Friday, December 7, 2012

THE CULTURE OF THE COULEE


Ginger in coulee
“Coulee” is a French word derived from “couler” which means “to flow,” and is used to describe a channel created by water erosion, but here in south Louisiana, the word is used loosely to define a drainage ditch, a deep ravine in which thick vegetation overtakes its bank. However, a coulee can be a canal in the swamp that is smaller than a typical Louisiana bayou.

A long and slowly-widening coulee runs behind our backyard, and a few years ago we built a bulwark along its edge to prevent further erosion. Throughout the years we've found another use for our now-luxuriantly-edged coulee.  Into it we have heaved pot plants that have dried up, plant cuttings, and plants that have invaded the fence and been dug up. And in this rich Louisiana soil, if we have a particularly rainy year, we've watched many plant resurrections that, in time, form a beautiful garden along the ditch.

Some plants that have resurrected include elephant ears, cicad plants, and, lately, a beautiful ginger plant. This Spring, ginger plants that had overtaken the fence were dug up and thrown into the ditch, and when we returned in October, five-feet tall ginger plants greeted us! They have been our most successful “throwaways,” and we’re considering harvesting the roots.

Ginger plants thrive in subtropical conditions, so we weren’t surprised when we saw what our “disposal” had resurrected. The root of the ginger plant provides a wonderful spice used in cooking, and the Chinese use it as a medicine for healing colic and flatulence; but we’re content just to look at the plant and hope that next year it will flower at its predicted two-year mark for flowering.

A biologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette once said that gardeners in south Louisiana should never fertilize plants but should just put them in the ground and step back! In our case, it’s a matter of just digging something up or taking a leaf cutting or a dead plant and throwing it into the coulee. Hay la bas, we then witness a miraculous south Louisiana garden!

In the introduction to my young adult book, Flood on the Rio Teche, I wriote about this luxuriant culture: “The air, fungi-laden and humid, presses down on us all the time... The place seems somnolent and enclosing... I can never leave its banks for long. It has a voice, a liquid voice, husky because of the mist above the brown water... and the decay, dark banks loamy with decay…animals lurking... [in our case possums, coons, and armadillos forage in the coulee], the mosquitoes and the stifling curtain of heat, behind which they [the Cajuns] sang and told stories. Its voice is a very old voice..."

Photograph by Victoria I. Sullivan

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