Saturday, May 29, 2010

THE LAST ISLAND??

Although I live part of the year in Louisiana now and spend a larger part on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee, I’ll never outlive my love of Louisiana. I was born in southeast Louisiana, but I lived year-round for over forty years in bayou country, the most idyllic area of Louisiana. The recent oil spill in the Gulf has affected me deeply. As I watched President Obama scoop up those little hard black balls consisting of oil and sand yesterday at Grand Isle, I thought about all the wildlife being destroyed, especially the brown pelican, the abundant salt water fish—delicious speckled trout and red fish—and oyster beds that will be affected by the pools of oil infiltrating the Gulf waters. And what will happen to my native state’s seafood industry? After all, most people travel to Louisiana to taste Louisiana’s wonderful cuisine and to enjoy the beautiful natural scenery of the lowlands.

Memories of visits to the Isle assail me. I recall traveling on several occasions to Grand Isle, inspired by a reading of THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin, the author who summered on the Isle. I also had a yen to travel to the lowest point of Louisiana for a camp-out. Grand Isle, located at the mouth of the Bay of Barataria (Lafitte the Pirate’s favorite haunt) is a breakwater between the Gulf of Mexico and numerous inland channels that weave through bayous of the mighty Mississippi. Fishermen cast their nets for shrimp and “farm” the oyster reefs in the Gulf waters. The town of Grand Isle has been pummeled by numerous hurricanes, at least ten of which have been severe, and which, at times, nearly decimated the population that resides on the seven square mile island.

When we made our famous camping trip to the area, our party consisted of two adults and two pre-teen agers. We felt as though we were traveling to the end of the world when we got to Larose, then turned south onto LA 1, and once we reached our destination at Grand Isle State Park, our vision of it as an end-of-the-line place deepened. It was a lonely looking, almost-deserted beach over which a gray sky hovered. We made the trip during the 70’s, not long after Hurricane Betsy had destroyed the camp of my Vincent relatives and put an end to their fishing paradise, and I found that the beach was unlike the white sands of Florida that I had visited most of my life. However, we unloaded the tents, and by the time we had put up two small tents on the not-so-pristine beach, rain had begun to fall. We hadn’t anticipated the long drive and had arrived near sundown.

Gulls swooped overhead as we anchored the flimsy tents. They seemed to be laughing at our foolhardiness. We went to bed hungry, unwilling to return to the car for the food we had packed. There we were, perched on this dark, barren barrier island in a hard rain, wind gusting around and under our fragile tents all night. At daybreak, we ran for the car, an early Honda Accord I owned, and promptly sank into the sand when I started up the engine. No one came out of the park to help us, and I almost destroyed the motor of my Honda, revving it and accelerating back and forth to move it out of the sinking sand. However, with a last surge of effort, we managed to emerge from the beach and head toward town where curious natives eyed us, in typical xenophobic fashion, from the porches of cabins built on stilts at the edge of the town. We sped toward a shack-like restaurant constructed of old cypress to eat breakfast. We hadn’t bathed in the surf or bird watched or fished on the “Old Fishing Bridge” for croaker or trout. We had only slept in soggy tents at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. By seven a.m., we had exited the town of Grand Isle with its 1500 inhabitants, again in a heavy rain, (I read today’s weather report for Grand Isle and found that heavy rainfall is predicted—nothing new under the sun or NOT under the sun!) headed for Larose and civilization.

As I look back on this foolhardy visit to Grand Isle, I wonder why we persisted in spending the night, but, my sense of adventure must have been stronger during the 70’s than it is now. A few years ago I did revisit Grand Isle and enjoyed bird watching near the lagoons of the State Park where I was able to appreciate the natural beauty of the area.

Grand Isle is often referred to as “The Cajun Riviera” and attracts tourists as well as deep sea fishermen, particularly during the annual Tarpon Rodeo when thousands of fishermen invade the town. The surf in the Grand Isle State Park offers swimmers a dip in the Gulf of Mexico and birders love the birdlife—pelicans, gulls, terns, herons, and egrets, to name a few. Terrapins, sometimes weighing 500 pounds, once abounded in the Gulf waters near the Island; they were caught and kept in pens similar to hog pens until the fishermen sent them to market.

Underneath those Gulf waters bordering the Isle are the rich resources that may cause the demise of Grand Isle—petroleum and natural gas. Actually, there is another unpopulated barrier island, further east of Grand Isle, that is called Last Island, the population and buildings of which were totally destroyed during a 19th century hurricane, and as the television images of the disturbance in the Gulf flash across the screen, I wonder if not only Grand Isle but the state of Louisiana will become the “last island” in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1943, Harnett Kane published THE BAYOUS OF LOUISIANA and penned these ironic words about the barrier islands: “Outsiders seeking curiosities come and leave; natives work on from the hours before dawn to those of the dusk. They can live because THESE WATER GARDENS ARE THEIRS…” Earlier in the same book, he wrote: “To the rear stands the island…Outlined against the sky, black against the red, are the salt-driven oaks, scant leaves fluttering slightly. I feel a quick chill. It may be the wind—or only the sight of those sad trees. How long will they remain and fight? That, perhaps, is the key to Grand Isle’s future…”
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