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A Wetland Biography

[ Environment/Conservation ]

A Wetland Biography

Seasons on Louisiana's Chenier Plain

By Gay M. Gomez

In this multifaceted study, Gay Gomez explores the interaction of the land, people, and wildlife of the Chenier Plain, revealing both the uniqueness of the region and the challenges it faces.

1998

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 286 pp. | 57 b&w photos, 4 maps, 1 figures, 19 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-72812-7

Louisiana's Chenier Plain is a 2,200-square-mile region of marshes and oak-covered ridges (cheniers) that stretches along the Gulf of Mexico from Sabine Lake to Vermilion Bay. Its inhabitants, some 6,000 people of Cajun and other ancestries, retain strong economic and cultural ties to the land and its teeming wildlife. They call it paradise...but it is a vulnerable paradise. In this multifaceted study, Gay Gomez explores the interaction of the land, people, and wildlife of the Chenier Plain, revealing both the uniqueness of the region and the challenges it faces.

After describing the geography and history of the Chenier Plain, Gomez turns to the lifeways of its people. Drawing on their words and stories, she tells how the chenier dwellers combine modern occupations with traditional pursuits such as alligator and waterfowl hunting, fur trapping, and fishing. She shows how these traditions of wildlife use provide both economic incentives for conservation and a source of personal and place identity. This portrait of a "working wetland" reveals how wildlife use and appreciation can give rise to a stewardship that balances biological, economic, and cultural concerns in species and habitat protection.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • 1. Comprehending the Complete Wetland
  • 2. Chenier Journeys
  • 3. Cycles and Seasons
  • 4. Alligators
  • 5. Waterfowl
  • 6. Furbearers
  • 7. Fisheries
  • 8. Wetlands, Wildlife, and People
  • Appendix 1. Common Fauna and Flora of the Louisiana Chenier Plain
  • Appendix 2. Alligator Research Conducted at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Carpeting the marsh in October is an unfamiliar flower. Its buds are tightly closed; I am unacquainted with its leaf structure. Field guides place it in the family Compositae (Asteraceae), but they offer no further guidance at this stage in the flower's development. Only when the buds begin to open and layer after layer of yellow petals unfolds does the flower reveal its identity. It is the bur-marigold, Bidens laevis, locally known as the "fourchette" because of its sharp, forked seed.

Knowing its identity, however, is not enough to understand its place in the complex and dynamic ecosystem of the Louisiana Chenier Plain, a 2,200-square-mile wetland that borders the Gulf of Mexico between Sabine Lake and Vermilion Bay. Only after talking to area residents, trappers, and biologists do I learn that the fourchette's pelt-piercing seed damages nutria hides to such an extent that the flower's proliferation may toll the death knell for the state's fur industry.

Like these yellow flowers that brighten the autumn marsh, the wetland itself is a place of multiple meanings. Residents, visitors, refuge managers, and agency personnel see the wetland through lenses that selectively reflect and refract the interplay of land, people, and resources, producing different images of the same region. These single images alone are like the flower bud: they offer the promise of understanding, but they only partially fulfill it. To comprehend the complete wetland, the petals must unfold, layer by layer, revealing not only the character of the place, but its many interpretations and meanings.

This chapter begins the unfolding. It presents the Louisiana Chenier Plain as a distinct region, explains the value of studying such regions, and charts a path toward understanding wetlands from a more comprehensive perspective. Its holistic view acknowledges a message I heard often on the cheniers: "You can't separate people from wetlands."

The Geographical Region

If defining a region is a prerequisite for describing and understanding it, one need only take to the air high above the Gulf of Mexico's arcing coastline to discover the Chenier Plain as a distinct geographical en tity. Like two arms joined overhead by clasped hands, the belt of marshland that fringes the Gulf Coast expands broadly at its northern extremity, the gift of the Mississippi River to Louisiana. It is in these extensive wetlands that something unusual catches the eye.

Descending closer to observe Louisiana's coastline, three zones emerge (Map 1). Where the Mississippi River spills its fresh, sediment-laden waters into the Gulf of Mexico, new marshes build from plumes of milkchocolate-brown mud. This active delta zone, visible near the river's mouth, is greatly constrained by human intervention in the form of levees, dredging, and jetties that aid navigation and flood control along the river's course but prevent the influx of land-building sediments into the coastal marshes.

Immediately west of the active delta is a zone of extensive but subsiding marshland crossed from north to south by meandering bayous that are currently the Mississippi's distributaries but once marked the river's former courses. These inactive delta marshes are bisected by the bottomland hardwood swamp of the Atchafalaya River Basin and extend inland up to 50 miles.

Leaving the Deltaic Plain, as these two zones are collectively known, the airborne observer continues west across Vermilion Bay to an area of lakes and marshlands where a striking new topographical feature appears. Here, in a 110-mile-long by 20-mile-wide swath, a series of tree-covered ridges stretches across the marsh from east to west, paralleling the shoreline. These long, narrow ridges, called cheniers (shuh-NEERS), are inhabited by people who have established linear settlements literally on the edge of the wetlands. While the ridges give the Chenier Plain its name, it is the combination of people and place that gives the region its character and identity. Understanding the region, then, means understanding the nature and relevance of this intrinsic union.

Why Study Regions?

"The study of regionalism," writes anthropologist William R. Ferris,

is the study of the relation between people and the places in which they live. Such study can be approached from the outside, as anthropologists often do, entering cultures and places foreign to their own, or from the inside, as artists and writers have often done.

The ultimate geographical exposition of region is a marriage of the two approaches. While the outsider's view allows reflective detachment, the insider's perspective permits a grasp of the everyday realities of people who live in, use, and value the region. Both are essential. "By bridging academic fields and by bridging inner and outer worlds," Ferris continues, "the study approximates a holistic vision of knowledge."

Traditional geographies, however, often fail to capture and communicate the essential character of the regions they describe, for they neglect a vital component of any place: the thoughts and actions of its people. Why bother with this "insider's viewpoint"? There are two main reasons. Regions, first of all, define and explicate the essence of a nation, and its people are a vital part. Second, comprehending regions from the perspectives of those who inhabit and use them is vital to engendering a sense of connection with and concern for places, understanding that can lead to informed decision making and greater local involvement.

These statements echo the words of nature writer Barry Lopez and agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry. America is first and foremost a nation of regions, argues Lopez.

The land itself, vast and differentiated, defies the notion of a national geography. If applied at all it must be applied lightly, and it must grow out of the concrete detail of local geographies.

These local geographies reside not in books alone but "with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of leaves and night sounds." Under standing is the product of both time and intimacy with place, yet it is not beyond the reach of the person willing to learn from a region's inhabitants. Living with them and heeding their ways illuminates the processes of attachment to place, the attachment that geographer Yi-Fu Tuan terms "topophilia."

From an environmental perspective, Wendell Berry cites an important ethical justification for communicating this intimate level of understanding:

Without a complex knowledge of one's place, and without the faithfulness to one's place on which such knowledge depends,it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed.

Lopez seconds this warning:

The more superficial a society's knowledge of the real dimensions of the land it occupies becomes, the more vulnerable the land is to exploitation, to manipulation for short-term gain.

Regional geography, therefore, serves a purpose beyond general enhancement of knowledge. Geography has a power about it: a power to speak to people, if the words are carefully chosen; a power to teach with stories that beckon the mind with their illustrative force; and a power to connect people with the land and with each other. "Geography," states Lopez,

is finally knowledge that calls up something in the land we recognize and respond to. It gives us a sense of place and a senseof community. Both are indispensable to a state of well-being, an individual's and a country's.

This study of Louisiana's Chenier Plain contributes to that state of well-being on three levels. Within the discipline of geography, it seeks to encourage geographers to reexamine the nature of regions and provides a model for description and interpretation from multiple viewpoints. In the public sector, the study stresses the importance of understanding regions holistically and urges policymakers and planners both to reacquaint themselves with the particulars of places and to incorporate local perspectives into their decision-making processes. On the local level, my aim is twofold. First, I wish to record a history and heritage that has much to teach but that is disappearing with the memories of the elder generation. Second, by elucidating a spectrum of viewpoints, I hope to enhance communication among the diverse groups of people who use and value Chenier Plain wetlands.

As marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, and other wetlands decline worldwide, a more thorough comprehension of these biologically rich and culturally diverse regions becomes essential to conservation efforts. In this context, Louisiana's Chenier Plain has valuable lessons to impart. The region exemplifies a "working wetland" where traditions of wildlife use and appreciation have combined to produce a form of stewardship that seeks to balance biological, economic, and cultural concerns in species and habitat protection.

The Pyramid of Understanding

How does one begin to comprehend the complete wetland? I have chosen to focus on three interrelated themes that build upon each other like the levels of a pyramid. These themes are regional distinctiveness, con tinuity and change, and environmental perceptions of the groups who share an interest or stake in the chenier region.

The attitudes and actions of diverse individuals form the pyramid's base. The structure's height or vertical dimension is comprised of the historical contexts that inspire these attitudes and actions, hence my exploration of continuity and change. At the pyramid's apex, revealed through knowledge of the interactions of people, land, and resources through time and across different perspectives, rest the distinct and valued qualities that make localities "places."

Comprehending the complete wetland thus begins with an exploration of multiple viewpoints and their contexts. According to French wetlands specialist Laurent Mermet, managing marshes and other valued habitats is a process that involves people of diverse backgrounds, interests, and goals. Understanding the entire range of views on a given situation or problem is therefore essential if environmentally sound solutions are to be effected and sustained.

This range of views includes the perspectives of wetland residents. While their attitudes have often been difficult for people living outside the region to comprehend, they are the foundations for any understanding of place. Recognizing the value of local knowledge is thus a first step toward acknowledging that wetland inhabitants are an integral part of the management spectrum.

Fathoming the range of viewpoints, however, covers only part of the distance toward comprehending the complete wetland. An understanding of region must also incorporate the dynamic aspects of a place and its people. "Present environments," geographers Jacquelin Burgess and John Gold remind us, "are themselves the result of continual, incremental change," as are perceptions and the notions of value they represent."

Understanding the changing wetland is a threefold task. It includes, first, grasping the biophysical nature of wetlands and the processes that drive these ecosystems; second, comprehending the cultural forces for landscape transformation; and, third, exploring the perceptions that inspire continuity and change in the landscape and the values people ascribe to it. Understanding the cultural and historical contexts that underlie attitudes and actions helps "translate" these thoughts and practices for others who do not share those visions.

While contextual study of a wetland's dynamism complements the representation of viewpoints, completing the climb to the pyramid's summit entails an additional step. To reach the goal of holistic understanding, one must answer a deceptively simple question: What is special about this place?

The qualities that give a region its distinctive character are closely tied to the way people value their environments. Identifying and communicating a region's essence is thus the first step toward safeguarding its treasured aspects. These valued qualities, however, may elude the grasp of the observer outside the mainstream of a place's routines and rituals, for many people find it difficult to articulate their unselfconscious or taken-for-granted affection for places. Nevertheless, elements of regional distinctiveness can be gleaned through a process akin to distillation.

To reveal the essence of a place, two things are necessary. The first is knowledge about a region, the second, actually knowing it. Knowledge comes in the form of information gained from studying the wetland through time and across perspectives. It provides the rich mixture that waits only for a catalyst to begin the distillation. That catalyst is the reseacher's immersion in the region itself. Only by taking an outsider's perspective "inside" to experience the wetland through the lives of its people can one discover the essence of the place. This is the "knowing" that complements "knowledge" and completes our comprehension of the wetland.

A Wetland Biography

In this regional portrait of Louisiana's Chenier Plain, I have attempted to merge science and art, detachment and involvement, statistics and everyday life. I have, however, emphasized the individual as the key to understanding regional distinctiveness, continuity and change, and the perceptual spectrum. This focus on the individual has inspired the work's title, A Wetland Biography.

To discover the ties that bind people to place and govern their relationship, I have been guided by principles expounded by geographer Marwyn Samuels in his discussion of the biography of landscape. Landscape biography is an integrative approach centered around the role of individuals as authors who shape landscapes of impression (ideas and images) and expression (physical manifestations). According to Samuels, signatures of landscape authorship "are everywhere evidenced by the way individuals explain, rationalize, or describe their intentions."

These clues to the relationship of people and their environment appear in diaries, letters, poems, paintings, and personal archives, as well as in discussions and interviews. They are also revealed through behavior, folklore, and local tradition. While libraries provided much useful information, it was only by being in the wetland and among its people that I began to understand these relationships. Applying research techniques of humanistic geography, I became a "participant observer" who was privileged not only to stand and watch but to join in the major events and routine activities of Chenier Plain life.

On the cheniers, I have encountered many landscape authors. They have taught me that the interaction of people, wildlife, and wetlands here is central to an understanding of the region, both through time and across perspectives. More specifically, I have learned that the region's distinctive and valued character emanates from three sources: the juxtaposition of marshland and chenier ridges, the wildlife that inhabits these wetlands, and people's seasonal use of that wildlife. These three elements provide the study with an organizational framework and focus.

Telling the Story

The next two chapters introduce the Chenier Plain and its changing seasons. By "seasons" I refer not simply to spring, summer, fall, and winter, but to a multi-layered concept that includes seasons of activity, both present and past. Chapters 2 and 3 describe past seasons by chronicling the experiences of several individuals during the last two centuries of Chenier Plain history.

For as long as humans have inhabited the cheniers, one type of activity has been constant: seasonal use of the region's wildlife. Fish, shellfish, birds, furbearing animals, and alligators have all contributed to the wetland way of life, providing sustenance, income, recreation, and education in a blend that continues to evolve. Chapters 4-7 examine these seasons of wildlife use, relating them to the solar season when the animal is most visible and its use most prominent. I have chosen to begin with summer, the first season I experienced on the cheniers and also the lushest and most bountiful.

Summer's season of use starts with the collection of alligator eggs in June and concludes with the September harvest of gators over 4 feet long. In fall the waterfowl begin to arrive, and by November and December the talk is all of duck and goose hunting. Nutria, muskrat, mink, and otter take center stage in January, when fur trapping is at its peak in area marshes. Spring signals the beginning of another year of fishing, as residents and visitors prepare to harvest the region's bounty of finfish, shrimp, crabs, crawfish, and oysters: species that-like the others-are closely tied to the health of the marsh ecosystem.

Having examined the cheniers and marshes, their historical seasons and seasons of wildlife use, the wetland biography concludes with a chapter that ties together the study's main themes and offers suggestions for a future in which wildlife plays an important role. To understand this role it is necessary to don hip boots and, like the denizens of the marsh, wade into this wetland called the Louisiana Chenier Plain.

 

Gay M. Gomez is Assistant Professor of Geography at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

"Gomez's wonderful book documents the interplay of humans with Louisiana's coastal wetlands, especially the Chenier Plain, through the seasons...An interesting book that should help promote the value and appreciation of wetlands."

Choice

"This book will appeal to a wide audience, from those who read it for enjoyment to those who use it as a textbook or research tool.... Gomez's clear, almost lyrical style is a pleasure to read, and the imagery captures the essence of the Chenier Plain."

—Robert Gramling, Professor of Sociology and Director, Center for Socioeconomic Research, University of Southwestern Louisiana