Bayou-Diversity (12 July 2019) For the last six weeks I have dwelled in places where the word “bayou” is unfamiliar to most people. Maps of the region are absent the names “D’Arbonne,” “de L’Outre,” “Teche,” and the like. There are no such streams with their characteristic side-dressing of cypress trees and Spanish moss for a thousand miles. No alligators or alligator gar; no accompanying summer humidity to smother the aspirations of even the native-born.
It is not as if those distant places lack surface water. Though scare when compared to our saturated landscapes, it exists in geologically young channels with tails atop snow-capped mountains and sweeps downward through sagebrush desert yielding more elevation in a mile than our bayous in their entirety. The watercourses vary in breadth from creek size to bona fide rivers. In its natural state, water moves in that country, second only to the wind. Those stretches that have avoided the man-made plugs of reservoirs create lush riparian oases of cottonwoods and willows with associated biodiversity that rivals the richness of a southern swamp. Here are cutthroat trout, sage grouse, trumpeter swans, and moose. Here are the vital nesting and re-fueling refuges of the very birds that fly up our bayous in the spring and down them each autumn – yellow warblers, blue-winged teal, cedar waxwings, white-crowned sparrows, and a host of others. On dark nights, the raucous insect and frog noise of bayous is absent, but brilliant starscapes unfettered by light pollution reflect in the western streams and are the backdrop for sounds of individual creatures – an adolescent coyote’s hungry yelps, an unsettled sandhill crane’s soft, rattling crow, and the call that stirs emotions like no other – the plaintive howl of lobo with Leopold’s fierce green fire still hot in her eyes.
I am content now back on the edge of a Louisiana swamp and just up the hill from a bayou where my great grandfather taught his eight children to swim in the wake of the last steamboats, where I first killed a deer with a twenty gauge crack-barrel shotgun, where my grandson landed his first thrashing catfish on a too-limber pole. Still, I yearn for parallel adventures on those streams with names such as Seedskadee, Medicine Lodge, Sweetwater, Green, and Salmon. With hard substrates they retain a resistance to meander and possess purposeful currents, whereas the turbid flow of bayous is often imperceptible in smooth-shouldered channels that loop and swirl in a leisurely voyage to the Gulf. Paddling both, I have learned, is good metaphor and better medicine for a balanced life, albeit gloriously wild.
©KO 10 July 2019