Monday, May 2, 2011

welcome to catahoula island

AT THE WESTERN EDGE of the Atchafalaya, inland from the Gulf of Mexico, sandwiched between Catahoula Lake and the Catahoula Levee Road, lies a lush island slender like a finger, tapering into a fingertip of bayous. Only the southernmost knuckle of the island is inhabited, and in spring there are more buttercups than people.

     There are two bridges onto the island and one winding road barely a mile long connecting them. The little road snakes once through the island’s only hamlet, then, just past a tractor shed, after crossing a coulĂ©e, snakes once again through a patch of open nature — a knoll blending into a cane field. Driving through, you barely register the slope, and the cane field is equally unremarkable. You’d never dream it was an archaeological site you were driving through.

     The knoll was surely more exotic in the year 850 when humans first baked clay into pottery there, when the rest of the island was underwater and the knoll was a sacred isle. Today it’s a subtle embankment my dad grows pumpkins on every autumn. You’d never dream there were ancient ceramics twenty inches below the pumpkins, hidden from the light of the sun under a thousand years of dirt.

    You’d be amazed what people leave between those two sharp curves of the road, adding to the layers of artifacts, unknowingly, stretching back almost twelve hundred years — shotgun shells, snapping turtle shells, rusty bicycles missing wheels, furry skeletons of butchered deer, broken whiskey bottles, soiled loveseats, litters of unwanted kittens, black trash bags swollen with horseflies, toasters, decapitated coots. You’d be amazed what people leave. Last August I found three bloody alligator backbones intertwined in a pile by the tractor shed. 

     A white cross marks the location where a man even left his own body once — where the road makes one last snake before it esses you back to the bayou, beyond the ears of the hamlet, in the shade of a shrubby oak, a tree you'd never notice if not for the white cross in its branches.
     The island, in winter, is mossy and gray. In summer, shades of green.