The Ends of the Earth

June 6, 2013

Rowan Sharp '14.5 is a Royce Fellow working on writing journalistic pieces about the science of land loss in Louisiana, embedded in community narratives.

Louisiana has lost an area the size of Rhode Island since the 1970’s; every 38 minutes, another football-field’s worth of wetlands subsides into the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know who came up with that measurement, but it has become the standard way to talk about the land-loss crisis here, invoked repeatedly by journalists and government officials.

But, according to Big Lloyd, a Cajun fisherman born and raised on this quickly meting coast, “It’s not about the football field.  There is no football field. Talk about the people. Say how a man can fish oysters where he used to graze cows. You go out there with an oyster dredge, you dredge up the fence pickets, the tops all rotted away but the bottoms still there, split with an axe the way they used to do.”

As I begin my journalism project here, I have been trying to gain a sense of place, history, and character. I write today from the small, mostly Native American town of Pointe-Aux Chenes near the marshy lip of Southeast Louisiana’s Terrebonne Bay (Terrebonne means good earth). The cardinal directions here are “up the bayou” and “down the bayou,” but the bayou itself is gaping, widening, every day.

Yesterday, I spent the day with Donald Dardar, second chairman of the Pointe-Aux-Chenes Indian tribe, and former chief Sydney Verdin. In Donald’s 17-foot Carolina Skiff, we wended our way down the natural bayou and into unnatural territory, once-solid land gridded into new waterways by oil and gas exploration.

“They butchered it,” Dardar told me, as we tied up in the shade of one of the last live-oak trees in the marsh—saltwater intrusion has killed most of them. The oak grew at the foot of a low hill of real, solid soil rising from the muddy water—“prehistoric mounds,” said Dardar, built by his tribal ancestors, who carried the earth in baskets. No one knows why, exactly—to create high ground during the Mississippi’s annual flood, or for ceremonial reasons, or both.

Now you can see the brown water sucking at the land, “eating it,” as people say here. On behalf of his whole community, Dardar requested that the local government bring rock to edge an island near the Point-Aux-Chien marina, to make it last longer. He made his request two years ago. The island had lost 20 feet of shoreline since then.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of these stories, but I hope, over the course of the summer, to write journalistic pieces that clearly tell the underlying science of the land loss, embedded in a narratives of the individuals and communities who are affected. Due to its subsiding land, the Louisiana coast has the fearful distinction of experiencing the greatest relative sea-level rise on earth. Climate change is here, is happening, now. But, as Big Lloyd says—it’s not about the football field.