A clod married to a supermodel will likely, over time, grow
immune to her beauty.
He knows its there, he remembers how a gaze into her eyes used
to make his heart race, but he just doesn’t see it anymore. Her
beauty has become common to him.
But someone who has never before beheld his wife will probably
be entranced by her stunning appearance.
Mike Tidwell has seen our bride, and he’s fallen madly in love
A Washington, D.C., area resident, Tidwell came to Louisiana
to write a story for the Washington Post about hitch-hiking on
Cajun Country shrimp boats.
|Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, which
ought to be required reading in Louisiana high schools, is
opening eyes across the country to the Bayou State’s coastal
But what he found was the greatest untold story in America, one
about which he and his associates had never heard a single word
— the death of the Louisiana coast.
“Not one of my friends or colleagues who listened to my stories
— not one — responded by saying, ‘Oh yeah, Louisiana. I know all
about that surreal mess down there. It’s amazing how much land
is vanishing,’” Tidwell writes in his book, Bayou Farewell.
“Instead they said, without exception, something like, ‘You can’t
be serious. A Manhattan of wetlands lost every ten months? Is
“These were mostly smart, well-read people, several of them professional
environmentalists or volunteer activists who could cite chapter
and verse the details of wetlands loss in the Everglades or the
case for breaching dams out west to save California salmon and
“But Louisiana? Blank stares. ... Forty percent of the nation’s
total salt marsh headed for destruction in little more than a
lifetime? Irreplaceable bird habitat gone? A nursery for myriad
aquatic species obliterated? Blank stares.”
Louisianians have grown used to the idea of coastal erosion.
We’re not happy about it, but we’re certainly not shocked by the
concept. We’ve heard about it since each of us was old enough
to understand a news report.
And in the process, we’ve grown resigned to the fact. The marsh
is going to erode, but hey, it ain’t gone yet, and anyway there’s
nothing we can really do about it. Tidwell tasted this defeatist
soup early on in his travels through the marsh.
“For more than two days, I’ve listened to dark stories ... all
presented with an air of fatalism, a firm sense of fait accompli,
the causes of decline seemingly too monumental and rooted in too
many decades of destructive momentum to allow any hope for change,”
But Tidwell came in with no preconceived ideas about the environmental
disaster along the Louisiana coast. He came to write a simple
story about hitch-hiking on shrimp boats. A couple of weeks to
research, maybe another week to write, and then he’d return to
D.C. and plan his next story.
The marsh, however, grabbed him with her cord-grass fingers,
and pulled him into herself. She showed him her blanched oak skeletons
that stand defiant and scream like sentinels, her deeply dredged
canals that fester like scars on the skin of an old mother, and
her beaches that are being stripped of their load with the efficiency
of a thousand miners.
The marsh cried for Tidwell — an outsider — to be her voice,
and he’s answered the call.
Bayou Farewell is an amazing book. Actually, amazing
isn’t adequately superlative. It’s an astounding book that ought
to be required reading in every high school in Louisiana, if not
It was a book only a non-Louisianian could have written, and
Tidwell, with his mastery of the English language and breathtakingly
descriptive prose, was perfect for the task. The marsh — the mother
of our Louisiana culture — knew what she was doing, even in this
hour as she lies on her death bed.
And she is, indeed, on her death bed.
“The whole ragged sole of the Louisiana boot, an area the size
of Connecticut — three million acres — is literally washing out
to sea, surrendering to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s an unfolding
calamity of fantastic magnitude, taking with it entire Cajun towns
and an age-old way of life,” Tidwell writes.
|Photo courtesy of U.S. ARMY CORPS OF
|The Lafourche Parish town of Leeville
looked much different in the 1930s than it does today.
Throughout the book, the reader is immersed in the sense that
the author has a hard time taking all of this in. He’s traveled
the world, and he’s never seen a string of wetlands like those
surrounding Cocodrie, Leeville and Golden Meadow. How could America
be losing such a valuable jewel and nobody know about it?
Though he doesn’t dwell on them, Tidwell has some theories,
ranging from Louisiana’s corrupt politicians to the Bayou State’s
failure to market itself as a tourist destination.
But why nobody knows about the problem to date is not the issue.
Tidwell brings the coastal erosion disaster to a national audience
by giving it life through the words and actions of the people
who live in the marshes and watch helplessly as the Gulf day by
day nibbles its way toward their homes.
“This is the Bangladesh of America,” Tidwell writes, “flat and
watery and horribly exposed to hurricanes.”
The people of this “American Bangladesh” open their hearts and
homes to the “yankee” writer with a level of warmth that is instinctive
for Cajuns but unusual elsewhere. He eats, sleeps, drinks, cries
and travels the bayous with them, learning their ways and enjoying
the vanishing wilderness that has abundantly blessed their families
I’ve been a life-long Louisiana resident, and I’ve studied the
coast probably a good bit more than most folks, but Tidwell’s
research revealed things about coastal Louisiana that even I didn’t
“Cotton was grown in Leeville as late as the 1920s,” he writes.
“And until the 1940s, so many orange trees were grown here that
the settlement was originally called Orange City.”
Cotton in Leeville? That seems preposterous today. Where would
they plant it? On the shoulder along Highway 1? But it was, in
fact, grown there less than a century ago. Obviously the Leeville
that I know today bears no resemblance to the Leeville of only
a generation ago. Remarkable.
Tidwell finds it difficult to fathom how quickly the calamity
is occurring. While crabbing near Fourchon with a teen-ager named
Tee Tim Melancon, Tidwell is told by the youngster, “When I was
a kid, I remember this canal being so much smaller that you could
land your boat on solid ground right over there where that dead
Tidwell is aghast at the statement.
“More than the sight of the tree,” Tidwell writes, “it’s those
five simple words that amaze me: ‘When I was a kid ...’ It makes
Tee Tim sound like an old man looking back on a long lifetime.
In reality he’s seventeen, looking back maybe ten years. It’s
happening that fast.”
Tidwell also rightly points out the major cause of the problem.
“For seven thousand years a builder of rich alluvial land, the
river now spills its seed uselessly into a dark, deep, watery
oblivion,” he writes. “Meanwhile, all the bayou land outside those
river levees lies starved for the former lifeline of fresh deposits
of sediments and nutrients.”
But if the leveeing of the Mississippi was the initial gunshot,
oil-field canals were knife stabs into the dying body.
“Canals, in fact, are a big part of the reason Lake Boudreaux
is now salty enough for shrimp while being inhospitable to the
same species when John F. Kennedy was elected president,” Tidwell
writes. “The entire marine zone is shifting north toward an inevitable
collision with higher, more stable, nonalluvial land, where roads
and towns and subdivisions and hurricane levees will block any
further advance, spelling the death of the entire estuarine ecosystem.
If the fantastic land loss continues, the famous ragged edge of
the Louisiana coast will simply flatten out, eventually coming
to look more like coastal Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, i.e.,
made up mostly of narrow beaches with only small pockets of wetlands
that produce only a fraction of the fisheries wealth of the current,
vast Louisiana system.”
Were his book not so well-researched, and were it not true that
we anglers see the devastating rapidity of the erosion every time
we head out in a boat, it would be easy — and perhaps even tempting
— to brand Tidwell an alarmist.
But if he is one, it’s only because he’s waded through a sea
of ambivalent Louisianians with a sledge hammer to bang a gong
that will hopefully be heard throughout the nation.
Tidwell said in a television interview in May with WWL-TV’s
Eric Paulsen that New Orleans, in all likelihood, will cease to
exist in 30 years.
That sounds crazy — until you read his book.