Bayou-Diversity Book

“Bayou-Diversity” is also the name of a bi-weekly radio program written and narrated by Kelby Ouchley since 1995 on the northeast Louisiana public radio station (KEDM 90.3).  As the promo says:  “We consider various aspects of wild flora and fauna, and dabble in current conservation issues.  The goal is to enhance your daily awareness, appreciation, and enjoyment of the natural world in which we live.”  The programs consist of short essays that will, along with others, occasionally be posted on this page.  Some have links to an audio version.  In 2011 LSU Press published a volume comprised of more than 150 of these short stories entitled Bayou-Diversity:  Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country Hardback and e-book versions are available at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Bayou-Diversity-Nature-People-Louisiana-Country/dp/0807138592/ref=la_B0046C109I_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357752688&sr=1-1) and other good bookstores. 

Review of Bayou-Diversity by National Book Award Winning author Phillip Hoose: “Kelby Ouchley, an author who also has a radio program on Louisiana Public Radio, has just come out with a masterful collection of essays on the natural history of Louisiana, entitled Bayou-Diversity (LSU Press). Even if you’re not from Bayou country, it is worth your attention as a work of literature. Nothing escapes Ouchley’s attention: ticks, lightning, stray cats, oil spills, sluggish water, snakebite myths and remedies, the origin of his great-grandmother’s rocking chair. At the heart is an acute understanding of Louisiana ecology–how it works and should work.  The essays are beautifully written: thermal wind currents are ‘bubbles of air that serve as elevators for raptors.’ In five paragraphs, Ouchley completely changed my understanding of teeth. I haven’t enjoyed or learned so much about the natural history of a place since I read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.”

A sampling of the radio essays follows, some of which are found in the book.

Thinking About This New Flood in an Old Way  20 May 2011

It’s complex and always has been, this business of flooding in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.  At most we think of the situation in historic time rarely pondering beyond 19th century events.  In geologic or perhaps better named river time the span is minutely fractional and only noteworthy because of human efforts to control natural phenomena.  For at least 10,000 years humans in these lands of cyclic inundations flourished not in spite of flooding but because of it.  In essence they lived off of river borne, mid-continent nutrients that nourished a flora and fauna of unparalleled richness.  Indian corn grew tall and catfish fattened as a result of the seasonal doses of prairie alluvium.  An institutional memory developed over centuries of living in the fickle environment precluded efforts to “fight” floods as flood control efforts are labeled today.  Indigenous people knew better than to oppose that which provided for their existence in the first place.  It’s no accident that most major prehistoric archaeological sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley are located on sites that were not flood prone when they were inhabited.

The idea of taming the river evolved with Euro-American settlers as a branch on their philosophical tree of Manifest Destiny.  As the thinking went, a river should not be permitted to thwart the divinely sanctioned expansion and settlement of the Anglo-Saxon race from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean.  Little thought was given to the value of natural functions of wetland systems and the consequences of altering them.  Today we know more of the importance of those functions mostly by having learned from our mistakes.  Levees do more than protect modern humans and their assets.  They reduce the storage capacity of floodplains and exacerbate downstream flooding.  Levees inhibit the recharge of aquifers and the nourishing deposition of nutrients.  They degrade natural ecosystems.  Make no mistake; levees are critical to our well-being in many areas of the Lower Mississippi River Valley.  In some definable areas though the common good would be best served, economically and otherwise, by removing levees and recognizing the benefits of natural flooding not unlike the people who live here 9,700 years before we showed up.

 

Dead Bird Mystery  4 January 2011 

The source of mysteries is not limited to the likes of Tony Hillerman or P.D. James.  Nature also serves up some perplexing whodunits from time to time.  On the evening of January 25th, 1983 several people called the Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana where I worked to report unusual snow goose mortality near Jennings.  As the regional wildlife disease biologist I was responsible for looking into the matter.  The affected site was a rural farming area about two miles wide and five miles long.  Local residents reported first seeing dead geese on the morning of the 25th.  Birds were found in yards, roads, and ditches as well as in open fields.  I saw about 50 dead geese scattered at random lying belly up.  They made indentations in the wet fields where they struck the ground, indicating that they became incapacitated while flying and fell from the sky.  I estimated the total mortality to be 200 to 300.

I collected and necropsied several of the geese.  No lesions characteristic of infectious diseases were found although all exhibited free blood in the heart and lung cavities.  A definitive cause of death could not be established, but the pattern of mortality seemed to rule out diseases, parasites, or poisoning.  No known waterfowl disease or parasite causes such a rapid death, and mortality from something like pesticide poisoning might be expected to emanate from a central focus where contact with the agent occurred.  Such was not the case.

The National Weather Service station at Lake Charles and local residents reported heavy thunderstorms in the area the night before the first dead geese were seen.  Although the carcasses showed no signs of lightning or hail strikes, I concluded that the mortality was weather related.  Severe thunderstorms are known to spawn powerful updrafts capable of lifting aircraft thousands of feet.  Coastal thunderheads often tower to seven miles above the earth.  The barometric pressure and oxygen content of air at these heights are greatly reduced.  It is feasible that a flock of geese caught in an updraft and carried rapidly to such heights will experience respiratory and circulatory problems similar to those found in the necropsied birds.  This theory would also explain the distribution of carcasses as geese succumbed and fell out of the storm at slightly different times and places.

Geese have been observed flying at extreme altitudes in places such as the Himalayas.  These heights were probably achieved over a period of hours thus allowing time for physiological adjustment.  The Louisiana geese were likely carried aloft in a matter of only a few minutes, which precluded their acclimation and resulted in mortality.  So, nature mystery solved.  Well….at least in theory.

Mud & Muscadines  29 November 2010

     Having been away from Louisiana bayous and rivers for a long time and then returning once in late summer, I walked down to the water’s edge and was suddenly overwhelmed by the appealing odor of mud.  It was a memory aroma.  Conjured up in the cerebrum via the first cranial nerve when odor molecules wafted across my olfactory neurons, distinct images of boyhood experiences panned across the screen of thoughts – seining a sandbar on a stormy night, checking trotlines at dawn with great anticipation.

Only the smell of certain mud evokes these recollections.  Hard to describe, it is pungent with a bit of putrid decay and very site specific.  That the odor of some mud is alluring, even haunting, defies straight-line cause and effect explanation.  I like to think that a gene is involved, perhaps one harbored by my great-grandfather when he floated cypress sawlogs down Bayou D’Arbonne, or yet more distant ancestors who dug peat from Scottish bogs or marked their riparian lifestyles with enduring shell middens along southern waterways.

Another group of biologically secreted odors known as pheromones triggers social and physiological responses in members of the same species whether honeybees or humans.  Depending on the type of pheromone the resulting behavior can be fight, flight, feast or mating.  Apparently some plant odors are similar to human attractant pheromones as demonstrated by the floral motifs in most perfumes.  The multi-billion dollar global perfume industry produces thousands of products in efforts to satisfy individual tastes.  For me it is the fragrance of ripe muscadines, sultry and musky.  This wild grape native to the warm, humid South is sleek of skin when mature, round and firm.  Accordingly, to temper passions, wine of muscadine should only be sipped over ice, a vintner’s sacrilege.

Odors routinely splash around in our minds directing subconscious behavior and thoughts like a hidden conductor.  They warn of danger, help mold first impressions of new acquaintances, new apartments, or old cheeses.  Smells drive emotions that crystallize into moods of nostalgia, procreation, and harmony.  Such is the mighty power of bayou mud and ripe muscadines.

Pond Spoor  27 September 2010 

 Deer, gray squirrel and gray fox, ‘possum, raccoon, armadillo all come to the drying pond now leaving their spoor in the encircling halo of mud.  What a difference between equinoxes.  Six feet deep in the spring, the pond reflects the harvest moon from a surface barely eighteen inches above the muck bottom.  Daily evaporation sucks away at the pond’s diameter.  Except for the squirrels, most of the mammals come at night or at the crepuscular times in between.  Deer, some heavy in their splayfooted tracks, others with hooves of the year barely larger than a nickel, wade into the tepid water to drink.  The armadillo trudges like a tank plowing a trail into the shallows that smears his three-toed prints with a dragging tail.  He is more amphibious than most people know.  ‘Possum’s mark is the imprint of her hind foot with a toe that appears as an opposable thumb.  Her kind has ambled about the older parts of bayou country since their northward trek from South America three million years ago.  She is resilient.  The raccoons come to eat as well as drink.  With a refined sense of touch that processes stimuli in dark places, receptor-laden paws probe crevices and burrows for the delicacy of a molting crawfish.  Like a dealing card shark, they look away from busy hands while plying their trade.  Squirrels come to drink in a stealth mode, creeping in to stretch out full length on soft bellies before quenching the thirst with rapid lapping.  If only they could control the demon-possessed tail, their subterfuge would be complete.  The gray fox would roll up his britches legs if he could.  His tracks never enter the water but meander along the shore behind his nose.  Maybe he doesn’t even drink but comes to meddle in the business of those in Order Rodentia.  On a landscape scale the pond is a tiny dot on the edge of a large swamp.  For most of the year it is of little consequence in the lives of these animals as the nearby wetlands pulse with seasonal overflows.  Now though the bowl contains the essence of their existence.

 

The President at Venice

The following notes are excerpts from my field diary on May 2, 2010:

11:30AM – I am writing this from the office of Delta National Wildlife Refuge at the end of the road in Venice, La.  This second floor room has large windows all around, and I can see the Mississippi River and adjacent waterways filled with commercial boatyards, piers and docks.  The weather is harsh, 23 mph sustained winds from the south with gusts to 34.  It is pushing northward a menace that has alarmed the world.  BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 12 days ago killing 11 people.  A gushing wellhead a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is releasing 5,000 barrels of oil into the sea each day*.  It is headed this way.  A crisis of unknown proportion is imminent.

12:50PM – Four large helicopters, like giant dragonflies, suddenly appeared and began landing 200 yards north of this building at the Chevron shore base.  One is a Blackhawk, two behemoths carry U.S. Marine Corps emblems, and a smaller one is labeled United States of America.  We received word that the president of the United States would soon arrive in his motorcade, driving down from New Orleans because the weather did not fall within safety parameters required for him to fly in the helicopters.  A Coast Guard cutter cruises slowly below my window.

2:20PM –The presidential motorcade arrives, twenty-six vehicles strong, with an armored car, ambulance, and three identical, black SUVs with dark-tinted windows.  They pass our office and stop at the Coast Guard station for a news conference.

2:40PM – Another helicopter identical to the smaller one arrives.  Redundancy is obvious.

3:30PM – The motorcade returns and stops at the end of our driveway.  The president gets out of one of the SUVs and conducts an informal yet orchestrated question and answer session with local commercial fishermen.  He is facing me wearing a dark jacket and blue shirt with an open collar as he gestures to the worried men in white boots.

3:45PM – Everyone remounts as the motorcade turns around and drives the few hundred yards to the heliport.  The most powerful man on the planet boards one of the smaller helicopters.

3:58PM – In an extraordinary show of might, the helicopters roar to life and fly north with the wind.  It strikes me that they are all the color of oil.

*Note:  The early estimate of oil being released was later revised upward.

A link to an audio version of this vignette is found at:
http://www.kedm.org/audio/bayou-diversity


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