The Atchafalaya River Basin

The Atchafalaya River Basin has fascinated me since the 1970s, when I lived as a marginally employed musician in New Orleans and, during my many off-hours, rambled around south Louisiana, exploring the rich natural environment and lively culture.

 
When I left the state for different work, I merely crossed over into Texas, and though I’ve lived in other places since, I’ve mostly resided within a day’s drive of the Atchafalaya, the heartland of Acadiana and North America’s largest rain forest. Somehow, the region has always called to me.
 
 

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In time, I found reasons to write about the Atchafalaya—in a piece of travel literature, in a lyric text for a musical composition. But in 2005, I felt compelled to try something more substantial, inspired by the memory of an old friend, Louisiana musician and naturalist Earl Robicheaux, who had some years before introduced me to the natural sound sources in the basin’s bayous, swamps, fields, and forests. By the time I sought to track him down, Hurricane Katrina was plowing through New Orleans. When we spoke, I learned that, in the years since I'd seen him, he had devoted himself to preserving the Atchafalaya in sound, through raw nature recordings, oral histories, soundscapes, and compositions combining the three.
 
 

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So between fall 2005 and May 2010, when he and I drove around Atchafalaya Bay looking for damage from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, I made countless visits to the Atchafalaya River Basin, gathering material for River Music: An Atchafalaya Story, with Earl as my guide to the region, the stories of his life and sound work in counterpoint. Together we dragged his Nagra into the swamps, listened for birds in agricultural fields and cemeteries, rode an airboat into the new Atchafalaya Delta, marking heron calls and petroleum rig groans against the motor's roar. I met the Acadian, African American and Native American people he had interviewed for oral histories and soundscapes, their voices as central to the Atchafalaya's auditory profile as mockingbirds and frog choruses. I learned to carry a world within my ears, as Earl has.
 
 

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All of the following wildlife voices are integral to and active in the Atchafalaya Basin. The recordings were made in spring. This first recording, from Bayou Felix, north of Morgan City, Lousianna, is nocturnal with green tree frogs, northern cricket frogs, Cope's gray tree frog, squirrel tree frogs, pig frogs, bronze frogs, and Gulf Coast toads. Squirrel tree frogs dominate this soundscape.

Bayou Felix

 
 
The following recording, done at the Sherburne Wildlife Management Area (part of the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge), features a lone bullfrog and two bullfrog choruses as well as northern cricket frogs. A juvenile indigo bunting is also predominant and a yellow-crowned night heron passes through.

Sherburne Wildlife Management Area

 
 
And the following recording, done at Lake Martin, Cypress Island Preserve (protected by The Nature Conservancy), features thousands of nesting cattle egrets along with great egrets. The wingbeats of roseate spoonbills, common moorhen, and an alligator mating call are also heard.

Lake Martin

 

 

River Music: An Atchafalaya Story

The idea for River Music came about in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina wasted New Orleans. In my search for friends there, I discovered that one of them, composer Earl Robicheaux, had watched the storm from an ICU bed in Charity Hospital and barely made it out via Navy helicopter. It turned out that Earl had been undergoing chemotherapy for Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare illness probably caused by environmental pollutants. The link? The Atchafalaya River basin, North America's largest rain forest and Earl's home territory (aka "Cajun Country") has been increasingly compromised by industrial development since the late 19th century. Toxins abound. Activists like chemist Wilma Subra point to environmental racism and discrimination in and around Morgan City, where Earl grew up. As Earl puts it, "My species is gradually losing its home."

I hadn't been in touch with Earl in some time, and when I drove over from Texas after Katrina to visit him, I learned that in the intervening years, he had become a sound preservationist and soundscape composer, recording nature sounds, oral histories in vanishing populations (Houma, Chitimacha, Acadian) and folk music in the Atchafalaya. He had contributed to several important public art and cultural history projects, added to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology holdings, and composed several moving, provocative soundscapes for his own pleasure. All of this he produced in a tiny studio in his childhood home, where, since 1998, he had cared for his elderly mother, who suffers from dementia. Even as his and his mother's fortunes declined, he made it his mission to chronicle the Atchafalaya in sound.

Earl's cancer, and the subsequent discovery of brain lesions (also with possible environmental ties), rendered him officially disabled, yet he continues to trek all over south Louisiana with a 45-pound pack, recording birds, animals, church bells, fog horns, people, and other unique markers, like the squeak of shrimp boat rigging rocking in the breeze. His creative activity in the face of death mirrors the Atchafalaya's regenerative qualities in the face of environmental ruin.

It is also a powerful statement about the artist's role in society. Only a few composers garner towering world premieres in major cities; many more work hard, and faithfully, on the ground, honoring less glamorous, but no less important, callings. My own calling here was to bear witness to one of these grounded individuals and the extraordinary world of his work.

Ann McCutchan August 2011

 

 

 

 


 

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An original blend of nature writing, music history, biography, journalism, and memoir, River Music: An Atchafalaya Story eloquently celebrates the one-and-half-million watery acres that have shaped the lives of the people there-and been transformed by them in return. An epilogue written in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the disastrous oil spill that followed provides a fitting and poignant coda to this memorable book.

River Music also includes a CD of Atchafalaya soundscapes recorded and composed by Earl Robicheaux.


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