Sweet Life on 'Looseeann' Bayou : Watching World Pass By on the Great Atchafalaya Swamp

Times Staff Writer

Fisherman-trapper Innerce (Nacie) Darda, 69, lives five miles from the nearest town. Last year he went to town twice, both times reluctantly.

"Every time I go to town I get nervous," Darda confided. "Too much noise. Too many people. Too much confusion. I can't wait to get out of there and return to the peace and quiet of my home."

The town is Golden Meadow, population 2,200. Darda made the 15-minute, five-mile trips by boat, both times to get a haircut.

No roads lead to the Cajun fisherman-trapper's camp where he and his wife, Ovelia, 65, live in their comfortable, weather-beaten, tar-paper house that he built 40 years ago when he returned from the war.

They live on a small patch of high ground in a vast swampland on the shores of Bayou L'Eau Bleu (Bayou Blue Water). The Dardas have no neighbors. They are self-sufficient, hunting wild ducks and geese, catching seafood and growing vegetables.

They catch shrimp, oyster, crab, crawfish and trap wild mink, raccoon, muskrat, otter and nutria for a living.

Ovelia and Nacie reared seven daughters and a son in the lonely isolation of their bayou camp; all are grown, married with families of their own.

Darda never went to school. All his life he has lived in the backwater bayous of Southern Louisiana except for three years in the Army during World War II. He will never forget one day on the front lines fighting the Germans. Tears well in his eyes as he remembers:

"I was a loader on a three-inch turret gun. When the gun jammed I smashed three fingers. (He showed his deformed fingers.) I didn't want to leave. We were shooting at the Germans across the Moselle River.

"My sergeant ordered me to go to a medic. As I was walking away, a German bomb burst, killing all seven of my gun crew. . . ."

Aside from that memory, Darda is not unlike thousands of others in Louisiana's watery world of the bayous, moss-draped cypress swamps, marshes, sloughs, lakes, lagoons, rivers and delta.

They live in America's largest wetland wilderness, a 20,000-square-mile area that takes up nearly half of Louisiana. More than one-third of all the marshland in the United States is in this state.

Louisiana's wetland country produces more fish and game than any other natural water system in the nation.

Forty percent of all the wild fur sold in America comes from animals trapped in spongy marsh muck by thousands of independent trappers like Ovelia and Nacie Darda. The watery world of southern Louisiana also supports half of America's migratory water fowl. Swamplands here are dotted with rich oil and gas fields.

It's a good life, a different life for the people of the bayou's swamps and marshes who live in stilted homes above water, who bury their dead in concrete vaults above ground because the water table is so high.

They feast daily on exotic Cajun and Creole cuisine--fried alligator tail steaks, turtle soup, shrimp remoulade, stuffed catfish and crawfish heads, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo and other dishes that would make a gourmet green with envy.

"Looseeann" is what blacks and Cajuns call their state. Cajun is a contraction of Acadian . Ancestors of the Cajuns came from French Acadia in Nova Scotia. They were banished from Canada by the British in "Le Grand Derangement" in the 1750s and 1760s. The first of the Cajuns began arriving in French Louisiana in 1762.

Today, nearly 1 million Cajuns live in the 22 parishes of Southern Louisiana in the state's Great Atchafalaya (Ah-cha-fah-lay-yah) swamp and the "Looseeann" bayou country. Living in the same area are French-speaking blacks who call themselves Creoles.

There are black communities where entire populations speak a special Louisiana French patois, one being the town of Napville, population 1,500. "We all speak the French Creole here. Many of the older ones don't speak English," said Mitch Williams, 30, working at Mary Jane's Grocery, his sister's country store.

In Jeanerette on Bayou Teche, relaxing on the front porch swing of a modest home built on concrete blocks and over a swamp, widow Marie Collins, 62, a French patois-speaking black, said:

'Creole-Raised'

"I been Creole-raised, my mumma and daddy speaking nothing but the Looseeann French all their lives." She pays $20-a-month rent for her old house with privy in the backyard.

Father Paul Schmidt, 31, Divine Word Missionary Catholic priest who is pastor at Jeanerette's all-black Catholic church, Our Lady of the Rosary, said the local language is a mixture of French, English and some Indian.

Jeanerette, like many small towns in Louisiana, still has a residue of segregation. There are, for example, a white Catholic church here, St. John's, on the west bank of the bayou and a black Catholic church, Our Lady of the Rosary, on the east bank.

Catholicism is the leading religion in Louisiana. The heritage of the church before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 is reflected in the state's unique parish system.

All of the states in America are divided into political subdivisions called counties except Alaska, which is divided into divisions, and Louisiana, which has parishes, a name derived from the original ecclesiastical boundaries that existed under French rule.

So there are parishes in Louisiana named after saints: St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, and St. Tammany.

There's a parish named in honor of Christ going to heaven (Ascension) and another in honor of the Virgin Mary going to heaven (Assumption). There are parishes recalling the Acadians' exodus to Louisiana--Evangeline and Acadia--and a parish named after the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Parishes have parish courthouses, parish seats and parish sheriff's departments. Each parish also has a police jury, which is comparable to a county Board of Supervisors. The elected legislators and administrators of the parishes are called police jurors.

Ferryboat Network

Several parishes along the Mississippi are sliced in two by the river. A network of free ferryboats operated by the state carry pedestrians and passengers back and forth across the Mississippi.

On the free ferry Acadia, skippered by veteran black ferry boat Capt. Ferdinand August, 45, three sheriff's cars were aboard on a recent crossing from La Place on the east bank to Edgard, the parish seat of St. John the Baptist Parish, on the west bank.

"Riding the ferry is an everyday occurrence for most deputies while on duty," said St. John the Baptist Deputy Sheriff Rick Hylander, 38. "The courthouse is on the west bank, the sheriff's headquarters and jail are on the east bank. We patrol both sides of the river. So, we go back and forth on the ferry. There are no bridges crossing the Mississippi in our parish."

For 18 years, from 1962 to 1980, hunting alligators was illegal in Louisiana because the animal population had dropped dramatically. Alligators have always been a favorite food for the people of the bayou. Gator hides bring good prices.

Sound management brought the number of alligators back to peak levels, more than 500,000. Since 1981, the state has permitted taking alligators each year during one month, September. Last year, 21,000 alligators were harvested.

Hides are shipped to Japan and other Asian nations where the skin is converted to watchbands, belts, purses and luggage. The tail meat is frozen and served year-round in Louisiana restaurants. Body meat is used to make gravies.

Big commercial shrimp boats are everywhere along the lower Mississippi, the lower regions of Bayou Lafourche and the Atchafalaya River unloading the latest catch, preparing to go out for another two weeks to a month in the Gulf of Mexico.

'Too Many Shrimp'

"It's a bad time for shrimpers these days--too many shrimp being brought in from Mexico and other countries. There are too many shrimp boats," said fifth-generation shrimper Calvin (C.J.) Pizani, 26, skipper of the 86-foot Mean Machine.

He said he was making enough to pay off the note on his $300,000 boat "but not much more." He blamed high interest rates and a doubling of the number of shrimp boats in the last 10 years for his economic woes.

Pizani's father and grandfather are shrimpers. So are his three brothers. He has been a shrimp boat captain since he was 17. Three deck hands work with him when he goes out on a run. "It's in my blood. What else can I do?" he said.

Almost everyone encountered in bayou country fishes or traps part-time or full time. In the town of Pierre Part, Marion Daigle, 45, was selling her catch of 462 pounds of catfish to seafood processor Claude Metrejean at 55 cents a pound.

"Fishin' is my business. It pays the bills. I set my nets in the bayous and come back a week later. You see what I make this week--$254.10," said Daigle, counting her money. She was dressed in green rain slicks and a crocheted bright orange and green hat. She crochets when she isn't fishing.

At Leeville, in Bayou Lafourche, Beatrice Duncan, 60, fishes from shore every other day using four long cane poles. "I'm the greatest fisherman up and down this bayou," she said. She has been fishing since she was 5. She catches blue crabs, crawfish, eel, catfish, redfish and trout using five pounds of shrimp for bait each outing.

"I eat the fish, give some to neighbors and sell some. Sometimes I fish with other ladies. I fish no matter what the weather, rain or shine." Her favorite seafood dish: "I love catfish heads smothered in onion greens."

Lawrence Duet, 48, follows in the footsteps of his "daddy, granddaddy and several more generations down the line." He operates a moss gin in Labadieville. From their small boats, people in the bayou harvest Spanish moss from the tops of cypress trees by using 14-foot-long poles with hooks on the end. They sell the moss to Duet.

He then hangs the moss out to dry in a curing process that takes several weeks and turns the moss from gray to jet black. The moss is used for stuffing furniture, mattresses and spawning mats in which fish lay eggs.

Unusual Animals

This is also the land of turtles, frogs, armadillos, cranes, herons, laughing gulls, marsh wrens and poisonous snakes.

"We have blue runners, cottonmouth and water moccasin in this swamp," said Carolyn Pepper, 35, who lives on a two-story houseboat on Four Mile Bayou with her husband, Jimmy, and their nine children.

"Honey, if one of those blue runners gets ahold of you, you're dead," she added. The Peppers live miles from their nearest neighbors and have a TV satellite dish that brings in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago as clear as New Orleans.

"You might think it funny, us living out here on this swamp. We paid off the houseboat in four years. It cost us $10,000. No way you can pay off a house in town in four years," she said.

Philip Green, 65, has a small plot of land embraced by swampland in the hamlet of Darrow. He fishes, farms and traps. As for his farming, he said: "I plants okra, bell peppers, tomatoes and snap beans. If the crops don't come up, that's God's business. I put them there and let the Good Lord take care of it."

Throughout bayou country are antebellum homes and huge plantation houses, relics of pre-Civil-War days. Like castles in England, plantation homes cost so much to maintain that many owners conduct tours through them to help pay for the upkeep. Some are operated as bed-and-breakfast inns.

One of the finest examples of Greek-revival architecture in the South is Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville, owned by Harold and Naomi Marshall. The 27-room mansion, which took slave-laborers eight years to build, from 1846 to 1854, is now the Center for the Arts in South Louisiana.

Saturday night in the bayou is a time for fais-dodos , Cajun dances. Music is provided by groups playing the squeeze box (tiny French accordion), fiddle, guitar washboard and triangle. One of the most popular all-time Cajun songs is "Las Pas Patate" (Don't Drop the Potato), an old Cajun expression meaning hang in there.

On the end of the pier in front of his home in Pierre Part, Armand Cavalier, 60, practices for an upcoming fais-dodo, playing "Allon Danser, Colinda," (Let's Go Dancing, Colinda) and other old-time Cajun favorites on his ornate squeeze box.

Such is life in the bayou.

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