Mike Tidwell knew nothing of the disappearing bayou country when he first visited the Cajun coast of Louisiana, but the evidence was all around him: the skeletons of oak trees killed by the salinity of the groundwater, whole cemeteries sinking into swampland and out of sight, telephone poles in deep, standing water. Thanks to human hands, the storied Louisiana coast was eroding, subsiding, and joining the Gulf of Mexico—-making it the fastest disappearing landmass on Earth. Yet no one seemed to know how to talk about the problem. Tidwell, a celebrated travel and environmental writer, decided to begin the much-needed conversation, and this vivid, elegiac book is the result.
Tidwell introduces us to the surprisingly varied population of the area: the Cajun men and women who work the seasonal shrimp harvest, the Vietnamese fishermen, the Houma Indians driven to the farthest ends of the bayou by the first European settlers. He describes the food, the music, the culture, and the life of all those who live along the bayous. And under his keenly observant eye, the bayou itself becomes a compelling character—-reminding us of how much we stand to lose if we fail to address the problems facing this most vibrant of places.
Part travelogue, part environmental exposé, Bayou Farewell is the richly evocative chronicle of the author's travels through a place and a way of life that are vanishing virtually before our eyes.
After the Great Mississippi Flood, in 1927, which cost more than a thousand lives and a billion dollars in damages, a massive network of levees was constructed to tame the river's turbulent flow. The river had been constantly shifting to find the shortest distance to the ocean, thereby depositing a fan of rich sediment into the Gulf of Mexico. As Mike Tidwell reports in Bayou Farewell, these levees, along with other man-made intrusions, have accelerated erosion in the Delta. "The whole ragged sole of the Louisiana boot, an area the size of Connecticut -- three million acres -- is literally washing out to sea," Tidwell writes. As the marshland recedes, a distinct regional culture is going with it. On the Cajun bayou, Tidwell fishes near sunken cemeteries and hitches a ride with a shrimp-boat captain who steers the wheel with his toes. By airplane, Tidwell observes the death by drowning of some of the region's barrier islands, which serve equally as avian habitats and buffers for hurricanes.The marine geologist Orrin H. Pilkey extols the value of barrier islands in the Louisiana Delta, but questions the cost of preservation, asserting that attempts to slow the natural "rolling over" of such islands are futile. "Very large amounts of money will be expended to hold the line in the mud," he writes in A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands. Delicate renderings of the islands by artist Mary Edna Fraser look like vivid aerial-view paintings but are actually batik prints of the coasts, counterbalancing Pilkey's careful study of the "restless ribbons of sand." Citing the inland transplant of lighthouses, as at Cape Hatteras, Pilkey urges beach lovers not to demand permanency: "The barrier islands of the world are telling us that they need to be free to survive." (Lauren Porcaro)