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It is all here, from every section of the state and from some nearby states as well to satisfy all palates for all occasions, and some of the curiosity surrounding erstwhile guarded family and exclusive restaurant recipes. In compiling the recipes for this volume, Miss Ruby has included those that reflect the potpourri of international influences upon the preparation of Louisiana's prolific agricultural products and of the fish, seafood and wildlife that abound in our rivers and bayous, our lakes and bays, and in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition, she has invited her family members and friends into the reader's kitchen to add to his or her enjoyment, to stir nostalgic memories and to guarantee success. Bon Appetit! Hale Boggs. Condition: Very Good. Signed pages. Author's signature and inscription upon front endpaper, else clean and unmarked. Light wear to glossy illustrated yellow boards. Excellent attractive copy. CLEAN very good hardcover with very good dust jacket. Size: Folio - over 12" - 15" tall. Published by Tony Chachere's Creole Foods Very good hardcover with spiral binding. Pages are clean and unmarked.
Seller Inventory BD4. The difference, I believe, is how ideas of what constitutes a good time here more often spring from tangled history, family traditions, and specific Louisiana geography than they do from pop culture. Everywhere I traveled, I found a mixing of the generations. But in the places representative of south Louisiana culture—the dancehalls and parade routes, the horse tracks and marinas, the waterways and the festivals, the places I recommend for finding Louisiana culture in action rather than on display—people of different generations mingle deeply, and everyone seems to have a blast.
To me, nothing sums up a quintessential Louisiana good time quite like a scene combining young people and old people in a distinctively local setting. Cook advised after I told him about my plans for this book. Everything will be a little off. But I had no idea what was in store, nor could I imagine just how often his words would ring in my head during my rambles. Here is what I found. We turned a bayou corner, breaking the sightline to our cars parked at the rustic, unmarked launching point behind us just off Highway 51 in St.
John the Baptist Parish, and at once the extent of the dry, tidy world was reduced to the slim plastic hull of each canoe moving quietly through black water. Over the next few hours, this trip took us though natural bayous, long-abandoned lumber canals, freshwater marsh, and labyrinthine cypress swamps. Then, after sunset, we would thread our return through the same route by the light of the moon and the sense of immersion would become complete.
At night, another canoe could be just a few feet astern, but we felt quite on our own under the pearly moonlight and amid the ringing nocturnal cacophony of bugs and birds and beasts. It was just the sort of plunge into Louisiana nature I needed after spending too much uninterrupted time tied up in urban New Orleans and sinking so deeply into the paths and patterns of my city life. One need only look at a regional map or through the window of a car departing the city over the highway to see how abruptly the ordered, developed realm of New Orleans and its suburbs ends.
The defining south Louisiana terrain of swamp, marsh, river, and 3 4 Manchac by Moonlight estuary lies immediately past the levees and floodwalls, presenting an easily accessible, occasionally menacing, reliably alluring territory just over the hedge of human maintenance. The outing was led by Byron Almquist, a trim sixty-something with an easy manner and a calm voice. Byron uses moon phase calendars to schedule his night paddles, choosing Saturdays closest to the monthly full moon. Our route too had been carefully calculated to take in a range of watery habitat around the edges of the Manchac wetlands, a tangled, trackless stretch covering some two hundred square miles between Lake Maurepas and the Mississippi River.
The settings, the sounds, and the water currents all changed as we moved in our canoes from relatively open bayous to tight swamp passages through dense forest. Everywhere, though, our canoes cut through a thin green growth of lentil-shaped platelets matting the water, and our path was lined by cypress trees draped with fleecy Spanish moss, waving like curtains in the light breeze.
We occasionally spotted the snouts of alligators, which looked so much like floating branches that we assumed all future floating branches were alligators until they proved themselves otherwise. He would rise to stand in his canoe, a surefooted show of balance that made him look like a holy man addressing the attentive flock sitting by twos and threes in their own canoes under the sweep of his arms.
But his approach was gentle and soft-spoken and he shared what was clearly a lifetime of observed and studied knowledge.
Reading: Meeting Ian McNulty
We learned that some of that vegetal mat over the water was native the tiny duckweed , and some was invasive the prodigious salvinia that chokes so many Louisiana waterways. Cypresses are the marquee trees of the Louisiana swamp. They grow tall, spreading their limbs out horizontally from their upper reaches like the arms of scarecrows strung with rags of moss. Sometimes they can look a bit ragged, but they are supremely well-suited to the wet south Louisiana environment and can grow stout and tall straight out of swamp water.
The ambient feeling was dense, cloaking, feral, and I was briefly tempted to think of the area as virgin territory. But the stamp of man was still close at hand. The straight, broad canals we had paddled to get here were dug more than a century ago to extract billions of board feet of cypress, which eventually became the sort of lumber used to build most of the homes in my New Orleans neighborhood around that same time. Once we breached the thickest stand of cypress swamp, we emerged into a gentle, watery glade where the channel narrowed to a motionless corridor flanked by bottle-green rushes and the tall, flat leaves of arrowhead plants.
We had packed our own suppers, and as the sun sank over the tall cypress tree line we dined in our canoes. Soon the soggy magentas and coral pinks of the western sky faded completely, and the promised moon shined down on the water, alternately beaming and shrouded as granite-shaded clouds cruised past.
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The arrival of dark signaled a circadian shift change in the swamp, and on some deep, chromosomal cue the teeming insects, frogs, and birds were set to glorious shrieking, gurgling, singing, and ticking. They sounded like antsy children or cooped-up puppies finally unleashed to play. The authors of all this nightlife were invisible, but they were so close we could follow their individual sounds moving just behind a thick veil of reeds. It was like tracking unseen Muppets on a romp, and at times it sounded like they were giggling and chortling from offstage.
The baritone bullfrogs were particularly impressive, letting loose their deep booms, like thuds against metal. Never in my life had I heard an owl sound so completely and convincingly like an owl as one that then let out a manly, layered, multinote hoot as we paddled slowly along.
The hush lasted just a few seconds, however, and then the creaking, croaking, skittering, burping sounds of the swamp resumed. The canoes slid on, adding the thin slithering sounds of their prows through the still water. We had been in the dark for about forty-five minutes when the guides broke out powerful flashlights and began illuminating random stretches of the bayou banks. Can you see his eyes? They could only be alligator eyes. Alligators were hard to spot by the light of day, but their eyes sparkled like red rubies when hit by a light at night.
The moving spotlights identified a few more, so the count rose to seven alligators sitting motionless in the water with their illuminated red dot eyes spaced as regularly as the taillights of distant cars. Suddenly, the bayou felt very narrow and hemmed within such parallel silent gazing. It was a bit unnerving to realize so many toothy reptiles had been silently watching us from the banks all this time, but it was clear they wanted no business with us. If they moved at all under the spotlights, it was merely to submerge or silently propel themselves out of the ray.
Anyway, our attention was soon commanded by more immediate company. But what is sufficient for an evening spell on the porch at home is good for only a few minutes in the swamp. The spotlights showed holding patterns of mosquitoes above the canoes. Soon enough we would be back at the darkened launch site, where our cars would fairly glow where we had left them by the roadside and where the nearby interstate would boom above us with semis and the loud tailpipes of passing bikes driving in the night. But for the next little while, on this last leg of the trip, the alligator spotlights were dimmed and silence took hold again within the canoes.
The nearest sound was the dipping paddle, and the reflected moon bounced and swirled on the little waves of each stroke. Somehow, when my desk neighbor at the office suggested I book a riverboat trip up the Mississippi on Christmas Eve to watch people light huge conflagrations on the levee, it seemed like just the thing. You know, the Cajun Santa Claus. The Cajun Queen was essentially a steel barge built up with layered decks styled after the old gothic paddlewheel steamboats. It had room for hundreds. I filed into line with families and couples bound for their holiday trip and once aboard settled in for a very long cruise upriver.
James Parish. The nexus for Christmas Eve bonfires in south Louisiana is the riverfront in St. The trip takes only about forty-five minutes on the highway. For all the majesty and romance the Mississippi River conjures in the literary imagination, this particular stretch offered muddy miles of banks lined with dun-colored trees in winter drab, interrupted at regular intervals by the loading ports for huge refineries that towered up on the other side of the levees. The package deal for this holiday cruise included an open bar, however, and that made the entire roundtrip go more easily.
James Parish riverfront towns famous for their levee bonfires. Everyone bundled up against the cold river wind and headed to the top deck. Families clustered together and clutched their drinks, shivering and laughing. I wedged my way snugly between the coats and elbows of two groups to claim a little gap at the rail. I was eager to get to the main event and see if this trip had been worth it. Up ahead, just past the next dark bend of the nighttime river, the sky was glowing all warm pumpkin orange over the tree line, and I could hear indistinct sounds of popping and grumbling.
After a few minutes more the full panorama was revealed. The girders of the Gramercy Bridge passed above us, and suddenly the east bank of the river was lit by so many bonfires the scene looked like a painted wall of rising flame, one broken only by the black superstructures of ships cruising past and circling around before us. A cannonade of heavy-duty fireworks ripped out from the shadowy levee ridge, and their payloads fell in the water nearby or exploded in huge bursts overhead.
The air smelled like smoke and fuel, and it echoed loudly with the rumble of maritime engines. The deep call of ship horns boomed like excited truckers between the crack and zoom of fireworks. Our boat maneuvered nearer to the banks, and by looking closely I could see darkened outlines of people clustered in tribes around individual bonfires or trotting the levee top, pausing to toss more fireworks at the bonfires or to kneel by launchers to aim rockets toward the river and, it appeared, toward us.
It all looked so chaotic and wonderful. I hope the other passengers on the Cajun 11 12 Alight Christmas Queen that Christmas Eve came away with warm holiday memories, but I was glad to have these little historical fantasies to occupy my mind on the long cruise home. James Parish, which is made up of small towns, sprawling sugarcane fields, historic plantation houses, and the immense outposts of global industrial concerns.
But evidence of the bonfire traditions turns up all over the parish and beyond. Many families build their own solitary bonfires at hunting camps and country homes, where they burn only for the eyes of their Christmas Eve guests. Visiting Laura Plantation across the river in Vacherie one year, just after Thanksgiving, I saw that a neat bonfire pyre was already waiting by the front of the property.
During the long cruise back from Gramercy on my first Louisiana Christmas Eve I even spied the occasional bonfire burning quite on its own amid miles of riverfront darkness. The pop explanation of the tradition holds that the bonfires light the river journey of Papa Noel, just like my old coworker first explained. Another explanation suggests the fires were originally intended as welcoming markers for riverboats headed home on Christmas Eve.
But the late local historian Emily Chenet Guidry did some digging and traced a much longer and deeper heritage behind the tradition. She linked the bonfires to pre-Christian druid rituals River Levee Bonfires and Papa Noel marking the winter solstice in Europe, as well as seasonal bonfire traditions that persist in parts of France and Germany.
Through interviews with elderly residents of St. James Parish, she tracked the Louisiana rendition at least to the late nineteenth century, when they seemed to take the form of individual family gatherings. She recorded how children were dispatched during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to forage for willow logs and other combustibles for the family pyres in the swampy backwoods or in the batture over the levee.
All manner of flotsam wound up in the piles, and as automobiles became commonplace their discarded tires became especially prized as bonfire fuel. Thankfully, such noxious additions are no longer typical, and now fathers and sons are usually responsible for collecting the willows together to build their bonfires, starting the harvest and construction just after Thanksgiving. Those familiar with rural Louisiana manliness should find it no surprise that in more recent times a competitive fever gripped the tradition, with families vying to build the most creative and richly detailed bonfire structures.
Some were fantastical, built as faithfully wrought models of local plantation homes complete with smoke channels engineered into the structure so that when lit the first wafts would flow up willow-log chimneys. Others were based on familiar totems of the local oil industry, like rigs and helicopters and workboats, all of it fated to go up in raging flames on Christmas Eve. Now, most pyres are built in a uniform pyramid shape, standing eighteen feet tall and looking like sturdy log tepees.
Each of the three big bonfire towns builds one special theme structure each year, however, just to keep the good creative challenge going. So amid the standardized ranks of tepee shapes, there can be the occasional fleur-de-lis shape or model Cajun cabin rendered in willow logs atop the levee, waiting for the torch. If any cultural group is primed to embrace a custom that sends the boys into the woods with tools and trucks, requires them to build something big, public, and possibly dangerous 13 14 Alight Christmas and then calls for a ritualistic party with lots of eating and drinking outdoors while the whole creation burns to the ground, it is the people of south Louisiana.
The skills required to put on a good Christmas Eve bonfire have been honed at hunting camps and football stadium parking lots for generations. James Parish to see the bonfires up close. We arrived shortly before sunset to find the riverfront teeming with activity. Cars poured along the narrow River Road and people toed the ditches on either side of it.
There was a big party in progress at just about every home facing the levee, with rental tents set up in front yards and delicious, pork-scented grill smoke cutting through the chilly December air. Four-wheelers zipped up the levee, delivering more ice chests or steaming cast-iron tureens of hot food to the groups of people sitting around each of the unlit log tepees.
I could not believe the number of pyres. As we walked the levee top we came upon a new one every fifty yards or so. The municipal boundaries of the three big bonfire towns follow the old plantation land divisions, the French arpent system that gave each planter a narrow but extremely valuable frontage on the river from which to ship crops from the long property stretching on behind it. So although we parked upriver in Paulina, after less than three miles of walking the levee top we had crossed through Lutcher entirely and reached Gramercy and its overarching river bridge while passing perhaps a hundred pyres along the way.
As the sun sank completely, the vibe among the people walking the levee and encamped around the pyres turned from anticipation to rippling excitement. Men paced around the perimeters of their structures and kids tugged at their sleeves, asking when, when, when. People sitting in camp chairs around ice chests and barbecue grills kept glancing down the line, craning for any flicker on a distant pyre. Nobody wants to miss the first spark. Finally, word came down from the authorities convened by idling fire engines at a riverfront firehouse in Gramercy.
Directly opposite the firehouse, a young man atop the levee lit a flare and chucked River Levee Bonfires and Papa Noel it into his awaiting tinderbox pyramid. The fire took just a second to catch, and the blaze spread as quickly as spilled water. Then the family at the next site lit their own fire, followed by the next and so on. People were patient and generally waited until the link in the chain ahead of them was lit before setting theirs ablaze. The effect was incredible. It looked like flames jumping up on the arm of a gigantic gas grill or a fiery wave cheer making its way along burning stadium stands.
While most bonfires now conform to a uniform size and shape, families have other ways to set their own apart. Some also load their pyres with reams and reams of red firecrackers, which drape the log structures like belts of ammo. Further, the innards of the pyre may be jammed with wood scraps and kindling and then often liberally soaked in kerosene. These are structures of cartoon-like combustibility, like some explosive death trap Wile E. Coyote plants for Roadrunner but falls victim to himself. No wonder, then, that as each party put a flare to its pyre, the thing went up so fiercely.
Soon, the long, long string of fires looked like an ancient row of violent volcanoes spewing flames and launching showers of sparks. All the smoke made a low ceiling on the night sky, while the flames and the machine gun flashes from countless thousands of firecrackers heaped on the blazes kept the billows weirdly illuminated. Shells zoomed, rockets hissed, and the sky just above the flaming bonfires was filled with bright exploding constellations and falling spider webs of sparkle bursts.
Below, the levee scene was a huge, intermingling party. There were thousands of people gathering on the levee slope, and the people right beneath the fires occasionally had to scatter as chunks of the pyres came loose and rolled, burning, down the slope toward them. Others had staked out relatively peaceful ground between the big blazes. They sat on blankets or camp chairs, people-watching, 15 16 Alight Christmas drinking wine from plastic cups and eating Christmas Eve picnics by the wild, primordial light of a hundred raging levee-top fires.
The pyres began to crumble in succession, releasing more burning logs to roll down the levee. Guys on four-wheelers kept trucking up the slope, bearing more beer and fireworks to the hardcore crews in leaguer around the dwindling fires. Driving out of town, I took a wrong turn at the highway, and we found ourselves on the Gramercy Bridge, heading over the river with nowhere to turn around until we made the other side.
Regarding “St. James Infirmary” and other things related to the book “Letters From New Orleans”
It was a mistake that proved to be an early Christmas gift. The hundred or so fires seemed meticulously spaced, like a string of orange pearls along the black river. The bursts of fireworks were now low and tiny, and each collapsed pyre looked like a steady burning wick.
It could have been the culmination of some massive, ancient rite orchestrated by the druids themselves. I always want to make that wrong turn over the bridge whenever I come back to bonfire night. Built like a future college football lineman, his straight blond hair sweeping past his shoulders, he walked over the lawn with a heavy, early-adolescent plod and he carried an air rifle.
There were rabbits in cages, a pair of goats roaming freely, a beak-jawed snapping turtle the size of a coffee table, and foot-long baby alligators sitting in a plastic paint bucket. There were probably more creatures too, but once the adult alligator appeared all else faded to the periphery.
ZZ led me to a short chain-link fence staked out just a few feet from the edge of a pond not much larger than a backyard swimming pool. We both peered ahead. The water was olive drab and still except for the impact of a few bugs lighting off the surface here and there. He found a stone and tossed it into the pond. Its head appeared first, bobbing up like a submerged buoy. It was the size of a footlocker and looked flattened, with just the bulbs of its eyes and bump of its snout jutting up. The rest of the animal followed in stages, so that a second later its midsection showed up, studded with pyramidal bumps, followed by a long tail as thick as a telephone pole at its base and flared with fin-like spines toward the end.
It was also very near, even before it started paddling closer to the wire fence, which suddenly looked more symbolic than protective. The creature stopped about five feet away from my sneakers and began making loud hissing and clicking noises, like a mechanical, unblinking version of itself. It seemed ancient, mythical, and a little unreal. It was as if a fantastical dragon had materialized in the green water beneath my eyes. To ZZ though, and to lots of other kids growing up on the bayou, alligators like this are just part of the family business.
ZZ shows off the modern day dinosaur that lives in his backyard for camera-toting strangers from the city. They had long been hunted for their hides, and by the nineteenth century their oil was even used to grease cotton gins and steam engines. But once an improved tanning process was developed to soften their famously tough skins for belts and boots and purses, commercial demand skyrocketed and their numbers dwindled. The combination of habitat 19 20 Airboats and Alligators loss and overhunting reduced the Louisiana alligator population to an estimated one hundred thousand by the s.
A management program enacted since that nadir has done wonders for the species, however. Hunting is now heavily regulated and limited to a short season in September. Commercial alligator ranchers are required to return a portion of their stock to the wild once the animals grow big enough to fend for themselves. One of these operations, Insta-Gator Ranch and Hatchery in the town of Abita Springs, even offers tours, which end with the chance to pet and fondle tiny, helpless hatchlings.
Thanks to these efforts, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries now estimates the wild alligator population stands at 1. That equals about one alligator in the wild for every three people living in Louisiana, and there are many more alligators on ranches. In alone, Louisiana ranchers hatched more than , baby alligators. Driving up to Baton Rouge one afternoon on Highway 61—the old, interesting, preinterstate route known as Airline Highway—I spotted a pair of them on the roadside pavement.
They stood there with their toothy mouths agape, looking like irritated old ladies stranded at a crosswalk, glowering at discourteous motorists. It must have been creamed by an eighteen-wheeler, because the dead creature looked big enough to flip my little Toyota truck had I hit it. There are occasional news reports of alligators turning up in backyards or under cars in suburban driveways, though cases of attacks against people are very rare, which is another credit to the management program.
The state takes about four thousand nuisance alligator calls a year. Regulators reward the licensed trappers dispatched to handle the problem with the valuable alligator carcass itself. Some are based very close to New Orleans, including the excellent Honey Island Swamp Tour in Slidell, and some even offer pickup service from city hotels. A twenty-minute drive from French Quarter courtyards and business district office towers is about all it takes to reach Louisiana wilderness and prime gator country.
These tours feature much more than alligators. For most of the outing, visitors simply get to experience the raw tranquility of the swamp with abundant flora and birdlife all around. Especially in the years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many tours also have begun emphasizing the ecological destruction that makes some of these tour areas see-them-while-you-can propositions unless the coastal crisis gets priority attention very soon. But the star attraction on any of these tours is the alligator. Promotional brochures all but guarantee up-close alligator sightings, and many tour operators entice gators to play along with the show by feeding them chunks of raw chicken and other goodies from the side of the boats.
But that golf ball still is capable of putting one and one together, and thanks to consistent food conditioning some alligators clearly associate tour boats with free meals. Black, a one-time state trooper, is a lean, soft-spoken Cajun with a white mustache and the gentle bearing of a favorite uncle or youngat-heart grandfather.
He got into the swamp tour business about twenty years ago and built his own boat, which is a small metal barge with an awning, an outboard engine, and a red, white, and blue paint job. It looks a bit like a float from a small-town Mardi Gras parade. I arrived for the tour by myself, but I had plenty of company amid a group of Mennonites taking a day off from a Katrina recovery volunteer mission.
Together we chugged away from the dock under an overcast sky that threatened rain and started off along oilfield service canals busy with barges, tugs, and small aluminum-hulled maintenance boats shuttling here and there. Periodically, Black pulled us off the main course to inspect swampy cul-de-sacs where the canal merged with bayous and gave way to dense forest. This was as close to the actual swamp as the barge could get us, but it still afforded a sense of otherworldliness.
Purple and white flowers formed wild grottos framed by palmetto fans. While we scanned the skies for eagles, our guide brought out his small, boxy, Cajun accordion and his acoustic guitar. In addition to his other pursuits, Black is a musician with a number of original songs to his credit. Sure enough, there at the head of the channel I could make out an expanding and approaching delta-shaped ripple, and soon I recognized the flatiron of an alligator head moving on the surface.
I could see nothing behind it but the dark, swampy tree line under gathering storm clouds, and as the head drew closer bunches of floating hyacinths bobbed on its wake. Meanwhile, Black had stowed his instruments and hooked a raw chicken thigh to an aluminum pole. Soon the alligator was right below our eyes and our cameras. It looked like a six-footer, and it maneuvered with slick ease through the dark water, paddling in circles so quickly by the side of the barge it seemed to almost catch its own tail. All the while it kept its reptile eyes on the meat hook that Black dangled over the side.
As he lowered the chicken pole, the alligator rose from the water—possibly leaping, possibly using its powerful tail as support, but in any case looking like a dog up on its hind legs begging treats. The gathering clouds finally let loose a shower that turned the water into gray slate jumping with tiny splashes. The most thrilling, though, is the often-derided but ohso-fun-to-ride airboat. Airboats are simple, loud and fast. They have flat-bottomed metal hulls and sport rows of bench seating that are raised up so high from the deck they look like lifeguard stands.
Behind the pilot rises a huge, open motor, which is usually either custom built for the craft or salvaged from an old Cadillac.
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This motor turns a caged propeller that looks big enough to power a cargo aircraft. With all of its weight positioned so high, the craft can skim across the very top of the water, and occasionally the land. There is no speedometer and there are no brakes. My first airboat outing was with an operator called, plainly enough, Airboat Tours, which is run by Arthur and Cathy Matherne. Yet again I joined a random group of tour companions, and this time I lucked out with the fun-loving, big-laughing Burnett-Chapman family visiting from Arkansas.
It was good that we all got along, since the six-passenger airboat made for close quarters. Soon all of us were crammed together on the benches like one too many parties squeezing onto a love seat. We puttered along a narrow bayou, waving to families headed out on whalers with fishing rods and to guys fishing from the docks behind Highway 90 gas stations. Craig used our slow time in this no-wake zone to go through his pretour safety instructions. This rigmarole was pretty brief. All six of us raised our hands. We raced toward a clump of trees and veered left at the last moment, sending up reefs of water from the sharp edge of the boat.
He weaved us through channel markers like a slalom course. Then, without any advance clue, he hit a sharp turn at the edge of the pond, and we were in a narrow channel just as suddenly as the Batmobile shooting into the Batcave. The swamp part of this swamp tour was about to start. Airboats sometimes get a bad rap in this age of hands-off ecotourism. They move very fast in an environment where everything else at least superficially seems still and peaceful, and they cut through it all like crude, gas-guzzling, homemade swamp hot rods.
If paddling through the swamp in a canoe is like pedaling down a bicycle path, riding an airboat is like blasting through the park on a chopper bike. Even some other tour operators criticize airboats as being so loud and so fast that they scare away the wildlife the tourists came to see 25 26 Airboats and Alligators in the first place. That certainly proved true on my trip with Airboat Tours, but it was one of my favorite parts of the outing.
Quite to the contrary, in fact, we had a panorama of the fight or flight instinct in action as the roaring airboat effectively flushed all these creatures from the bush. Craig gunned us down the marshy passes, and at every turn great flocks of egrets burst toward the sky like white, flapping explosions.
Greasy-looking nutria and muskrats scrambled up swampy banks. Deer dashed high-stepping over marsh to the tree line and, in the water, the occasional alligator would do a startled barrel roll in front of us, splashing with its tail as it sought cover in a hurry. Craig had calmer scenes in store for us too. But the airboat splits the difference and can skip over water and wetland alike. We even cruised up and over a short levee to move from a canal to a mass of marsh, and later we skimmed the top of thickly weeded groves before hitting recognizable water again.
The payoff came when Craig cut the engine altogether so we could coast through cypress cloisters secluded in the swamp interior. The tree trunks rose all around us, and they were as bare as columns all the way up for a few stories until their first limbs cropped out to buttress a leafy green ceiling, vaulted here and there by gaps of penetrating sunlight. These swamp spaces were so still and thickly hemmed by growth they seemed like chambers, and Craig navigated us gently from one to the next. Once again my hair was blown back, the boat ripped over the water, and quickly we were out in an open patch that looked like a broad, watery meadow.
He stopped the engine, the boat corkscrewed to a halt, and as I regained my whirling senses and forced my eyes to focus, I saw, spread out all around us, a teeming stretch of American lotus. These water plants have a wonderland look, with their circular, fairy tale—big green leaves, and buttery-yellow blossoms held up on stiff stalks three feet above the water. One is captivating enough, and here we were surrounded by thousands upon thousands of them. Like cups waiting out here for you with pure rainwater.
At its base, under the soft petals, we found a seedpod, which looked just like a green showerhead. Craig cracked it open and started digging out its acorn-sized seeds, which he handed around for us to eat. But Craig had a plan. On the way back to the dock, he pointed us along another narrow canal and throttled down. I looked back over my shoulder to see him pivoting his head from side to side, scanning the banks like a turret. In a moment, he was scooping his hands through the water, and, as though grabbing a rubber ducky from the bathwater, he came up with a tiny baby alligator.
Its head was no larger than my thumb. We all took turns gently cupping the alligator in our palms, cooing at it and posing for photos with it held near our faces. It was undeniably very cute.
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Its infantile eyes were hugely out of proportion with its body, like a reptilian kewpie doll. But every other feature looked just like a scaled-down alligator. Eight hundred pounds later, I thought, this creature might still be on the tour. I toured them on school field trips with my classmates, and when visitors came to stay with us in the summer I sometimes toured them again with my family.
Glamour shots of their imposing facades and glittering interiors turn up in tourism campaigns and anything else attempting to posit the Biggest Little State in the Union as an elegant destination. In my mental catalogue of Louisiana travel destinations, I relegated them to tour bus fodder, sites for people interested in admiring formal gardens and antique furniture and oohing and ahhing over the displays of lost wealth like some antebellum episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
The author develops his memoir beyond the events of August into an examination of what makes a community significant. Ian McNulty has been writing about the life and culture of New Orleans since as a reporter, columnist, and author. He is a staff writer for the New Orleans Advocate, where he focuses on the food culture of one of the world's great food cities, and his radio commentaries air weekly on the New Orleans NPR affiliate. For many months after Hurricane Katrina, life in New Orleans meant negotiating streets strewn with debris and patrolled by the United States Army.
Most of the city was without power.
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