The Shaggy Tremendous Shape

An outsized wilderness lives on in mythic dreams and salvaged hope

Land of dead giants: cypress stumps and second growth in the Atchafalaya Basin     Photo: Greg Guirard

Land of dead giants: cypress stumps and second growth in the Atchafalaya Basin

THE WATER IS SO LOW THE STUMPS CAST LONG, INESCAPABLE SHADOWS across the swamp. The stumps are jagged and barkless and raw, as if this were once a battlefield. Then the battle moved on, leaving these rigid, truncated bodies propped up in the water.

Greg and I paddle in silent unison, gliding the canoe, matched in motivation and intent. Having seen it all before, Greg sits in the stern, big-shouldered as a bear, his thick paws on the heavy, hand-hewn paddle. I kneel in the bow, my paddle small and light. We pull ourselves past the massive cypress stumps. Some are 30 feet in circumference, bulged out at the base as if a bomb had gone off inside. Most rise 12 feet above the surface of the swamp, then stop, vanish, whatever they once were gone forever.

Dangling by a cord from a limb is a half-submerged cage. We come alongside and Greg pulls up the trap with one hand. It's a handmade crawfish trap—a large tube fashioned from chicken wire. It's empty.

"Settin' on the ground," Greg says. "Can't catch a thing that way. That's how low the water is in the Basin. Crawfish might not even run this year."

Greg Guirard is a part-time crawfisherman—but then, he's Cajun, so he's a part-time everything: crawfisherman, logger, writer, photographer, film consultant, philosopher. He grew up alongside the West Atchafalaya Levee, between the hamlets of Catahoula and Henderson, crawfishing, hunting whitetail, catching fat catfish. He has spent almost all of his 63 years in the swamp. Several times he tried to live elsewhere—in Belize, in Costa Rica, in Virginia—but the swamp called him back.

Greg drops the cage.

"'Nother couple years like this," he says, "and I don't know what'll happen. I don't want to even say what'll happen."

He takes up his paddle and puts his solid frame into the stroke. The bow of the canoe bounces and we go on across the dark water through the forest of dark stumps.

For many years Greg taught English at University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. Back then he was married and was raising four children, and he raised cattle on the levee and ran crawfish traps, but even with a modest paycheck from teaching it wasn't enough. He loved literature and loved teaching it but left the university in 1973 after he found himself $30,000 dollars in debt, and a few years later went back to making a living from the swamp.

One of his students had given him a camera, and he began taking pictures when he was out working on the water. The camera was like a fishing rod: You never knew quite what you were going to get. Sometimes you just brought it along on a whim and caught something you would never have imagined, something that became a part of you just as if you'd swallowed it. Other times you went out explicitly and worked at it all day and still came home bone-tired and empty-handed. Greg took pictures of the moss-draped trees and the stilt-legged birds and the hazel water, of hunters with their dogs and fishermen with their nets, of raccoon pelts nailed to barns, of butterflies and boats. And he took pictures of stumps. In 1983 he completed the first of four self-published books, Seasons of Light in the Atchafalaya Basin, in which his photographs are accompanied by two stories by William Faulkner.

Alas, every story is a circumfluent, involuted Faulkner story; we just lack the burning craft to tell it like he did.

As it happens, a friend of mine from Mississippi recently lent me Greg's book, and I found myself yearning for the mythic bayou pictured in its pages. Being one who believes every day might too easily be my last, I dialed directory assistance for Catahoula, Louisiana, and got Greg Guirard's phone number. I simply called him up with a question that I eventually got around to after we talked through photography and Faulkner and fishing.

"So, has anyone paddled across the Atchafalaya?"

"You mean 'cross the whole thing? One side to the other, levee to levee?"

"I guess."

"Not in my lifetime, far's I know. Everybody has a motorboat. They only use the pee-rogue to check nets in the thick places."

But he'd said he'd ask around and call me back.

A few days later the phone rang.

"Nobody," he said. "Maybe not for almost a hundred years. Little two-horse motorboats came to the bayou way back, around 1910, and that was that."

"You want to do it?"

Greg didn't know me from Adam. I was a Northerner's voice on the phone.

"You ever been down here?"

"Nope."

"You ever pee-rogued?"

"Nope."

"Canoe works better anyway. I'll cook up some jambalaya."

I stopped at the end of a tunnel of dark down a dirt road and there was still a light on at the house half-hidden in the hangy trees. It was 2 a.m. and I was planning to just sleep in the car, but suddenly there was a hulking figure coming toward me. I got out. "Made it," he said.

My hand disappeared into his.

"Good directions," I said.

We sat up at the kitchen table in his house. His family moved here from St. Martinville, 15 miles away, in 1939, when Greg was a kid. Back then it was just a ramshackle hunting and fishing camp deep in the woods on the edge of the swamp, and it wasn't much more even now. Greg and his brother spoke mostly French—or rather, Cajun French—just like the other waterborn, waterbred Cajun kids, all of them like some disappearing swamp species that hasn't yet acquired webbed feet or gills. First Greg's brother and later his own children all left the swamp behind and moved to big cities. Greg and his wife divorced in 1989, and Greg only recently remarried. His second wife, Kathy Martin, is a blues singer and tarot-card reader from New Orleans who learned to read cards from a six-foot-five Bourbon Street transvestite named Morgana.

Greg spread out the maps of the Atchafalaya, pushing aside a sizable alligator skull and several slices of fungus-eaten cypress used as hot pads for all that burning bayou cuisine that he had already told me any self-respecting Cajun male made himself, and carefully penciled our route across the swamp.

"Figure it'll take two, three days."

We went to bed after three, got up at five, loaded his aluminum canoe into the bed of his rusting pickup, drove down the levee, and slipped into Bayou Benoit before dawn.

I had ignorantly imagined the Louisiana swamp as godforsakenly muggy, buggy, and hot. But on this particular morning, the water was cold and black and the air was chilly and the bugs were apparently too stiff to fly. We paddled hard down Grand Bayou into Lake Fausse Pointe Cut, partly to push some miles beneath the bow before the sun came up, but also to stay warm. The skin of the water was shivery and taut. Only when the sky started opening up did the water change, smoothing out and harmonizing in blue hues.

"This is the magic time," said Greg.

The words were hardly out of his mouth when we disappeared into the depths of the Texaco Location Canal. It was overgrown and unused, just like hundreds of other canals dredged through the Atchafalaya like a hatchwork of highways after oil was discovered in the 1930s. Huge platforms were built throughout the Basin to support the massive machines that pumped out the crude until it was almost gone. The big companies started selling off their fields to contractors who squeezed out the last of the oil and left many of the platforms behind. We passed several that day, most rotting and abandoned, but Greg hardly seemed to notice them, as though they had been here so long they belonged in the swamp.

We broke back out into sunlight on Jackass Bay. Here were the giant stumps with their long, fateful shadows, and occasionally a forlorn crawfish trap shipwrecked on protruding cypress knees. After checking another cage Greg pointed with his paddle to a dry waterline eight feet up one of the stumps. "That's how high the water was once," he said, "but they won't let it in here anymore. Half the crawfishermen already got out. Even Roy Blanchard, who used to be the best in the Basin. Now he works as a janitor for a hotel on Highway 10."

The entire Atchafalaya Basin has turned into an auxiliary spillway for the Mississippi River. The nation's largest waterway comes wriggling down from the north, turns left at the corner of Mississippi and Louisiana, diagonals southeast through Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and lolls on out a delta shaped like the head of an alligator. But rivers, not unlike most humans, prefer to take the line of least resistance, and the Mississippi knows this circuitous course is not the fastest way to the sea. For hundreds of years it has been leaking more and more of itself into the Atchafalaya Basin, and it would probably have taken the shortcut decades ago—veering right rather than left just north of Baton Rouge, breaching the silt bars, pouring full-bodied into the Atchafalaya distributary, and rushing straight down to the beach—if the Army Corps of Engineers hadn't stepped in.

"The Mississippi was too important to be captured," Greg said. "What would happen to Dow Chemical and Texaco and Union Carbide and Georgia-Pacific? They all need the Mississippi. First the Corps built levees—and more levees—wherever the river was threatening to spill due south. But the Basin was still needed as an overflow valve, so locks were put in. In flood years they open the gates and fresh water flushes through the Basin and the crawfish and the fishermen flourish. But in low-water years most of the water is kept in the main channel.

"But it might change," Greg added. "It might just get better."

Greg and other environmentalists and defenders of the Cajun way of life have been negotiating with the Army Corps for decades. Still, his optimism seemed odd to me, even though I was beginning to realize that that's the kind of man he was. He looked for, and perhaps even saw, the good in people and places and possibility.

Beyond Jackass Bay we slid up into the Range Line Cut, a narrow, almost subterranean canal. You would think that in a swamp the water would all be flat, almost by definition, but conflicting green water was gushing down against us.

"Just never know!" Greg exclaimed joyfully.

We put our backs into the paddles and pumped our arms and the canoe bobbed up and down. I was bent out over the prow, digging hard, concentrating, when Greg shouted, "You ever seen that movie African Queen?" I glanced over my shoulder and he nodded toward the bank and I saw it was moving the wrong way.

We both stepped out of the boat and sank up to our waists in cold-rushing water that knocked us backward. We grabbed the canoe and struggled up onto the bank, thinking it might be easier to line the boat along, but it wasn't. Everywhere the bank was either impossibly slick with mud or impossibly overgrown. We slid back into the swirling green depths and began plowing upstream, thrashing and splashing and slipping, me pulling, Greg pushing, water snakes sweeping around our bellies, razor-toothed alligator garfish shooting between our legs. Without a boat, humans are as fit for water as turtles without legs. Nonetheless, we eventually reached a tiny logjam, portaged up and over, and shoved off onto another expanse of flat brown water and giant stumps.

"Now," said Greg. "Now we're in the middle of the middle of the Atchafalaya." He explained that this was the Red-Eye Swamp, named for the primeval glint in an alligator's eyes.

As if to reward us for having gotten ourselves in here by dint of our own stubborn sinew, birds began sweeping in around us. They keeled between the stumps in the still air, planing just above the water while Greg called out to the birds by name.

"Kingfisher. Anhinga. Turkey buzzard. Tree sparrow."

I pointed toward something orangish.

"Cardinal!" His voice was high and happy. I suddenly knew that the idea of crossing the swamp had been a pretext. Although it was something he would later tell me he was proud to do, something he could tell his grandkids about, paddling across the swamp really meant paddling into it, penetrating that one place on the planet he held in his heart as a refuge.

"Snowy egret. Wood duck. Coot. Look at 'em all."

I was watching the birds and thinking about all the hope they seemed to carry so lightly; still, they were weaving through stumps—sad, monstrous monuments to human plundering.

Before the Army Corps of Engineers (at the behest of business barons from Baton Rouge to Bohemia) shut off the natural spigot and the swamp started silting in and the crawfish started dying, before the oil barons chopped up the swamp and sucked out all the oil and then left, there were the lumber barons. The Atchafalaya was once like the redwood forests. There were a million acres of ancient bald cypress, and loggers came from all over the country to cut the forest down. Everybody believed it would last forever. Every fence, water tank, barge, bunkhouse, and sugar mill in Louisiana was built with old-growth cypress, some planks measuring five feet across. Commercial logging started just after the Civil War, and the last ancient cypress was hacked down in 1930. Every solitary tree, every one not hollow or diseased, was taken—the entire Atchafalaya Basin, levee to levee, clear-cut.

Paddling onward, Greg was still naming birds—"Prothonotary warbler. Pileated woodpecker. Barred owl"—as if we were actually in a forest, as if in his mind he could still see the massive, majestic cypress rising from the swamp, as if he could still see the world wild and rich and innocent and vulnerable the way it was before he was born. It seemed naive. This was the ghost of a forest.

After we passed out of the open water he was silent for some time before telling me that he once wrote a novel.

"But it didn't sell," he said. "The photography books sell. People like pictures because they're pretty, not because they tell the truth."

"What was the title of your novel?"

"The Land of Dead Giants."

It didn't take us three days to canoe across the Atchafalaya Basin. It took eight hours. Greg was surprised. We hadn't paddled fast, only steady, but the swamp is not a big place, on the map if not in the mind. Twenty miles wide, just over a hundred long; even with all our meandering we probably only traveled 25 miles.

"So, Mark," Greg said, as we stepped into the water and pulled the canoe up onto the East Levee, "you want to go logging?"

"Logging!"

"Actually, I call it 'resurrecting.'"

The next morning we motored out into the swamp in a tiny aluminum skiff. Dangling by a cord from a limb was a huge, half-submerged log.

"Pull it up," Greg said.

I could barely move it.

When the Atchafalaya was clear-cut, some of the densest logs—so ancient and compressed and full of oil that they wouldn't even float—sank out of sight. Ever since giving up teaching, Greg has been prying these "sinkers" from the mud during the dry season, roping chunks of foam around their bellies, and waiting for high water to set them afloat. He sells the wood to sculptors or custom furniture makers or anybody who just wants a solid piece of what once was.

"It's a way for people to see what we all lost, what the world lost," Greg explained. "Cypress is the most beautiful wood in the world."

We wrestled with this one lost-and-found log for half a day before finally pulling it ashore.

On the day I left, Greg told me he had one last thing to show me. Along the levee, on a corner of the land that had been passed down in his family from generation to generation, he had started a forest. He'd hand-planted tulip poplar, black walnut, swamp chestnut oak, six varieties of red oak—25 species in all—and in the very middle, where the water pooled, 1,500 cypress trees. It's a cool green world of slim-waisted, ten-year-old trees that will one day, someday, be giants.

He had placed a bench among the cypress and we sat there together. On the bench, wrapped in opaque plastic, was a book. It was a book by William Faulkner, of course, that includes "The Bear"—the story Greg loves more than any other—in which Faulkner mourns "that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life...."

When Greg first read this story, in 1961, he was so moved he had to see this mythic bear for himself, but the only way to do so was to drive all the way to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Greg told me he still reads the story every year, even though he knows that in the end the bear is killed.

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