BY CHRIS STAUDINGER
Most people agree that a bayou is slow-moving and muddy. But beyond that, things diverge, sometimes drastically. The categories we give to bodies of water are understandably fluid, but the bayou is especially deceptive. With everyone you ask, the definition seems to change, sometimes drastically. There are bayous that could barely fit a canoe and bayous that would be tough to swim across. There are saltwater bayous and there are freshwater bayous. That's why I was struck by a reputable scientist who recently said at a meeting, "That's what a bayou is: It's tidally influenced." His definition left out the 359-mile Bayou Bartholomew, the "longest bayou in the world," as well as Steele Bayou, Macon Bayou, and a host of others in the Lower Mississippi River flatlands that are nowhere near a tide.
So, I wrote to an authority, hoping for something definitive. Richard Keim, a hydrologist at Louisiana State University's School of Renewable Natural Resources, was precisely that. "There is no commonly accepted technical definition of a bayou," he said, "It is a Native American word picked up by the French."
What we are left with then, paradoxically, is a word bursting with meaning, without a real definition. The largest river in North America is more than capable of creating things like that. It must have been disorienting for the French explorer who found his way into the tangled floodplain of a land so primordial that he was at a loss for words. Kevin Risk, writer and professor of landscape architecture at LSU, says it's significant that the French kept the Choctaw word bayuk to describe the waterways, because Europeans were rarely "respectful of existing names" for things they found here. Louisiana rain is not umba, and the full moon is not hashi bolukta. But a bayou is a bayou, and it has lasted through the Spanish and the Anglos to penetrate a deep spot in the American psyche.
Elvis, Credence Clearwater Revival, the Meters, Dr. John, the Carpenters, Hank Williams, Jr., Dave Matthews Band. Who has not sung about the mythologized bayou?
I asked the Lost Bayou Ramblers what a bayou is. They're an indie Cajun band that sings a lot about their home country near Lafayette, La. It was some of the least forgiving, wateriest land in Louisiana. Crawfish are produced by the ton there. So are a lot of fossil fuels, and alongside tall cypress and squat wood shacks, an infrastructure of pipelines and oil wells dot the landscape. They said that a bayou is "a slow moving muddy-ass body of water, usually drains swamps and lakes into the Gulf of Mexico." And, most importantly, "It's Lost..."
The definition nicely combines the hydrology and the mythology of the bayou. It's lost because you can literally get lost there, when water flows into a bayou, and the vegetation closes in behind you, and then the water stops. Scott Eustis of the Gulf Restoration Network says that pirates used it to their advantage when they lurked in the swamps near New Orleans.
It's also lost because of that hazy mystique that so many people have written about, photographed, and romanticized for the last two and a half centuries.
And it's lost because it's quite literally disappearing. Bayou country is falling under the rising seas faster than any other land on our planet. And a lot of the stuff that has made the bayou famous - the lore, the agrarian dreams, the language - could fall into the sea with it.