Monday, June 7, 2010

REMINISCING ABOUT THE CHENIER

Of the twenty-six books I’ve published, nine of them in the fiction/non-fiction categories (excluding a dozen poetry chapbooks) have featured Louisiana and Louisiana characters. As I watch the oil spill saga unfolding, I think about THE KAJUN KWEEN, one of the Louisiana books I wrote that was set in the chenier country of Louisiana, a place where the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was dug through the Chenier Plain’s northern marshes and where oil was discovered by Pure Oil Company in Cameron Parish in 1926 near Sweet Lake. Part of the land there belonged to the Vincent family (my maternal grandmother and her relatives) who benefited from drilling accomplished near Hackberry, Louisiana, but oil production has diminished to almost nothing. As oil reserves have declined in Chenier country, residents have resumed such pursuits as alligator farming, hunting, fishing, and trapping. An annual Fur and Wildlife Festival, held in Cameron Parish, draws men, women, and children who compete for first place in muskrat and nutria skinning, trap setting, geese and duck calling, oyster shucking, and, of course, gumbo cooking.

During the early forties, the Gulf Intracoastal Canal that connects the marshes of Chenier country with the Gulf of Mexico and the Calcasieu Ship Canal were forged from the Gulf through Calcasieu Lake. These canals and others provided access for drilling and exploration by oil companies. They also caused salt water intrusion from the Gulf, which has resulted in the destruction of vegetation that cannot withstand salt water. This intrusion has contributed to Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands. Marsh management structures, like weirs, have been built but there are questions about the effectiveness of this means of controlling coastal land loss.

The Chenier Plain abounds in deer, muskrat, nutria, possum, rabbits, raccoons, and striped skunks. Bird life flourishes in the region; snapping turtles and alligators make their homes on the chenier. A list of the bird life in the area is formidable and includes ducks, geese, egret, hawks, gulls, boat-tailed grackle (my favorite), roseate spoonbill, etc. Fish and shellfish are also plentiful; crawfish, channel and blue catfish, crappie, croaker, drum, flounder, gar, oyster, sea trout, shad, and shrimp abound. I first glimpsed the salt marshmallow on a trip to Chenier au Tigre in the 70’s and also saw marsh morning glories and wooly rose mallows. I’m not sure we ever found Chenier au Tigre, but while traversing the canals, we saw beautiful marsh scenery.

In THE KAJUN KWEEN, Petite Marie Melancon, the heroine, has adventures with snapping turtles and alligators on the chenier, and the book features descriptions of the chenier landscape, as well as a chapter about one of the many hurricanes that hit this area of Louisiana. Go to amazon.com or borderpressbooks.com if you’re interesting in obtaining a copy of this book about the state that has become a part of the daily news.

Here’s a short excerpt from the second chapter in THE KAJUN KWEEN: “Petite Marie chanted the names of the places they passed to amuse herself: Rockefeller Refuge, Pecan Island, Intracoastal Canal, an inland ship canal where small tugs huffed…Forked Island, Cow Island…and finally, they rounded a curve near Kaplan. She looked at the rice and crawfish ponds spinning past, pointing out to Uncle Ti’ Joe a lone box turtle sunning on an old black tire in a coulee (ditch). He grunted and sped on toward Abbeville. Promptly at 3 p.m., they arrived at the steps leading up to the stately Abbeville Court House with its six fat columns in front and the dome on the top that Petite Marie called a ‘spy tower...’”

Note: Illustrations by Paul Schexnayder, artiste magnifique of New Iberia, Louisiana
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