Let's take a drive

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I suppose I would have been lost, had I cared where I was at, or where I was heading. But on this late afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, I was finished with work and found myself wandering the low marshlands of southern Louisiana.

The bridge came up suddenly, itís almost vertical concrete rainbow lifting much higher than needed for the little towboats and barges normally found in the canals down here. My old truck had to shift lower and growled with effort as it neared the top.

From there, the landscape was a ragged patchwork of silvered grey water and the brown-green of late autumn. They call it a wetland prairie, this vast area of low shrubs and standing shallows. Of all places Iíve known, these soggy flats, smelling of black mud and saltgrass, are the most exciting, the most alive. Every patch of open water is filled with birds this time of year; pintails and pelicans, cormorants and egrets, and great blue herons stalking the banklines. Little kingfishers sit on fence or power lines, their oversized heads looking like the masks of Mardi Gras revelers in the nearby Cajun-Catholic communities. An occasional kite dives and swoops over the roadway, while grackles and redwing blackbirds huddle in the blown-out seed heads of saw grass and goldenrod, their feathers ruffled against the spitting rain which is the always-faithful reaction of the heavy gulf air when fall brings itís Canadian winds.

Along the roadside, a wider canal has been contrived to aid drainage, protecting the asphalt from inundation of the big August storms. Water birds and animals have made wandering pathways through the floating vegetation and I spot a blunt nose, slowly parting the duckweed and water cabbage. At first, forgetting the lateness of the season, I think alligator, then I notice the eyes, brown and sparkling, unlike the cold yellow green of the great reptile. Then, with a rush of excitement I recognize the happy little face; a river otter, only the third Iíve seen in eighteen years of prowling these marshlands.

As the little highway winds itís way nearer the sand dunes of the coastline there is higher ground, with little groups of small houses perching on spindly legs like gaudy kildees, painted in flaking greens and blues. Here is the deeper waters as well, with friendly rafts of shrimpboats tied up nose to nose as if to share an afternoon chat over cups of the watermanís coffee, black as the bayou and heavy with chicory.

I stop for a moment at one tiny backwater cove. A few rickety docks remain, and an overgrown house, gone again to vines and wildness. This is one of the old places, now a quiet gathering ground of seagoing relics. A dozen derelicts squat on the muddy bottom, their decks slanting under the dark pane, in some places broken net booms or bare ribs the only evidence of wooden boats which once flew their flags in the wealth of these waters. Tiny shrimp find shelter among the ruined hulls, prey and predator now in harmony, and the empty windows of moldering pilothouses stare in slumber, dreaming dreams of sunlit days and open waters.

Just ahead, I reach the tiny ferry which crosses the ship channel into a collection of mobile homes and beach houses. Nothing here is old, a legacy of the great hurricane which roared ashore a few decades past. The volunteers who came in their boats from Lake Charles or Port Arthur, bringing relief after the storm had passed, were puzzled by the requests for ladders. Then they arrived and saw the bodies wedged in treetops, legs and arms distended in death as if still struggling against the salty surge that had filled unwilling lungs, their empty eyes perhaps also dreaming the dreams of death, and life, along the low lands of the bayous.

-- Lon (lgal@exp.net), November 27, 2003


Sorry for such a somber Thanksgiving posting, but it really did not occur to me as macabre when I was writing it. I guess I have a somewhat different view of life and death. Here's an old Thanksgiving greeting I wrote here a few years ago;


A cold rain had fallen steady for three days when the south wind came again to push the salty waters of the gulf up into the bayou. The dark and green depths were stirred and lifted to lick at the edge of the old wooden bulkhead, where they greeted the rivulets of rain like children, returned to a childhood home.

Here, at the meeting of living bayou and ancient soil, is the place of miracle, where water and earth fulfill their promise of life to one another. Here, is established the ragged and tender edge, of life in the low country. At this eternal labium the creatures come, each divided by ancestral chance or choice into separate elements. At this threshold, they gaze across into the shadow of past or future with unknowing wisdom.

This Thanksgiving, may you know the miracle of renewal. May your family return to one another as surely as fallen waters. May you come to the edge of quietude within your soul, and find there an affirmation of life, the certainty of future, and the eternality of love.

-- Lon (lgal@exp.net), November 27, 2003.

The d-d-dead b-b-bodies were a b-b-bit of a shock, b-b-but H-H-Happy Thanksgiving t-t-to you, Lon.

-- helen (hiding@under.the.half.decorated.Christmas.tree), November 27, 2003.

Yeah, I think I've been posessed by Steven King. Maybe I should try a truely gruesome tale; perhaps I'd end up with blue skies, little birdies and smiley faces all around. Come to think on it, the original "Ole Lon the Clown" story was a psuedo murder mystery, kinda.

Oh well, happy TG, anyway (bodies and all).

-- spooky ole Lon (lgal@exp.net), November 27, 2003.

Now here's a true-life horror story for you all. I was lingering over our Thanksgiving dinner today, after all the others had gotten up and left (probably thinking the last eater would be the dish washer). Anyway, there were the cheese broccoli cassarole, pickles and olives, greenbeans and onions, and my favorite wild rice with cranberry dressing. A large platter in the center of the table still held half a large honey cured ham, and I had just helped my plate with some sugar-free pumpkin pie, when I left the room for just a moment to check on Kit.

When I returned to my desert, I noticed a stark difference about the room. Someone had thoughtfully helped me clear the table. All the scraps had been cleaned from the plates. The platter of ham was empty and shined as though freshly washed. My own pumpking pie was untouched, but ever so slightly imprinted with a thumb-sized nose print.

Now, Katy is so old she can hardly get around, much less jump up on a chair. Allie the cat was sleeping in a spot of sun on the screen porch, and all the human-type occupants were elswhere in the house. Only Jazzy dog was available for questioning, and she was curled up on the couch, faking a most convincing snore. As I stood in front of her, she finally opened one eyelid and managed a half-hearted grin. I called her into the dining room, returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak. As I questioned her about the missing platter of ham, her hazel eyes and childlike face radiated with her innocense. We were engaged in a classic stareing contest when she blinked....and burped slightly!

I ended up laughing so hard, I couldn't do any of the torturous things I had promised her. But next year, we may have a roasted, ham-stuffed terrier with an apple in her mouth.

-- ole hungry Lon (lgal@exp.net), November 27, 2003.

Baked, honey-glazed Jazzy. Hmm. Nah. Too stringy and dry. The reason she is able to lie so well is that five minutes after the fact, she doesn't remember what she did. Dog memory (at least as flighty as Jazzy's) and senility have a lot in common. Er, at least, I've heard that they do. You know.

Thanks for the pic of bayou life. I may have been driving the same road (one of 'em) in the late '70's when I saw my first wood duck. They are heartbreakingly beautiful, and their colors are straightforward reds and whites and drawn with hard lines, unlike the neon fade-ins of parrots and other colorful species. Your picture of the boats makes me wish for watercolors and time.

The land purges itself of us, yet we can hear echoes of others who may have struggled here before us, winners and losers and mere passers by, observing. I went to a deer lease in West Texas one time and noticed something strange as I walked the road down the middle of a big mesquite flat between a mountain and a dry creekbed. There were pieces of prickly pear and flotsam high overhead in the tops of the mesquites. I tried to imagine what the scene must have been like "during" but was unable to properly even picture it. All that water. I had found, a year or two before, an old stack of firewood someone had left by an land-reclaimed fence out on the flat near the mountain. No telling how long it had been there, probably provision for an illegal alien camp that had for some reason never been used. Perhaps the ones who came after couldn't find it. Anyway, I'll bet the wood was taken by the flood, and now nobody knows where it was but me and some party unknown who has probably forgotten it if he still lives. The bayous and the deserts and mountains whisper old tales, and we know only little pieces of the story, unsatisfying without closure, but the way of our knowledge here. Sometimes death, usually hidden from us, makes us appreciate the apparent life through realizing its fragility (and our good fortune to have been elsewhere that day!). Happy Thanksgiving to you'n your'n, and the Friends.

-- J (jsnider@hal-pc.org), November 29, 2003.

You sure snuck those dead bodies in nicely Lon. I'm beginning to think Stephen King is just a pseudonym for Lon G.

LOL go Jazzy. I'm glad you had a laugh Lon because after all she did leave your dessert "almost" untouched.

Lon and J. your talk of birds and ducks has reminded me of our local swamp/bird sanctuary which has had it's first good rain in ten years. I haven't been out there for ages, but will take Mum for a drive shortly to see it again. I wont get to see an otter, but chances are good for wood ducks. The place is also teeming with tiny Blue Wrens which tease me continually by landing just in front of my camera and then flitting about like sparrows on speed.

-- Carol (c@oz.com), November 30, 2003.

Otters, yeah, otters. I have an older friend in Lon's neck of the woods who bought 50 bullfrogs over in Louisiana somewhere for the tank on his place, but some river otters moved in and decimated his investment. For my part, I have never seen a river otter in the wild.

Aside: For you non-Texans, a "tank" where I grew up is an earthen impoundment, what others might call a "pond" or "stock pond" and not a metal or concrete affair. A friend from Oklahoma who cowboy'd in his youth once talked about working on a big ranch near Throckmorton, Texas. Shortly after he hired on, he was told to drive some cattle down to a tank in another pasture one bitterly cold winter day. It took him a long time, and then he drove them miles past the appointed stopping place and had to bring them back after another hand found him and turned him around. He'd been looking for a metal structure of some kind! Language can be tricky.

They (the otters)are not there now. I didn't ask where they went, but believe they just moved on. (I don't think the old guy has it in him to kill otters, even if they eat his frogs.) He has restocked. He looked for awhile but only found one suitable bullfrog vendor. They go pretty steep at five bucks a frog. He just wants to hear them croak. (Redneck, wipe that smirk off your face. Croaking meaning the normal sound they make, you know. Although it's a stretch to call their regular sound normal. Anyway...Language can be tricky.) He's not in the frogleg business, just an old guy with a farm who's nostalgic about the sound of bullfrogs. (Hey, we're allowed to be eccentric down here.) I had a girlfriend once that reminded me a little of an otter. Cute, with a mouth that smiled even when she was relaxed and short dark hair. Enough of this.

-- J (jsnider@hal-pc.org), December 02, 2003.

As you say J. language can be tricky. I'm with your cowboy mate. Over here a tank on a property would be a rainwater tank and what you call a tank would be a dam. Some farmers have yabbies in their dams, sort of fresh water prawn(shrimp) crawly things. Pretty disgusting if you ask me, but most Aussies seem to love eating them.

Here frogs are used as a measure of the state of the environment. When the frogs start to disappear things are going badly. Seriously, they even have a regular frog census to keep track of the amphibian population. Beats me how they get the frogs to fill in all those forms though.

-- Carol (c@oz.com), December 03, 2003.

I'm no expert on the derivation of local colloquial terminology, but note that referring to impoundments as tanks is pretty much restricted to the drier parts of the State. I suspect that it originated back before the advent of the windmill. Anything that held water might as well be a tank! In West Texas, they even call some big eroded holes in rocks "wells" just because they hold water. Some tanks are naturally occurring, but mostly somebody scrapes up a dam to retain surface runoff. The government sometimes pays part of the cost if it meets certain criteria and you do the paperwork. But to people from my part of the country, the dam would be the dirt part, the tank the water part. If one wanted to refer to a metal tank, he'd call it a metal tank. A dam by itself kind of signifies a concrete thing that's associated with a big lake. An earthen impoundment would be a tank dam (as opposed to just a dam, which would be understood for a lake). If you told somebody out there to go to a dam out in a pasture, he'd probably assume it was dry. If he was thinking about carrying his fishing gear, he might ask "is there a tank there too?" Sometimes tanks out in the middle of nowhere don't get much attention and the fish get big! Most often, they get shallower over the years until big rains wash all the fish out of them and they eventually silt up completely.

Yabbies? I like shrimp, but those don't sound too appetizing. Folks have pretty much noticed that frogs (either changes in the frogs themselves or their absence from the landscape altogether)are early- warning systems of pollution and maybe-not-so-benign ecological change. They're pretty sensitive, and sometimes we know something's happening because of the frogs, but can't figure out just what's causing it. God's a better manufacturer than we are repairmen! I wonder if, before pollution, frogs were smart enough to fill out the forms for a new tank on the south forty. If they can manage the census, it wouldn't be a stretch. It's not hard to envision them licking the pencil to get started!

-- J (jsnider@hal-pc.org), December 03, 2003.

Texans, y'all are real weird! :-) Non-metal tanks that are really just dugouts (that'd be what we call them here, I think), or maybe a man-made slough (pronounced slew). Anyway, y'all are "tres strange" :-)

I went for a drive this morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise at about 8:15. To the north, there were bands of colour in the sky, dark turqoise then bright violet fading to coral topped with a deep blue that wasn't quite as dark as the bottom turquoise. The snow was all blue, reflecting the sky rather than the horizon. In my rear view mirror, I saw the gold, red and brilliant bronze of the clouds as the sun rose. Returning to the south about an hour and a half later, the clear blue sky was reflected only in the shadows of the snow - the flat plains had a creamy tinge from the yellow of the sun. Amazing. I wished I could have your eyes with me, because I knew I'd never be able to paint the beauty with words well enough for you to see it. There are days that I think it's worth the nasty cold weather for the beauty that comes with it.

-- Tricia teh Canuck (jayles@telusplanet.ent), December 04, 2003.

T the C, for all the Texans, I think I can say "Thaink yew" (blushing). It's not often we are so well and truly complimented.

Dug outs? I thought those were canoes made by folks that have not yet discovered birchbark or animal skins or gelcoat. They also referred to pioneer Hobbit holes (with a nod to Jefe)as "dugouts." Knock a notch in the hill, arrange a door on the front and some kind of roof on top, and, viola! A snug if somewhat soddy smelling house. Soddies were also those was made of sod stacked up (kind of like Adobe, but not so durable--and without much eye appeal. Chia houses after the grass got going. Santa Fe, NM probably wouldn't allow soddies these days, though they love stucco to the point they have architectural guidelines requiring it.

The word "Slough," is pronounced "slew" down here (or up and over here in Carol's case)as well. It is said just like the word for a large quantity, like a whole slew of potato salad for a BBQ. It also denotes water here, but it would have to be attached to a larger body of water, like a lake. The slough would be an inlet or cove. "Slough" can also be pronounced "sluff." It really means to shed an outer layer (like a birch tree sloughing off bark--I'm stuck on birch bark today!) but we use the term "sluffing off" to mean loafing on the job.

Hey, you paint magnificent word pictures. If anyone can't visualize it, it would only be because it's outside his experience. Some of the Western artists (CM Russell in particular, and I think Frederick Remington too) were criticized by the established art community of their time because their colors were too bright and detail showed without enough depth. The problem turned out to be that the critics from back East and Europe did not realize the air quality and brightness of the West a century ago. Would that it were so clean today! I can relate to the blue snow. Two times when I was roughnecking in West Texas in my youth, I witnessed the strangest few minutes right around sunup. The atmosphere seemed strange, and everything light-colored glowed a surreal orange color. I've read that those sailing the South Seas sometimes experience a "green flash" when things set up just right, but I think this is usually at sunset rather than sunrise.

I wish you could have had my eyes, too, but you'd probably have had a wreck trying to hold them steady and drive at the same time. Also, when I've tried this before, people don't hold them straight, and you either see double or strangely disjointed scenes. The worst are nervous people, all that quivering and jiggling and bouncing! Then they drop one and you get sweeping circular views of the bottom of the dashboard then door panel and then an upclose of the floor mat over and over as it rolls around the floor. Meanwhile, the input from the other one is just headliner as they try to steer with one hand and grope around with the other hand trying to retrieve the other eye. Gives me a headache just thinking about it. One guy even lost one for awhile (Yar!). I don't let people take them anymore. Still, that turquoise sky is tempting...

Maybe you could check with Lon F. He's, well, more easily detachable.

I have never seen the Northern lights. Do you think the beautiful coloration up there is because you are closer to the pole?

My wife's college roommate lived on a boat in Honolulu Harbor after she graduated. She reported after her Texas wedding that the prettiest sunset they'd seen was in West Texas heading badk to the West Coast to return to Hawaii. That's high praise coming from someone acquainted with the renowned Pacific sunsets (but must, in all fairness, be viewed as the impression of a newlywed as well). Most of our great coloration down here comes fom dust in the air.

-- J (jsnider@hal-pc.org), December 06, 2003.

Dug outs? Those are where baseball players sit while their team is up to bat.

Lon, the dead bodies WERE a bit of a surprise, but your writing is excellent as always! After seeing the destruction from Hurricane Camille, it was quite realistic in my opinion. Jazzy didn't touch your pie because it was sugar-free. Pretty smart dog! LOL!

There is a Great Blue Heron that hangs out in the pond near our new apartment in Oklahoma. I'm trying to come up with a name for him. :-D

-- Gayla (privacy@please.com), December 07, 2003.

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