"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve Bonfires: Lutcher/Gramercy, Louisiana

It's the tradition in a few towns along the Mississippi, like Lutcher and Gramercy to build extravagant wooden pyres to be lighted on Christmas Eve to guide Papa Noel through the night. (Just so you know - down here in the bayou his sleigh is pulled by alligators or maybe egrets.)

We arrived in Gramercy just at sunset, found a parking space downtown, and walked two or three blocks to the levee where the pyres were built.  If you look closely at the lower right hand corner of the picture below you can get a sense of how the row of wooden structures went on as far as we could see. There could have easily been over a hundred. 

Most were the very formal pyramid shape above, 
but some were covered with dry grasses and/or red paper. 

While everyone waited for 7:00, the official lighting time, we walked along the levee looking at all the pyres and people celebrating. Fireworks were going off all around us, many much closer than we were used to. This group had quite a stash, only a few feet from their small pre-bonfire. 

 A few minutes before 7:00, one by one, starting at the bridge crossing the Mississippi, 
the bonfires were lighted.

Within minutes the levee was a crazy conflagration of sound and fire. 

Some bonfires were built with fireworks or firecrackers inside them 
so that when they were lighted there were explosions of all shapes and sizes. 

After the initial wild excitement, the bonfires settled into a warm, friendly roar.

Some people moved closer around the bonfires of their friends and neighbors

Others, without a "home fire" continued to wander and play and watch, 

…and glory shone around. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas!

To all our readers who celebrate Christmas

we wish you a joy and love filled holiday.

Rick and Lenore

Friday, December 20, 2013

An Eerie Foggy Morning in the Swamp

Rick woke me up at 6:00 AM whispering, "I think it's your kind of morning out there."  A quick look out our tiny slide bedroom window confirmed that; the bare trees in the park were silhouetted in the predawn fog, and frost (!) was on the ground.

I was up out of bed in one flash and out the door in another. First stop was Breaux Bridge to pick up a cafe au lait to go at Joie de Vivre.  (That's French.)  Second stop was the town park on the banks of the Bayou Teche to catch the light coming through the live oaks.

A short drive south of town got me to Lake Martin where I took a long walk along 
the shore and took a gazillion pictures. Here are a few I like.

It's duck hunting season and I could hear the gunshots from other parts of the lake. There are a couple of duck blinds out in the middle of the lake. I just kept hoping I was far enough away to be safe.

As the sun came up the light kept changing, depending on which direction I was facing... 

…and the thickness of the fog at any given point.

After the walk I drove around the other side of the lake and passed a rookery of egrets or herons.

Rick was right. This was my perfect kind of morning. The combination of a new encounter with a natural environment and the opportunity to be creative is my absolute favorite experience. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The River Road: Sugarcane Plantations Then and Now

I may not have mentioned it previously, but we are surrounded on three sides here at Cajun Palms RV Resort by sugarcane. This has made us curious about it, and our latest day trip has answered a lot of our questions. Those of you who are not the slightest bit curious about where your sugar comes from can skip down to the nice pictures of Oak Alley Plantation.

I don't know how it happened, but I'm a farm girl at heart. I was born and raised in New York City and its suburbs. My parents were from out west and we drove across the country often to visit family. Maybe all that farmland we passed in the car just rubbed off on me. As a youngster I used to get up at 5:00 AM to watch The Farm Report on television. God's honest truth. Harvesters and combines with a bowl of cereal before school every morning. 

Rick and I are both pretty interested in agriculture and the manufacturing that happens after the harvest.  Our travels have given us lots of opportunity to learn, but a lot of it is guesswork based on what we're seeing, supplemented by the internet and talking with the locals, so take this all with a grain of salt. I may be a farm girl at heart, but that's the only kind of farm girl I am. 

It's harvest season here, so we're seeing plenty of action. The picture up top is the sugarcane harvest  right in our backyard. Below are the trucks carrying the cut cane to the processing plants. 

Let me backtrack just a bit. As we drive through the countryside here we see sugarcane of two sizes: short and tall.  The explanation seems to be that sugarcane is a two (or three?) year crop. The short, immature crop just gets burned down. When it is ready to be harvested it is about 8 feet tall and dried brown. Harvest happens in December, as does burning, so we're seeing both.

We think we can recognize sugarcane processing plants now. They usually have lots of smoke/steam stacks going full force and huge shed-like structures.  Our day trip took us south of Baton Rouge along Route 405, the River Road, and we saw quite a few sugar plants.  

Here you can see the trucks filled with cane lined up outside of a processing plant.

In this picture you can see what we think is a pile of waste fiber outside of the plant. 

Historically the sugar plantations were established along the Mississippi River, both because of the fertile soil and the easy access to shipping and boat travel along the river.  Below, on this piece of a map, you can see the long skinny plantation properties all along the river on both sides. The whole map, by artist Lisa Middleton, shows all the plantations along the river from Natchez to New Orleans. (We think our guide told us that the green ones are sugarcane.) The plantation we visited is one of the smaller green ones on the west bank. It is now called Oak Alley

Sugar was as big a crop here as cotton was in other parts of the south. It really built this part of the country. Like all southern plantations, these were dependent upon slave labor.  When visiting Oak Alley, the first buildings you see are reconstructed slave cabins. Inside the cabins there are exhibits of typical furnishings as well as information about the slave trade and the nature of the slaves' lives on the plantation.

We were guided through the main house by a young man dressed in period clothing. 

The house is three stories high, with at least four large rooms and a central hall on each floor.  It is furnished as you might expect a wealthy antebellum home to be. Like in Gone With the Wind. All the guides are dressed in period clothing.

The house is surrounded by three hundred year old live oaks. 
Around here they are the signature of the landscape. 

This is the million dollar view that the plantation was named for:  

We were the only people walking along this allee (that's French). We felt so privileged to be there, and grateful that some of these places have been preserved and are open to the public. We know there are many plantations in the south, but we really haven't been visiting them. Some in the area are still private homes and farms, and some have been turned into inns with spas and restaurants. Many are long gone.

We saw other kinds of manufacturing plants on our drive as well.  This one was CF Industry's nitrogen plant.  (Don't ask - I don't know.) Among other things, it makes the urea based DEF fluid that we use in our truck.

We could tell that some of them were oil refineries and petroleum or gas related plants because of the huge storage tanks…


… and the pipes going across the road, over the levee and out to the tanker ships on the river. Before now we never really understood the extent of the levee system along the Mississippi and its tributaries. We started seeing the levees in Memphis, and since then we rarely actually see the river because of the levees on both sides. The Mississippi Delta has a long history of flooding of course and the levees have been around in some form for centuries. 

We saw the last agricultural behemoth of the day as we sat in a traffic jam outside of Baton Rouge and watched the full moon come up.  This one looks like it might be a grain elevator. What do you think?

Next post, I'll be getting back to nature.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Down on the Bayou, Louisiana

Terminology is an issue here. We got our first lesson at the Evangeline - Longfellow Historical Site State Park in St. Martinville, LA.  Some of the terms that get bandied around here to describe the culture, the people and the geography can get complicated, and confusing. Much of the terminology is based on the French language, which we have little or no experience with, so we are dependent on others (and the internet) for translation.

I referred to this area as "Cajun Country" in my last post. Today I'm calling it bayou country, because bayou means river and the wide spread wetlands that the rivers create in this flat geography. Bayou does not refer to the people or culture, though it is associated with both, because on the bayou is where many people live around here. But not all Acadians (Cajuns) or Creoles live on the bayou.

We started hearing the terms Cajun, Acadian and Creole to describe the people in New Orleans, and were beginning to get a handle on it. One of the knowledgable guides at the State Park helped us out, and the exhibit in the museum was even more helpful.  Below is the Olivier Mansion, or Maison Olivier, the home around which this park was constructed. It was originally thought to be an Acadian home, but later research determined it was Creole.  Confusion doesn't seem to be confined to out-of-towners. 

Our first guide, below, explained that the Creoles were the descendants of the French people who began settling this colonial territory before our Relolutionary war. Because other peoples, including Spanish, West Indian, African and Native American also lived here before, during and after that period, Creole describes a complex combination of cultures, but seems to refer to the people who were originally here before the Acadians arrived. There also seems to be a more subtle difference between these peoples based on class, which isn't talked about as easily, as elements of and feelings about these differences seem to still remain.

Many of the Creoles were quite wealthy and owned plantations in the area. This is one of those  plantations or substantial farms, with slaves. Around here the staple crop was, and still is sugar cane. Because of the heat, humidity and flooding, the homes are often built up off the ground, and have large shaded porches and storage areas on the ground level. 

Now, Acadians are the French people who emigrated to Louisiana from the Nova Scotia area of Canada. They were forcefully evicted from their homeland by the British, a story that was retold in Longfellows fictional narrative poem, Evangeline. The poem brought the Acadian story to the attention of people all over the country, and probably the world, who had no idea who the Acadians were.  The state park originated as an effort to preserve the cultural heritage of the Acadians, as inspired by Evangeline.


The descendants of those Acadians are now referred to as Cajuns, a word derived directly from the pronunciation of Acadian.  Our second guide (above) at the state park told us about the lives of the Acadians/Cajuns who lived more simply, as illustrated by the farm buildings in this part of the park.  The first is a simple cabin. This "farm" was in close proximity to a coulee, or small waterway by which they accessed the Bayou Teche, a major river in the area.  

Other buildings include barns, kitchens, and other out buildings for various purposes.

There were several gardens for the family's personal use. The Acadians didn't grow fruits or vegetables for a cash crop, but they did raise cattle, trap animals and fish for trade or sale as well as for family use. 

The Evangeline - Longfellow State Park is in the historic town of St. Martinville, considered the heart or birthplace of Cajun culture. Below is the historic Catholic church of St. Martin de Tours, built in 1836.

We lunched at Victor's Cafeteria in nearby New Iberia with a very reasonably priced homestyle meal that included the best green beans I've ever had. Then we drove further south to Avery Island, home of McIlhenny's Tabasco hot sauce. We visited the bottling plant...

...and the gift shop, and received lots of little free samples.

Avery Island is one of three large salt mounds near the Gulf shore, amidst otherwise very low land.  The original McIlhenny bought the island, set up his Tobasco sauce business, which still includes fields of peppers and a salt mine. He also established Jungle Gardens - an arboretum through which you can walk or drive. It has several ponds and a river running through it, complete with alligators. One of its claims to fame is "Bird City,"a protected nesting area for herons that contributed to the preservation of the species that was practically wiped out for their feathers. Neither alligator nor herons were around the day we visited; not the right season.

This one day of excursions and the education they've already offered have gotten me thinking so much about culture, and how "outsiders" gain access to it. As tourists, we are offered places to go and things to do right off the highway. But beyond that, it takes some time, work and patience to find the "real" culture - the people, the food, the music, the homes and farms, the grocery stores and barber shops. We're finding our way, as we have in other places, and taking our time. We'll let you know what and who we encounter as we go.  

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cajun Country, Louisiana

We're spending this month at Cajun Palms RV Resort in Henderson, near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, "Crawfish Capitol of the World." It' a very large RV park, with long, wide, level, concrete sites, many of them pull throughs. We are some of the few folks here. 

Lots of ducks though.

It looks as if the park is designed for good times during the warmer months, with an extensive water park, large hot tub, two wet bars, a restaurant with a regular bar, and mini-golf, all of which are closed for the winter. : (   They do have a laundry, but not much else is available right now. No book exchange even. 

The weather has been cold and cloudy most days. If we were up north, I'd swear it was going to snow. 

I got out and took these pictures on one of the two sunny days we've had this week. Honest.

We are having a kind of relaxed holiday season, with no special plans, except for New Years Eve. (We'll be seeing Geno Delafose, a great zydeco musician.) We got all our shopping done, and packages into the mail, so we're all set there. We've done a little sight seeing in the area, and I'll post about that very soon.  While you're waiting, kick back and relax.  Boy, I sure wish that hot tub was open.