Deep South Journal
Sketches, photographs and notes from my travels in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The waitress at the Waffle House in Picayune asks about my camera. I reply, saying that I have just come from the Bogue Chitto Wildlife Refuge, where I had been photographing wildlife. She explains that she loves photography, and that the problem with her and wildlife photography is, "I like nature, but nature doesn't like me back."
"Give me an example," I ask.
"Well, for example, when I was living in Washington, a bat flew into my hair. This was really a traumatic thing for me, and I was worried about it for weeks."
"Worried about what?" I ask.
"Well, because this bat actually was inside my hair! So my friends told me I had to cut my hair. I did this, I cut my hair because of that bat! But because I have this afro, that wasn't enough to get rid of this bat having been in my hair. Everybody told me I had to have my hair cut off, bald, you know?"
She continues, "Because I have an Afro, this is really bad, because it grows like an inch a year. That happened four years ago, and my afro isn't grown back."
She takes off her Waffle House hat to show me her hair, and indeed, it's an afro that isn't full.
She asks about my camera again, and then, "I bought a Coolpix online. I love it, you know. Everybody thinks they are a photographer once they have a camera, but not everybody can do it, naturally, you know, without all those extra things they do to those pictures. All those digital tricks!"
"I watch Gator Boy, you know," she says. "We all watch it. All everybody talks about is gators and snakes. There was this boy, a friend of my brothers, he was trying to show off for the chicks, and he was getting real close to this gator. Bit his arm clean off."
I tell her that I am aware of how easy snakes and alligators weave into conversations in this part of the country. "And fire ants," I tell her. "It's like these three animals can be used for any excuse in the South. You can bring up snakes, gators or fire ants to change the conversation."
"Red ants are nasty," she says.
I explain that in the Deep South, fire ants can be used to your advantage in just about any situation. Go outside? Too many fire ants. Or, come back inside, the fire ants will get you! Don't want to mow the lawn...fire ants! Don't want to have the neighbors over for dinner...fire ants!
I show her the picture of a Snowy Egret feeding its chicks. I took this half an hour ago, just a couple miles away, I say. When she asks to see another, I show her a picture of a yellow bird. "Prothonary warbler," I say. "Has this really rich yellow, in watercolor painting, it's Indian Yellow."
I show her the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the gar, the anole and the orchid, and, as I do so, she seems mesmerized by the beauty of this exotic place. But Bogue Chitto is not exotic at all - it's just a few miles away.
Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, Mississippi
It's roosting season at the marshes of Bogue Chiito National Wildlife Refuge on the border of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the marshes are thick with egrets, herons and ibises.
I meet a man and his son, and we chitchat for a few minutes before he picks out something at the far end of the lake. "Gator," he says. "Nine-footer."
I think, how did he see that alligator? And then, a few minutes later. "Gator. 7 footer." And he points to another corner of the lake. A little bump in the still water.
I wonder about this fascination with alligators, and I decide to show him and his son a White Ibis; the spectacular pink-faced, pure white wading bird. The dad says, "Yeah, I think that's a heron." And then, upon parting, he says, "You should go around to the back of the lake. But beware! Cottonmouth, a big one. He'll get you real good if you aren't careful."
Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana
I like to visit the Big Branch Marsh when I visit my brother on the northern side of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. The marshey boardwalks and trails, the forest-edge Paquet Road, and the stone-colored gravel road out from Lacombe and through a wide corridor of marsh to the edge of Lake Pontchartrain is often quiet, always beautiful.
Every age and ethnicity is represented along the sides of gravel roads. Sitting near their parked cars, hunched over the water, they hook slabs of rotten chicken to hooks, waiting for a bite from a crab.
Today, as I drive farther out along the road are Least Bitterns, White Ibises, Black-necked Stilts, American Alligators. An oil painter has perched herself on a small bridge, looking out over the marsh. She explains that she has been here since morning; that it takes all day to complete. She points to husband and children down the road, wearing heavy boots and overalls, hooking hunks of chicken to string. "They'll wait all day for me to finish. They love it out here and always find something to do."
Port Sulphur, Louisiana
I joined my brother for a fishing trip in Port Sulphur, a company town that hugs the main canal of the Mississippi Delta, just a few months after Hurricane Katrina.
I had visited this part of the country on my own the year before, and having met a variety of people who had strong opinions about the prospect of massive damage from a hurricane, I wrote about their predictions of what might happen to this part of Louisiana were a hurricane to hit.
So then, going out onto a boat with a fishing guide out into the Gulf of Mexico with my brother, and seeing that this prediction had actually come true, was a weird revelation, because it reminded me of the special power of travel writing. My going out and talking to real people, and observing real places outside of the hot topics for journalists, we travel writers can observe, report on, and predict the events that will become the biggest ones of the decade.
Out on the water, we are after Red Drum, which locals call Redfish and which is sought after by Cajun chefs.
Finding the muddy shallows where Red Drum can often be successfully fished means our guide must navigate through a water world Louisiana, of oil platforms and channels and backwaters with abandoned industrial docks.
Back on land, we drive to a group of FEMA trailers to meet a man who we will pay to fillet our fish. Walking through fifty yards of neighborhood to meet him is shocking. The trees are stripped of their leaves, refrigerators are stuck upside-down in the ground, and a white house is resting on top of a car. Here is the Louisiana I had imagined in my own travel notes from a year ago, but seeing it having actually happened is truly sad. Almost every single home in the town was destroyed, and most residents left the town for good after having lived there in FEMA trailers after the hurricane.
Although crawfish exist in freshwater lakes and rivers throughout the world, Louisiana supplies ninety-percent of the crustaceans to the world market. But, and this is important in understanding the Deep South; seventy percent of that catch is consumed in state. In places like LaCombe, in the form of many crawfish shacks, you can see that for yourself.
Abita Springs, Louisiana
The town of Abita Springs is one of the favorite stops along the Tammany Trace rail trail, which cuts through many of the Lake Pontchartrain towns and cities. Abita Springs is known mostly for its namesake brewery, but I was drawn to the architecture of the local Catholic Church (which I admired while having a beer). I sketched the church with Copic markers and watercolors.
The psychedelic colors of the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper would easily stand out as extraordinary in the Amazon jungle. My niece and nephews, who have been raised on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain, catch these oversized grasshoppers regularly. Unlike the grasshoppers we grew up with in the Midwest, these buggers are big, fat and slow. Their very name, Lubber, derives from an old English term for dumb, clumsy and lazy.
Their wings are only half the size of their thorax, making flight impossible, so it has adapted some interesting defense mechanisms, including an ability to emit strong, skunky odors and secretions from its thorax.
The Tammany Trace rail trail passes through Covington, as well. This city of 9,000 is known for its compact, historic downtown filled with restaurants, it's frequent use as a location for Hollywood films, and its farmer's market. Above is a sketch of the Lola Deux food truck, which serves pulled pork, barbecue brisket and pork tacos at the farmer's market.
I had a good bit of luck to find this Gray Treefrog in Mandeville, Louisiana with the help of my nieces and nephews. Strictly nocturnal and rarely found outside of treetops, they are never easy to find.