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

Charles Hillinger's America

March 17, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BAYOU L'EAU BLEU, La. — 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:


"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.

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