Bayou Farewell Summary

Mike Tidwell

Bayou Farewell

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Bayou Farewell Summary

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Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast (2003) is a work of ecological history by journalist Mike Tidwell. It traces the Anthropocene’s effects on the Louisiana bayou (the Anthropocene being most recent geological era, in which humans have become the Earth’s primary force of environmental change). The book catalogs the huge environmental losses occurring in Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta, an insular region inhabited by thousands of poor Cajun descendants of French expatriates. Tidwell originally knew nothing about the bayou, coming into contact with its history upon recommendation from a colleague at The Washington Post. The book impacted climate discourse in the United States due to the locality of its subject matter and the breadth of its ecological research.

Tidwell begins Bayou Farewell by recalling the circumstances of his visit to the bayou. His interest was piqued when he learned that it is one of the few places left in the United States where an autonomous subculture thrives without much contact with the surrounding world. The people there are tough and tight-knit, subsisting mainly on a fishing economy, catching crabs, shrimp, oysters, and other fish. Most of them still speak a dialect of French blended with English. To learn more about them, Tidwell brought along a tape recorder and decided to interview and work with them.

Tidwell chose to arrive during the Louisiana shrimping season. He met several boat owners and asked to ride with them and volunteer as a deckhand in order to learn more about the region and its people. He went through multiple towns, including Cocodrie, Golden Meadow, and Leeville, also becoming acquainted with the bayou’s unique gastronomy. Though the people have little wealth, he was struck by their generosity, even to strangers like him who come from the North, of whom many people in Louisiana are wary because of their long history of conflict. Tidwell also learns about two minorities, Vietnamese expats and the Houma Indians who lived in the bayou even before the Cajuns. As the Cajuns, who left Canada, moved into the waters, they displaced the Indians and were later joined in competition by the Vietnamese after Saigon fell in 1975.

Next, Tidwell delves into the unique existential threat posed by recent environmental degradation. Everyone in the Delta is threatened not only by certain vanishing resources, but also by rising floodlands, which are literally consuming the place they have called home for three centuries. The three million acres of Louisiana on which they live are becoming incorporated into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tidwell comes to see this impact firsthand in bits and pieces. On his first voyage to the bayou, for example, he found a cemetery whose headstones were barely peeking out of the water. He asked the locals what happened and they said that the graveyard had been completely above water ten years before. He notices scores of old Christmas trees being used as breakwaters, having been purchased from surrounding states.

Tidwell also supplements his ecological report with government reports and private research that document Louisiana’s shrinking landmass. Some of these sources estimate an astronomical economic cost looming before the United States if it decides to repair the damage. Roughly twenty-five acres of land are lost each day, equating to an area the size of Manhattan each week.

Tidwell emphasizes that these losses are not by any means natural. Rather, they are the consequences of the big oil and gas industries, which have installed thousands of miles of pipes underneath the bayou. Since the pipes’ original installation in the early- and mid-twentieth century, the surrounding land has eroded, allowing silt and other matter to wash through the artificial trenches into the sea, where the pipes lead to extract the fossil fuels from the seafloor. Another culprit is the Corps of Engineers. A 1927 action to install levees in the Mississippi River’s natural path to prevent flooding has resulted in the loss of natural sediment flow from upstream into the bayou, where it used to settle and reinforce the land.

Tidwell concludes his novel on an optimistic note, asserting that the problem, like most environmental problems, is solvable given care and ingenuity. Synthesizing his disparate data sources, including expert reports and firsthand evidence, he advocates for the installation of a giant channel to divert Mississippi water to the marshlands to help rebuild the bayou. He contends that it is up to the US government to start such a project, which is set in place by the American electorate. Tidwell therefore casts environmental decay in America as a public issue that’s incumbent on his audience to recognize and stop.