News & Politics

Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast

A wake-up call about a vanishing landscape: “Conveys a powerful sense of place . . . sobering.”

Off Louisiana’s shore, sarcophagi, telephone poles, and drowned oaks protrude from the ocean. The coast is losing 25 square miles a year to erosion. The Mississippi River—leveed and tamed to prevent flooding—can’t deliver the 85 million tons of annual sediments needed for new wetlands. Pipelines and man-made waterways crisscross the bayou, eroding huge tracts.

 Tidwell—a Takoma Park author who has written for The Washingtonian—lets us see this eerie catastrophe through the eyes of Louisianans: shrimpers, crabbers, a priest, a traditional healer, activists, academics, oil-company minions.

 Soon the fishing industry will vanish as species lose habitat. Endangered birds will disappear, houses will be swallowed by the ocean. With the bayou and its protective barrier islands gone, it’s a matter of time before a hurricane kills thousands as far north as New Orleans. Most Louisianans remain complacent and skeptical that government will address the problem. Tidwell says now is the last chance to construct a controlled, bifurcated 95-mile diversion of the lower Mississippi River, saving marshland while creating two new deltas.

 The book conveys a powerful sense of place, as when Tidwell travels aboard a shrimping boat: “. . . I can now make out the floats of crab traps sprinkled liberally across the river’s larger eddies, signalling the water’s turn to a saltier state. The familiar presence of oyster grass, meanwhile, begins to dominate the marsh as far as the eye can see. Near the river’s mouth several tiny islands appear, each covered with gnarled and stunted black willows.” Even motel signs scream local color: “Do not clean fish in your room. Do not bring boat batteries into your room. Beer only. No whiskey. Merci.”

Bayou Farewell is sobering. “If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now,” Tidwell writes, “come to Louisiana today. The future really is here.”

Mike Tidwell