Many Americans are passionate about saving the world’s disappearing ecosystems. Newspaper and magazine articles, television and radio documentaries, and book after book stress the need to save the plant and animal life of Amazon rain forests or the Arctic refuges or the African savannas. In Bayou Farewell, nature writer and environmental advocate Mike Tidwell brings the ecological crusade closer to home for Americans. The result of more than a year of on-site research and months of reading, Tidwell’s book catalogs the alarming losses being suffered in a little-understood area of the American South, the wide delta lands of the Mississippi River.
Tidwell went to southern Louisiana at the suggestion of an editor who thought he might find it interesting to do a book about one of those out-of-the-way places where local culture has remained relatively unaffected by trends in mainstream America. Nestled among the marshes and waterways—called bayous by the locals—live thousands of descendants of French expatriates who fled the Acadian region of Canada in the mid-eighteenth century. Known as Cajuns, these hardy but often destitute folk make a living on the water, shrimping, fishing, crabbing, and collecting oysters, which they sell to wholesalers that supply nearly 30 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States. Many still speak a patois French dialect, and almost all are fiercely devoted to their extended families and neighbors.
To get to know these Cajuns, Tidwell determined not simply to carry along a tape recorder for interviews but also to join them in their work. Arriving during the shrimping season, Tidwell began hitching rides with boat owners, agreeing to work as an unpaid deckhand in exchange for the opportunity to learn at first hand about the work and lives of the region’s people. His wanderings took him through such small towns as Leeville, Cocodrie, and Golden Meadow. Enjoying the plentiful foodstuffs of his Cajun hosts, he sailed down numerous estuaries with enchanting names such as Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Petit Caillou, and Bayou Pointe-aux-Chenes. Working until he became so stiff he could hardly stand, he shrimped and fished in some of the giant water basins, such as Barataria Bay, that lie in the Mississippi Delta.
Having lived among them, Tidwell is able to describe in detail some of the ways of the Cajuns, who party as hard as they work. Many are like Papoose Ledet, Wayne Belanger, and Tim Melancon, who own their small boats and ply the waters of the Delta. There are some colorful characters, such as Emory Melancon (no relation to Tim), known for his prowess as an alligator wrestler, or Lawrence Billiot, a traiteur, or folk healer. Tidwell lets them speak for themselves in their Cajun dialect. These people have little, he observes, but they are always willing to share with others, including strangers who come down from the North—a place still held in contempt by many in south Louisiana. While they can sense that the world around them is changing, they are resigned to whatever fate should bring.
Tidwell also provides insight into the lives of two important minorities in the region: the Houma Indians and the Vietnamese immigrants who made their way to these marshlands after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Indians were the original inhabitants of the entire southern section of Louisiana, but as the Acadian population moved into their territory, they ceded their lands and moved farther into the backwater areas where they now live, the poorest of the poor, in peace with their neighbors but apart from them. The same can be said for the Vietnamese, who compete with the Cajun majority as fishermen and shrimpers and whose industrious work ethic causes their neighbors no small measure of discomfort.
Were Mike Tidwell simply a travel writer, Bayou Farewell would no doubt be worthy of notice as a first-rate work on nature and culture. Tidwell has much more on his mind, however, than simply chronicling the lives of south Louisiana fisherman. Since returning from his work with the Peace Corps in the mid-1980’s, Tidwell has celebrated the beauties of faraway places and written persuasively of the dangers threatening their existence. His chronicle of life in the Mississippi Delta is no exception, for as Tidwell discovered almost immediately upon...
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