Printed books Reflections

Exit from Paradise

Reading Monique Verdin’s “Return to Yakni Chitto” while crossing injured lands

Banner image: “Melinda, Melena, and Beau Verdin in Grand Bois, 2000,” Monique Verdin.

By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer

As American as Thanksgiving itself, I think, are the two days that bookend the actual holiday. I’m writing not only about Black Friday, that celebration of consumerist longing, but also about Wednesday, Thanksgiving Eve, invariably one of the nation’s busiest travel days.

Like many Americans, I am taking a road trip next week. As birds flock south, I’ll be heading due north. I will depart from the toe-tip of Louisiana, drive up the height of Mississippi, dip briefly into Tennessee, weave into Arkansas, then cross into Missouri, where my aunt and uncle reside, a bit outside St. Louis.

That’s five U.S. states, four of them with names derived from Indigenous languages. Mississippi, from the Ojibwe word for the Mississippi River. Tennessee, after the Cherokee settlement of Tanasi. Arkansas, from the Algonquian name for the Quapaw Nation. Missouri, after the Niúachi people.

Cutting through these states, I’ll follow dusty white highways past gas stations, fast food joints, and hospitals; across polluted streams; and through leveled forests. I’ll cut through country that a precolonial Ojibwe chief or Cherokee woman or Niúachi child would barely recognize.

“Oil and Water: Extracting Petroleum, Exterminating Nature,” by Jakob Rosenzweig (cartography) and Jacqueline Bishop (artwork), from  Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, co-edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, University of California Press, 2013.

One of the places I will not drive through next week is Terrebonne, a shoreline parish about an hour southwest of New Orleans.

The largest city of Terrebonne is Houma, named after the Houma people, who are native to this region. As Indigenous artist and storyteller Monique Verdin relates in her essential book Return to Yakni Chitto, the name “Terrebonne” is derived from French. It means “good land.” The earlier term for the region, the Houma term, is “Yakni Chitto”: “big country.”

Both the French and the Houma were optimistic in their names for this place. Good land, big country. Names that promise that the earth is vast and will nourish life inexhaustibly, supporting farmers, and fishermen, and cypress trees, and brown pelicans divebombing, and spotted garfish cutting through the murky bayou with their skinny snouts, as they’ve done for millions of years.

And I do mean millions. With a Late Jurassic origin dating back about one hundred and fifty million years, gars are considered living fossils, organisms that cosmetically resemble their ancient ancestors. “Cosmetically” is a key word here. No one can escape change, not even those exceptional species that appear, to the eye, untouched by the passing of geological epochs.

“Matine’s Map,” by Monique Verdin, Pointe-aux-Chenes, 2000.

My Thanksgiving journey will begin in the driveway of my New Orleans apartment, which sits blocks away from Bayou St. John. The Chahta (Choctaw) people called this waterway Bayouk Choupic for the choupique, or bowfin, that once swam there.

Though bowfin no longer have a presence in this bayou, it’s still home to their closest living relative: our ancient friend, the garfish.

A friend, a biologist, once captured an injured spotted gar at the bayou. The fish was missing his upper jaw completely. Likely, he’d been hooked by a fisherman, and there was a struggle, and his narrow maxilla bones snapped. Then the surrounding tissue slowly died, and eventually the entire structure detached.

The garfish swam with such lethargy that my friend could slip her hands beneath his belly and lift him up. She rushed him off in a storage bag full of bayou water then homed in her backyard in a fifty-gallon plastic tote. She thought it might be a safer place for him to regain strength than the bayou.

Like the rest of Louisiana, Bayou St. John faces threats. One is the replacement of native species with invasives, like the hordes of Rio Grande cichlids outcompeting native sunfish, bluegills, and large-mouth bass.

Another threat is, of course, pollution. Locals know you shouldn’t swim in the bayou or eat fish you catch from it. 

And that’s part of a much bigger problem: the plastics in the ocean, the industrial plants of Cancer Alley, the fertilizer-rich water draining from farmland into the Mississippi, from the Mississippi into the Gulf, where the agricultural runoff drives explosions of algae. When the overgrown algae dies, it’s consumed by bacteria that deplete the water’s oxygen levels, creating dead zones that cannot sustain marine life.

Isolated in his storage bag, the injured gar refused to eat, mustering his remaining strength to spit out any fish that his caretaker dropped into his mouth. The gar grew weaker. Within three days of his capture, he stopped moving. It was unclear whether he’d been doomed since his injury or whether the rescue attempt had made things worse.

There’s not much you can do with a dead Bayou St. John gar besides throw the body back into the polluted water. Garfish’s scaly armor makes them difficult to gut and clean; their eggs are toxic to mammals, and as apex predators, gars often contain high levels of mercury. This contamination is largely the result of industrial activities like mining precious metals and burning fossil fuels.

I’ll be thinking of garfish next Wednesday as I drive a 2017 Toyota Corolla nearly seven hundred miles.

Valero’s oil refinery in Meraux, Louisiana. Photograph by Zoe Johnson, for the album Refinery (2021) by Slow Rosary.

My car runs on combustion, a chemical reaction not entirely different from the ones that animal cells use to transform glucose and oxygen into ATP. In either case, carbon and hydrogen break apart from each other and form new bonds with oxygen atoms. These changes release energy—and also create two byproducts: water and carbon dioxide. 

This kind of chemical reaction, called a redox reaction, powers the movements of garfish and Toyotas alike. 

Of course, there are differences between what happens in a fish’s mitochondria and what happens in my car’s engine. Cellular respiration is a stepwise process: energy is released carefully, incrementally, so little of it escapes. Combustion, on the other hand, is practically instantaneous: a huge amount of energy is released all at once, and much of it is lost as heat.

You don’t have to be a chemist to intuit that a combustion reaction is irreversible. Once you burn a branch, you’re never going to bring it back from the smoke it exhales or from the ash it leaves behind.

 “Bayouside Boil,” by Monique Verdin, Pointe-aux-Chenes, 2000.

It’s one thing to meditate about change, irreversible change, as an inevitability of nature. It’s another to be viscerally confronted with change, to be forced to adapt to it, to give up your way of life, to die. And that’s the reality facing environmentally vulnerable communities across the globe. As Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley expressed earlier this month at COP26, wealthy nations’ failure to adequately fund climate action “is measured in lives and livelihoods.”

Louisianans who live off the land and water know the cost of warming and poisoning the Gulf. Pollution-driven dead zones cost the regional fishing industry an estimated 2.4 billion dollars annually, in a part of the country where many depend on fishing to pay their bills and feed their families. Temperature increases in the Gulf also present massive threats to both marine and human life. Not only does warm water exacerbate dead zones, but it also contributes to the catastrophic hurricanes that batter this region every year.

I think the people who suffer the most are the ones who’ve been here the longest, the ones who have the deepest roots. The Houma Nation has lived in what became Louisiana for generations, long before this place bore the name of a French king.

When she thinks of the future, Allison Rodriguez, interviewed in Return to Yakni Chitto, describes a loss:

“My grandpa went trawling until he couldn’t do it anymore. . . .  the seafood isn’t as plentiful as it used to be. You have to start looking to do other things. . . . My cousin thought he could go crabbing, but that’s not something you can count on. . . . In the future, if you want to do it, it may have to be a hobby.”

She concludes:

“When you are growing up, you think you will have everybody forever, and you just won’t. You think you will have the land, the water, but you won’t. My kids won’t be able to do what I used to do with my grandpa, and it hurts.”

“Leonardo Rodriguez,” by Monique Verdin.

That’s the truth about colonialism, white supremacy, and environmental destruction: they hurt.

When our office first planned our blog posts for this month, there was a collective groan when it came to Thanksgiving, for all the reasons you might imagine. It’s a problematic holiday, and it’s been written about to death. 

But I want to believe that Americans are not condemned to the worst caricatures of our November harvest celebration. Thanksgiving does not have to mean ahistorical fantasies about kindly pilgrims befriending the Indigenous, and our annual family gatherings do not have to collapse into bitter, drunken arguments waged across plates of dry, bland poultry.

We can brine our turkeys. We can challenge false narratives. We can adopt new perspectives.

After all, change is inevitable. Many changes will be destructive, but we can change some things—hopefully enough things—for the better. 

Comebacks are possible and necessary. The red snapper, once overfished to near depletion, now thrives in the Gulf again, the result of decades of fishery management. As we face a climate crisis, this is the sort of change we’ll need on a far larger scale, if we want to protect as much human and nonhuman life as possible.

Louisiana is not a living fossil, and when I drive back after the holiday, the Bayou State will be different from when I left it. Somewhere, more football fields of wetlands will have slipped into the Gulf; somewhere, a sinkhole will gape just a little wider. Somewhere, a coastal community will be an increment less safe for the people who call it home.

In the weeks that follow, there will be more changes. The temperature of Bayou St. John will drop like it does every winter; visiting birds will arrive from the north. As the black silhouettes of refineries spit new fire at the sky, the state nicknamed Sportsman’s Paradise will continue to become something else.

Monique Verdin’s collaborative photography and essay collection Return to Yakni Chitto: Houma Migrations is available here.

Improve the lead-up to your own Thanksgiving by tuning into Monique Verdin’s virtual talk on land loss and Houma migrations on Thursday, November 18 at 6pm: From Iti Humma to Bvlbancha to the Yakni Chitto.

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