even the slightest connection to the Atchafalaya, to Cajun country and to the area’s warm, friendly and often downright quirky people, I was immensely saddened to see the waters begin to pour into the Atchafalaya Basin, scattering wildlife and sending its people fleeing to higher ground.

If I’m cheered at all, it’s by the knowledge that a goodly portion of the folks in Louisiana are what my grandfather used to call “britches hitchers”. Faced with a challenge, with adversity or grief, they “hitch up their britches” and get on with it. Jim Delahoussaye, a resident of Butte La Rose, recently mentioned a friend, a catfisherman who’d pulled a rib trying to run lines that were too tight. You can’t always fight, said Jim, reflecting on his friend’s experience. There comes a time when it’s “best to let it go, and start over when this statement by the river has been made.” Continue reading

Teddy, a Turtle and Spud

When dinner’s over, the leftovers go into the refrigerator, or perhap to the garbage or compost pile.  When the sewing project’s done, the scraps may be set aside for quilting, or they may be thrown away.  Now and then, after I’ve pruned the plants, I wonder – should I toss the trimmings, or start yet another pot of green-and-growing-something I have no room to maintain?

In a world so consumed with worries about “not enough”, it’s ironic that there’s often excess all around, a surplus of “this” or “that” we don’t know how to handle. Life is filled with excess: scraps of memory, leftover bits of time, a surplus of meaning here and there. Even vacations sometimes surprise us.  We come home, we unpack, and suddenly in the bottom of the bag we discover a few little extras we nearly forgot.  This re-discovery can be as pleasurable as the initial encounter, and just as important for our longer-term enjoyment of a holiday.

Fancy buttons, butter curls, or a clutch of fresh flowers aren’t necessary for a good life, and it isn’t necessary for us to recall every detail of a trip in order to enjoy the larger sweep of memory.  On the other hand, even the tiniest details of life are much like the magician’s scarf.  Tug on one corner where it peeks from a pocket, and you can pull and pull forever as the languid reach of an afternoon, the receptivity of small towns and the  colorful accidents of history flutter and drift around you.

I tugged on one of those unique “details” today, remembering my recent trip to Mississippi.  On the way I passed through  San Augustine, Texas.  Bounded on the west by Nacogdoches and on the east by Natchitoches, Louisiana, it’s a small town surrounded by reservoirs and connected for 300 years by El Camino Real.  It may be known best for the historic Mission DoloresMission Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de los Ais, first established in 1717 along Ayish Bayou.  Like so many towns along El Camino Real, it has its share of historic sites, beautiful homes and proud citizens. It also has one of the coolest police stations I’ve ever seen.

 Under normal circumstances, I’d have noticed the building and driven on. But I was on vacation, with no specific destination and no schedule to keep. Making a U-turn, I drove back to the station, remembering to signal as I crossed traffic in case someone was watching, and pulled up next to the baby blue-trimmed corrugated steel building. I pulled out my camera, walked around to the front and pushed open the door. The Chief of Police and a woman were standing inside, chatting.

“Hi,” I said, as the Chief looked me over. “I was just passing through town, and saw your building. I was wondering if you’d mind me taking some photos.” Both of them burst out laughing. “Shoot away,” the Chief grinned. The woman didn’t even look up from her paperwork. “Don’t you think that’s a poor choice of words?”  “Ah, shoot,” he said.  As I began to wonder exactly what the Chief spent his days thinking about, he looked at me and added, “Too bad you can’t get our best feature into your photos.”  “What’s that?”,  I asked.  “We finally got the roof fixed so it doesn’t leak.”

Back outside, I was in the process of photographing the cactus in the front window when the door opened. It was the woman, with something in her hand. “Here,” she said. “If you’re wanting pictures of those cactus and such, you’ll probably want a picture of Spud. He’s our police mascot.”

Spud was one of the prettiest guinea pigs I’ve seen. He’s named Spud because he’s just about the size of a nice, big Idaho baking potato, and his job is to keep up morale around the station. He didn’t exactly smile for the camera, but he didn’t wiggle or put up a fuss, either, and he raised my morale a notch or two right then and there.

Apart from Spud, an unfortunate encounter with a fire ant mound in a graveyard and a few dead armadillos along the highways, I didn’t see any more evidence of wildlife until the next day, north of Vicksburg.  Edging along the Delta National Forest on Highway 61, I glanced up to see this cautionary sign. 

An hour later, chatting with the folks at Teal’s Onward Store south of Rolling Fork, I’d learned black bears do frequent the area, that President Teddy Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot one during a 1902 hunting trip had led to the birth of the Teddy Bear, and that in the great American tradition of playing the hand you’re dealt, the Onward Store has become a shrine to the intriguing combination of President Roosevelt and McKinley Morganfield, the blues guitarist now known as Muddy Waters.

Born in Rolling Fork in 1915,  Muddy Waters surely heard the tales of The Great Bear Hunt while growing up in Clarksdale. Far more than simple sportsmanship toward the bear would have made the story interesting to him.  Roosevelt was accompanied on his trip by African American Holt Collier, known at the time as the best bear man in the Delta. Born into slavery, Collier was a crack shot with unrivaled knowledge of the land, and had served as a Confederate Scout for General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. It was Collier who tracked the bear Roosevelt refused to shoot, and the most famous cartoon at the time made clear the President’s acceptance and honorable treatment of Collier was at least as noteworthy as his unwillingness to engage in a killing of a creature that was no sport at all.

“Drawing the Line in Mississippi”
Clifford Berryman cartoon published in the November 71, 1902 edition of  “The Washington Post”
The phrase “drawing the line” commonly was understood to be a double entendre, referring not only to the bear hunt, but also to the current state of race relations.

Entranced by the mementos and history showcased by the Onward Store, I might have returned for a second visit had I not decided to move a little west and follow the River Road on my journey south.  Here, the land holds sway, its own history defined by the course of the Mississippi.   At Mound Landing, the Levee failed in the disastrous flood of 1927.  Old Prentiss, established as the seat of Bolivar County in 1852 and burned by the Federals in 1863, was entombed by a flood in 1865 before reappearing during a 1954 drought.  Reading the history, it seems area houses always were falling into the River, including one at Doro Plantation, established in the early 1850s by Charles Clark, Confederate General and wartime Governor of Mississippi (1863-1865).

Turning toward the River at the Highway 1 marker for Doro Plantation, I passed the small cemetery where General Clark and his family lies buried, then wound around through agricultural land, past a small house flying the Confederate flag and along the edge of an exquisite old pecan orchard to the Levee. The roads were beautifully maintained, so “up” it was to the top, and then down again to the whorling,  inexorable flow of the River.  After dabbling a bit at the water’s edge, I drove back to the top of the Levee and thoughtlessly followed its road until I noticed a dark spot moving along in front of me.  I hadn’t seen another vehicle for miles, so I stopped the car and got out to take a look.  Not smart enough to keep my shadow to myself, I let it fall across the creature making its way across the road.  My new little friend “turtled” on me immediately, pulling into his shell and giving me a once-over that would have made San Augustine’s police chief proud.

“Hey”, I said, getting down on my hands and knees to address the turtle more directly.  “Why don’t you poke your head out of that shell and let me take your picture?”   There was no response.   I thought perhaps a more formal introduction might help.  “My name’s Linda.  What’s yours?”   Silence.  “All right”, I said.  “Since you won’t tell me your name, I’m going to call you Doro, because that’s where I found you.  And, I’m going to make a portrait of you anyway.”  It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to get down to turtle-level to take a photo, but it worked out.  It’s even harder to read the expression in a turtle’s eyes, but he seemed not to be nervous at all – only resigned to this brief interruption of his afternoon stroll.

Finally, my photograph in hand and feeling the conversation had reached its natural conclusion, I stood up and brushed the twigs and mud off my knees. Back at the car, I leaned against the door and watched as Doro, once again enjoying full sunlight and sensing no particular threat, tentatively extended his nose, his head and then his feet from his shell. If he’d looked around he would have seen me, and if I’d moved he might have felt my presence, but he didn’t look and I didn’t move, so off he went, toward the grass that was his original destination.

His world was large, he was small and slow, but he was a determined critter. As he trundled off the levee road and into the thatch of wildflowers, I watched him disappear, overcome with delight.  Just like a certain guinea pig, he’d raised my morale a notch or two, right there on the levee. With a glance toward the horizon, I took my cue from the turtle and opened the door of my own traveling shell.  “Onward,” I thought.  “Onward.”

Doro’s Levee


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