The Trembling Prairie

It has been repeated so much that it has become a cliché. Worse than a cliché, it has become an accepted reality as certain as the sun rising in the east and the falling of leaves in autumn. Complete the sentence yourself: “Louisiana loses the equivalent of a football field every _____ minutes?” Every 50 minutes? Every 45? How many? Whatever the answer, the results are the same. The Louisiana coast, the base of the Acadiana triangle, is slipping inexorably into the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. We know the presumed guilty parties: the containment of the Mississippi, which prevents the deposit of mud and fresh water in the swamps; the infiltration of saltwater brought by the countless channels network serving the oil industry; slow and ruthless rising of the sea level; the incalculable damage caused by the ravages of one hurricane after another. We have heard the stories and seen the loss with our own eyes. Places that once were used as pastures for cattle; gardens for tomatoes, okra and sweet peppers; or playgrounds and hunting grounds for young people today are under 3 feet of water. We know the culprits, but can we stop them?

In my youth, my family spent summers on Grand Isle. We played a little game to be the first to see the Leeville Bridge. Often we stopped to see family who ran a small store and visit the grave of my great-grandfather, a German immigrant abandoned by his father, who was a widower, to a Cajun family in 1850. The cemetery was oriented toward the bayou and not towards Louisiana 1. My father reminded me that for a long time, there was no road and even when there was one, it was in very poor condition most of the time. Life transpired on the bayou. Today, the dead turn their backs to the road, figuratively speaking, and it is we, the living, who turn our backs to the bayou. In any case, when we got back on the road to my grandfather’s camp, we necessarily took the bridge crossing not only Bayou Lafourche but also a channel connecting Little Lake to Barataria Bay. At the junction of two waterways was another small cemetery that you could see very clearly from the top of the bridge, as well as hundreds, thousands of acres of trembling prairie, that uncertain land that moved with the tides. Today, a new bridge is there, accompanied by a raised road like the bridge over the Atchafalaya Basin. Instead of contemplating the beauty of this scene of lush green grass gently lulled by the Gulf breeze and the serenity worthy of the last rest of our ancestors, it is difficult to distinguish the bayou from the channel, the channel from the cemetery. One sees little else than water as far as one’s eyesight carries.

Few things scare me. In fact, there are only two things that give me cold sweats. The first is a map of Louisiana showing how the coast will look in just 50 years. Thousands of small bays, bayous and islands have disappeared or almost. The second is a recurring dream, a nightmare really, I have. I’m going down LA 1 again as I have done all my life. I get to the locks south of Golden Meadow, and I go up the small levee separating those who will be protected from rising waters, at least for a few years, from those who are not. When I go down the small slope on the other side, rather than seeing the homes and small fishing shops, I only see the road that plunges into the water. The rest is the Gulf of the Mexico. So what can we do? Many people smarter than I are trying to find a solution. While awaiting their response, I tremble like the prairie of my youth when I think about all we will lose if we lose the coast. It is time we stop turning our back on the bayou.