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Outstanding book takes marshes to the masses
By Todd Masson
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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 with her.

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 erosion crisis.
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 erosion crisis.

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 that possible?’

“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 Idaho steelheads.

“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,” he writes.

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 the nation.

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.

The Lafourche Parish town of Leeville looked much different in the 1930s than it does today.
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 for generations.

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 know.

“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 tree is.”

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.

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