Wednesday, April 1, 2009

CHENIERS


Petite Marie Melancon (heroine of my young adult novel, THE KAJUN KWEEN) lived on the chenier plains of Louisiana, “places where old beach ridges of live oaks jutted above the landscape,” Petite describes this south Louisiana terrain. Sometimes when I long for my home in Cajun Country, I think about the many explorations I made to chenier country, the first one being a boat trip friends and I made down the Intracoastal Canal south of Abbeville, Louisiana in an attempt to find Cheniere Au Tigre (Tiger Island). After navigating many cuts along the Intracoastal, we docked near a chenier forest and came upon an abandoned cottage in woods that were thick with live oak, hackberry, holly, and honey locust trees. A few of the bird watchers in our party found a plethora of their feathered friends, as numerous birds use the cheniers for a stopover place during migrations.

After my first trip to the cheniers, I learned that Cheniere Au Tigre was a wild place of tangled grape vines during the 1890’s where an expedition of people explored the area near Hell Hole Bayou, leaving an intrepid young boy to guard their boat while they went ashore. When they returned to the landing site, they found the boy, near death, as he had been mauled by a predator. They named the place Chenier Au Tigre after a wildcat or tiger that may have been the boy’s attacker. In further readings, I discovered that Swamp Angels lived on Cheniere Au Tigre during WWII, patrolling the beaches on horseback and occupying a watch tower where they stood, binoculars raised, searching the Gulf for German U-boats.


On the day we made the first boat trip looking for Cheniere Au Tigre, I collected an animal bone (tiger??), and a tooth from some swamp animal to take home as souvenirs, but we never found the exact spot of the famous Tiger Island. I’ve never returned to search for the “island,” but I did travel throughout the countryside around Grand Chenier, Forked Island, Cow Island, and Pecan Island, looking for just the right setting for THE KAJUN KWEEN, finally deciding on the area near Grand Chenier.

Vickie Sullivan snapped the photos above that still provide a scene upon which I can meditate and reminisce when I miss bayou country. An enlarged version of the photo hangs in my study here at Sewanee. Close observation of the picture reveals an alligator, its snout uplifted, close to shore, and the oak tree in the photo is a typical live oak indigenous to cheniers.

The word “cheniere” is actually French for “oak tree,” and you can find these chenier forests in the chenier plain from Iberia Parish (my home parish) west across Vermilion and Cameron parishes of Louisiana. On days when I need a “Louisiana fix,” I ponder the lovely photograph in my study, and the chenier ridges poised above the placid waters of a sluggish bayou “speak to my condition” and lift my spirits.
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