Sunday, October 26, 2008

TASTING BAYOU WATER

I crossed Bayou Teche twice yesterday. The second time I crossed the old bridge leading to Indest Street, I looked down at the brown, slow-moving waters and suddenly remembered the first time I crossed The Bayou in 1964. “We absolutely can’t live in a place where there’s such a polluted looking river,” I told my former spouse. I was born near a small freshwater creek in southeast Louisiana and had fished the waters of the Bogue Chitto River during the 50’s when the river was yet so clear that one could see through a few feet of its water to the pebbled bottom. I was horrified when I first glimpsed those murky waters of the Teche. Actually, I had never seen a bayou before I moved to New Iberia and didn’t understand the mystique of bodies of water that moved slower than rivers.

Needless to say, through the years I have grown to love the slow-moving Teche, this stream that twists through 125 miles of south Louisiana. Once I was asked to write an article about Teche country and in preparation followed the course of the Bayou and was driven through the small towns and villages that have built up along its banks. It was an amazing scenic trip, and my pen moved rapidly as I made notes on the countryside alongside the Bayou. The Indians called the Bayou “tenche,” after a snake, because it coils and turns so many times in the fashion of a huge snake. Life along its banks is serene, and travelers can find consummate Cajun cuisine and places steamy with Acadian history and tradition throughout the 125 mile drive. Harnett Kane described Bayou Teche more eloquently than any writer I’ve read, calling it the “most richly storied of the interior waters, and the most opulent…having about it the air of afternoon…”

The Teche was the center of a thriving cypress industry during the early 1900’s. Massive timber was cut in nearby swamps and floated on its waters to mills along its banks. The industry supplied 1/3 of the building materials for the United States during this time, and opulent mansions, built by “sugar money,” also flourished during the 19th and 20th century.

I’ve traveled in a rowboat on the Teche’s waters and on board an old paddle wheel that made excursions to Loreauville, about ten miles downstream. Dinner and dancing was provided during the ride, and my godfather (then 84 years old and a world traveler) accompanied me on this trip. When we returned to New Iberia and he stepped down from the old paddle wheel, he said wryly, “I wouldn’t have missed that ride for the world,” which was his stock evaluation of a travel experience that didn’t particularly excite him!

When I wrote the article about my travels along the Teche for “Acadiana Profile” magazine, I began the journey at Port Barre where Bayou Courtableau gives the Teche birth and followed its course all the way to Pierre Part and Belle River where it ends, and where I viewed a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a tiny island in the middle of the river. It was placed there by those who survived one of the many Louisiana floods in 1882 and seemed to be an appropriate end to the odyssey along the Teche.

New Iberia, of course, is called “Queen City of the Teche and is a city that reflects Spanish, French, Acadian, and Anglo influences in its art, architecture, music and other traditions. Some of the most picturesque bayou country can be found near New Iberia, and when I crossed the old Bayou for the second time yesterday, I felt a tightness in my throat, a full appreciation for this place in which I have lived 44 years (now minus the months I live on The Mountain in Sewanee, Tennessee). I waved my hand and acknowledged the truth in the old south Louisiana legend that if you ever taste Bayou Teche water, you’re bound to return.
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