As seen from the air, the blue and green reflection of the sun in the Mississippi River creates a strange effect… Water is everywhere, between the ocean, the river and Lake Pontchartrain ! The roads are suspended above the water on pillars and the vegetation has its roots in the water. Water is abundant in the 9,000 square kilometers of Louisiana (a State of Southern USA) or “Lwizyàn” in the local Creole ! Throughout the southeast part of the state, the alluvial region includes marshes and swamps, and drained by channels called Bayous, a word taken from the Choctaw “Bayuk”, which means small stream. The bayous are full of water branches, extending over hundreds of acres and constituting a navigable network of thousands of miles. Unlike the mangroves, the bayou is composed of slow-moving fresh water with current reverses daily due to tides. It flows from land to sea at low tide and reverses at high tide. This marshland is also known as Cajun country, and named after the Acadians, farmers from Poitou-Charentes, Brittany and Normandy who emigrated to Canada, from which they were expelled by the British in 1755 (during the “Great Upheaval”). After a long wandering on the East Coast of the United States, the Acadian exiles finally settled in the Mississippi delta. These French-speaking Cadiens baptized their territories with names associate with French culture such as Bayou Vermillon, Bayou Mouchoir de l’Ours, Bayou Queue de Tortue, Bayou Grand Caillou or Bayou Terrebonne… The Cajun country extends north to Baton Rouge, south to the Gulf of Mexico, east to the Pearl River, and west to the Sabine River. The motto of the area is “Let the good times roll” ! So, let’s roll together… and set out to discover the mysterious and captivating Cajun country.
The Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve protects the rich natural and cultural resources of Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta region. The Park was established in 1907. It was named after Jean Lafitte, a famous French pirate and privateer in the Gulf of Mexico in the early 19th century. The park consists of six separate sites throughout the state and a visitor center in the French Quarter of New Orleans. About twenty minutes south of the city, the Barataria Preserve is one of these six sites. This natural reserve covers an area of 23,000 acres of swamps, marshes, and forests… The branches and meanders of the Mississippi River have given rise to an extraordinary network of marshes linked to the Gulf of Mexico. This wetland fed a forest resembling a dense jungle, dotted with bald cypresses up to 150 feet in high, water oaks, red maple, gommier trees, and the mysterious curtains of Spanish moss (sign of the purity of the air) that hang from live oaks and cypresses. This Spanish moss (a reference to the beard of the Spanish occupants…), daughter of the air or grandpa beard is an epiphyte that grows on other plants and absorbs nutrients (especially Ca, Mg, K, and P) and water through its leaves from moisture in the air and rainfall. Among this mixed aquatic vegetation, the bald cypress is readily recognizable by its vertical outgrowths, which are actually aerial roots known as the “Cypress Knees“.
Our journey in Louisiana would be incomplete without a trip into the mythical bayous. In the heart of the wilderness, we start our “swamp tour”, with a Cajun guide, a former alligator hunter who is always ready with a spicy story… He always seems ready to burst into “born on the bayou” by the Creedence Clearwater Revival or “Lover of the Bayou” by The Byrds. He could also easily be one of the characters of Tom Cooper’s novel (“The Marauders”) and knows where to find lying alligators and Turtles, “pop corn” for alligators (no need to say more, poor turtles !). He also watches for birds, flying or immobile trying to catch their dinner: the blue or white heron, the Great Blue Heron, the White pelican (on the state flag !), Osprey, Red-tailed hawk, Cormorant, Kingfisher, Wood duck, and not to mention the Bald or American eagle, the symbol of the nation. These marshes, offering more than 300 species of birds, are a true Eldorado for ornithological enthusiasts. Along the bayou shores is equally abundant fauna… We must be doubly vigilant to see alligators (also called “Cocodrie” in Cajun French, the undisputed star of the bayous, as they are cleverly hidden, but easier to find is the Raccoon, also called “Chaoui” in Cajun French, Catfish, and Opossums and Coypu, also known as the River Rat and detested because they destroy the riverbanks and sugarcane plantations. Could it be Juju, Mama Odie’s faithful green pet snake in Walt Disney’s animated fantasy comedy-drama film “The Princess and the Frog.” Hum, hum it looks like a Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma), the world’s only semiaquatic viper found in or near slow-moving water, marshes, shallow lakes, and streams. Adults can deliver a painful and potentially fatal bite when threatened or handled… The Bayous have a rich flora numbering some 4,500 species and including purple irises (among them the Louisiana Iris), red marsh lilies, water hyacinths, Crinum americanum, omnipresent yellow water lilies, and cypresses with conical trunks.
The flat bottomed boat slides quietly into the unspoiled natural habitat. We hold our breath as we approach two immobile eyes in the greenish water, an alligator approaches gently. Could it be the famous Ben Ali Gator of the classic 1940 animated film Fantasia by Walt Disney ? Certainly, you remember the famous scene “The Dance of the Hours” where alligators led by Ben dance with hippos, elephants and ostrich ballerinas… all the while dreaming (predatory instinct!) of eating their partners! Hum, approaching, it could just as well be Louis without his trumpet… but too late, he plunges quickly and disappears under the water and bubbles rise to the surface. Could it be preservation instinct ? The saurian is still suspicious of its number one predator, humans… According to the singer Zachary Richard, probably the best known Cajun singer in Louisiana, the hunt for “cocodrie” is still open:
“Me, I’m gonna catch-a-me a cocodrie (Mo m’attraper li cocodrie)
Gone into the swamp in my little pirogue (M’aller dans le marais de dans mon ‘tit bateau)
I’m gonna check all around for the track of that old coco (Garder à droit et à gauche pour des traces du vieux coco)
When I see that tail, I’m gonna jump in the bayou (Quand mo li voit sauter deux pieds dans le bayou)
Then put his tail on the bar-b-q and sell his skin for some Italian shoes (Pis cuire son queue sur le bar-b-q / Vendre sa peau pour des Italian shoes).
Me, I’m gonna catch-a-me a cocodrie, Gonna catch-a-me a cocodrie.
Hunting alligator is a very hard thing to do
Why that old reptile can chop you half in two
But there’s nothing as good as an alligator stew
And there’s hardly anything that can beat
Them alligator shoes upon your feet.
I’m gonna tell you a story about a Louisiana man,
I’m a-hunting and a-fishing and a-trapping everything I can
And if you want to see just how good I am,
Well come on down to the old bayou,
I’m gonna catch you a cocodrie.”
Most of the Louisiana’ plantations are along the Mississippi River, which was used for irrigation and transport. The term “plantation” refers not only to the property and its crops, but also to the main dwelling. Once houses of rich creole cotton and sugarcane planters, the plantations became museums open to the public and are located north and south of the capital Baton Rouge… Here is a story: two Native American tribes had planted a red stick in order to mark their territory. A Frenchman noted the location of the marker on his map with the notation “Baton Rouge”. The name stuck ! The Civil war and the emancipation of slaves as well as the discovery of new textiles caused a decline in cotton demand and consequently the decline of the plantations. By the end of the 19th century, those magnificent, lavish houses nestled among moss-draped live oaks disappeared little by little. Out of 350 plantations between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, only eight survive today along the banks of the Mississippi River. In Vacherie, a small village about 50 miles West of New Orleans, the Laura plantation is named after its last owner. Built in 1804 by highly-skilled Senegalese slaves using pre-fabricated, numbered boards, (ancestor of the Kapla game ?), the Laura plantation is one of the last Creole plantations in Louisiana. It still has 12 original buildings, including the main house, two Creole houses, and Acadian and slave huts. A French naval veteran of the American Revolution, Guillaume Duparc, originally from Caen, and his wife Nanette Prud’Homme (the great-grandparents of the famous Laura) were the first owners of the plantation. Our fascinating journey into the lifestyles of the past begins with the hectic family saga of the “Duparc-Locoul”… The story is based on Memories of the old plantation home: a creole family album by the great-granddaughter of the founder of the Plantation, Laura Locoul (1861-1963) and expanded by documents from the National Archives in Paris.
Shady paths lined with magnolia and moss-draped live oak trees lead to Rocking chairs on the porch. The wooden architecture of the main house follows a simple Creole style, with a gallery in the front and wide doors allowing fresh air from the Mississippi River to ventilate and cool the house. The Laura plantation is unlike the other American plantations in the neo-classical style (white houses with colonnades). Laura is in the “Caribbean” style as opposed to the British “Antebellum” ! The main house sits high above the ground with colorful, stuccoed ocher walls, green shutters, and a red roof. Inside the house, the rooms are soberly furnished, without any luxurious objects. The cypress beams, a hard wood resistant to water and termites, are about 600 years old ! During our visit, we are immersed in the daily life of the Creole family “Locoul”. Thanks to the memoires of Laura Locoul, great-granddaughter of the first owner, we walk in the footsteps of several generations. We are transported back into four generations of love and greed, pride and treason, heroism and pettiness, violence and excess, and far beyond the myth of the “Old South”. In short, a world out of William Faulkner’s The sound and the Fury ! This tour allows the visitor to understand the Creole culture and heritage as well as the history of Louisiana and of sugarcane production. We are immersed in the life of the Creoles at the time when plantation owners were the wealthiest in Louisiana thanks to the white gold of sugarcane ! Most of these wealthy families did not consider themselves “Americans”. Their identity was Creole, their language was French, and their faith was Roman Catholic. They lived outside the American mainstream until the 20th century. In 1993, the Laura plantation was listed on the U. S. National Register of Historic Places.
Let’s take a journey into the history of the “Duparc-Locoul” family. After the death of her husband in 1808, Nanette Prud’homme took the control of the sugar plantation, becoming the first of four generations of businesswomen. The plantation became one of the largest sugar producers in the region and diversified into timber and cattle… In 1829 she picked her daughter Elizabeth to succeed her as head of the plantation, thinking that she was better able than her son Louis to insure the continuity – a happy family atmosphere! Elizabeth expanded the plantation by developing an important network for the distribution of French wines in Louisiana, notably thanks to her marriage to Raymond Locoul, a wealthy French producer of Bordeaux wines and owner of “Chateau Bon-Air”. I give special mention to Grandma Elizabeth because of her tough business sense. She divided the property between her two children, Emile (Laura’s father) and Aimee, which gave rise to frequent family quarrels. Laura was born in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. “The Civil War came and the Civil War left, and nothing changed in the place” Laura wrote in her memoirs. This observation contradicts what we learn in school and from films, but it seems that life on the sugarcane plantations in Louisiana remained virtually unchanged in the aftermath of the Civil War ! The role of slaves, their living conditions and their difficulties in entering the society once freed, remained little changed as we can see in the slave quarters of which six of the original sixty-nine wooden huts survive. Here we begin to understand the complexity of the bonds that united the masters and slaves who, in the course of time, became members of the same family without ever enjoying the same rights. After many years, the rebellious heiress finally rejected the customs of the Creole world to become a modern American woman of the 20th century… diving into a parallel universe: “Gone with the wind”, history comes down to very little…