Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Home at the Mouth of the Mississippi

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Home at the Mouth of the Mississippi

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Create a place and there will always be people who figure out how to live there. So it was with Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, only one-third of which is dry land (and most of that only barely so). This hundred-mile long peninsula, bisected by the Mississippi River and formed by thousands of years of silt scoured from the heartland, became home to a melting pot of Croatians, Italians, Canary Islanders, and other European immigrants, as well as segregated African American communities. Self-reliant locals on this remote sliver of land have traditionally fished, hunted, trapped, and farmed for their livelihoods. Experience taught them to be distrustful of outsiders, particularly the state and federal government, when it came to protecting them from natural disasters.

Cultural geography is always connected to physical geography, and that's especially true for Louisiana. Roughly one-sixth of the Pelican State's total area--nearly eight thousand square miles--is covered by water, with most of this submerged land lying in the southern parishes. The state's annual rainfall vies for the highest in the continental United States. Although winter rains are sometimes day-long drizzles, summer showers tend to come in compact squalls that can dump torrents as they race through, sometimes gully-washing one side of a community while leaving the other side bone dry. Louisiana also gets its share of the ultimate rainstorms: hurricanes.

There are no beautiful beaches along these shores of the Gulf of Mexico, for over eons what settled here on the mouth of the Mississippi was mud, not beach sand. All of that sediment, however, is chock-full of nutrients that support a vast and complex ecosystem of grasses and algae, fish and fowl, and mosquitoes and reptiles, functioning, among other things, as a protective barrier. Regrettably, the canals that have been dredged for oil and gas pipelines--80% of all offshore oil platforms in the U.S. are off the coast of Louisiana--have contributed to the degradation of these protective wetlands, making south Louisiana increasingly vulnerable to hurricane damage. (1)

Before Katrina, I had driven the length of the parish several times. Except for a high overpass at Empire, the place offered no grand vistas; on both sides of the river, one followed a long ribbon of low land from half a mile to maybe a mile wide bounded by high, grass-covered levees. The roadside scenery alternated between attractive estates and trailer parks, oil pipe yards and churches, barge terminals and public parks, marinas and helipads, orange groves and industrial buildings, often in visually discordant contiguity.

If they are not oil field workers, recreational fishers, or duck hunters, most folks from outside the peninsula have never had any reason to set foot in this insular parish. Although a Louisiana native, I certainly had not until I went there to do research in 2002. My colleague and I crossed the Mississippi River at New Orleans and drove through Belle Chasse, the largest town in Plaquemines Parish with a population of about 11,000. From there we proceeded south towards the mouth of the Mississippi. When the road turned to marshland, we backtracked a short distance to Cypress Cove Marina to hire a boat to take us several miles downriver to a place unlike any we'd ever seen. (2)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Pilot Town (alternately, Pilottown) is a village of stilt-perched homes and elevated boardwalks located at the "Head of Passes" at mile zero of the Mississippi River--south of which the official river mileage runs into negative numbers. This is where "bar pilots" (as in sandbar) disembark from incoming freighters to be replaced by the river pilots who guide those ships upstream to New Orleans or Baton Rouge, the exchange reversing for downstream vessels. There has never been a road to Pilot Town, nor so much as a footpath to several other villages, now long gone, that sprang up in the adjacent marshlands. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.