Mississippi diary: Operation Cajun

By Nick Clark
October 29th, 2009, Americas

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Photo by Marion Post Wolcott/Library Of Congress/Getty Images

The lay of the land in Louisiana’s south is very different these days. The French dialect once dominant here – less than a century ago – is almost gone. And its 7,000-year-old coastline is rapidly eroding.

We’re driving down Highway One in deep south USA, alongside Bayou Layforche in Louisiana – the old course of the Mississippi river. We’ve nearly finished filming our story about the disappearing communities of the wetlands alongside the Gulf of Mexico. They’re being forced out by a rising sea and by man’s destruction of this precious environment.

There’s one more element we need – some people speaking Cajun French. It’s proven harder than we thought – it’s a disappearing culture. Only the older folk still talk the old way.

We stop at Adams store – a ramshackle one-story property with a line of big orange pumpkins outside for sale for Halloween. Inside the commodities are a little more eclectic – stuffed animals, that is to say animals formerly alive, now frozen in various macabre poses.

You can buy a cockerel glued to a wooden board to hang on your wall, or a variety of bloated toads and frogs. And just when you thought you’d spend your life without having an opportunity to snap up a turtle smoking a cigar in arm chair, there it is.

The guy asleep on the sofa makes you jump with fright because he’s actually breathing. But no Cajun speakers.

We drive on down the highway, past the shrimping boats with big nets hanging like lofted wings from either side – just like Baba’s boat in Forest Gump.

We stop at a gas station and the guy tells us of an old oak tree in the community of Golden Meadow, where a group of old timers meet every afternoon.

“It’s hard to find the French speakers because it’s just not taught anymore,” he said. “In 1960 maybe 80% of the people down here in the wetlands of Louisiana spoke French – now it’s down to just a few of the older generation.”

Sure enough under an old oak festooned with wafts of hanging green moss, were a couple of white haired men in dungarees, sitting on a swing chair hanging from a branch.

They were talking unmistakably in French laced with English in a Southern US accent. This was pretty much the language of the French Acadians who were thrown out of Canada by the British in the 18th century. They made their way down to the deep south and settled in the far marshy south of Louisiana – at one time a French colony.

The isolation of the wetlands they lived in – there were next to no roads in and out – enabled them to live an untouched existence and their language and ways survived intact, until now.

But then things got tougher. In 1919 a law was passed banning the speaking of French at school. It was no longer taught as a subject, and by the time the second world war was over, it had begun to die out.

Antoine Gisclaire and Norris Chermaie, both in their late seventies, sat in their chair and looked out over the bayou. They are among the last of the generation of those who speak only Cajun French. Their descendants all speak English alone.

They remember the old days with affection. They were shrimpers, like their children and grandchildren after them, harvesting the bountiful wetland and Gulf waters. A hard life but a good life, is exactly how they described it.

But as we’d discovered during our filming, things are now very different. You look out across the wetlands and actually what you see is stunning. The golden hour of late afternoon sun throws a perfect light on the placid waters, free-flowing among a few islands of rushes and reeds.

Pelicans cruise overhead, a sure sign of the abundant waters. A small flock of stunning pink Rosette Spoonbills careen into the sky. There’s a smattering of lilies with purple flowers.

The problem lies in the water – there is just too much of it. Man’s efforts to build navigation channels and oil pipelines have opened up the marshes. Salt water has flooded in, killing trees and loosening soil. And so the process continues.

The Mississippi took 7,000 years to build up the Louisiana coast. Man has destroyed more than a third of it in less than a century. And the Mississippi river no longer deposits sediments – the building blocks of the wetlands – because it’s confined within levees.

A natural line of defence against hurricanes like Katrina has been lost. And slowly but surely, the Gulf of Mexico is advancing on New Orleans. The implications for Cajun and Native American communities is catastrophic, to say nothing of the city folk who look to the skies with fear every time the wind rages.