We met a man last summer in Coastal Louisiana who was raised on the bayou. He used to hunt for and collect alligator eggs as a child, then hatch them and raise them in his bathtub until they got too big, then he and his brothers would take them back out to the swamp and drop them near where they found them. He spoke Louisiana-French, a creole language spoken across ethnic and racial lines, by people who consider themselves to be Cajun or Louisiana Creole, as well as Chitimacha, Houma, Biloxi, Tunica, Choctaw, Acadian, and/or French. Creole is the type of language they speak, but Cajun is derived from that. There is always a dominate language with pidgin languages known as the superstrate language, while the lesser is the substrate. In the case of the Cajun there is English, then French, then African, Spanish, and Native American. When it all converges in one person, the result can be wonderful and confusing. He told us how to “pinch the tail and suck the head,” showed us places we had never seen before, and explained that Lagniappe just means getting a little something extra than you paid for.
He would speak to the alligators primarily in French, then speak to us in English, then speak to his friend in Creole. He would codeswitch from one being to another, never skipping a beat, never missing an opportunity to tell his story to whomever would listen. Always with an eye on the alligator.
The man was our tour guide on the Atchafalaya River Basin, a combination of wetlands and river delta where the Atchafalaya and the Gulf of Mexico converge. The basin contains 70% forest habitat, and 30% open water. As far as wetland river basins go, it’s almost stable. It’s the largest contiguous block of forested wetlands left in the lower Mississippi River Valley, and the largest block of floodplain forest in the United States, with 260,000 acres of cypress-tupelo. It’s iconic, and terrifying, and a little bit surreal.
Soaring over the Atchafalaya Swamp we watched a baby and momma Osprey spread their wings from the top of a hollowed cypress. We saw a 12-foot alligator lead his blind friend to food. We overheard the story of the Louisiana Black Bear, and the floods, and the inoperable South Farm, and the ATV-traffic that threatens many of the existence there. We saw beaver dams, and otter running for their lives. We felt the slap of an alligator tail against the oiled metal of the boat. For the first time in my five years in The South, I let it grip me. Take ahold of my head and my heart. It was something I didn’t expect to happen, but something I am glad did. Like when you get an extra donut in the box.