Down on the Batture

Down on the Batture

Oliver A. Houck
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 205
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  • Book Info
    Down on the Batture
    Book Description:

    The lower Mississippi River winds past the City of New Orleans between enormous levees and a rim of sand, mud, and trees called "the batture." On this remote and ignored piece of land thrives a humanity unique to the region-ramblers, artists, drinkers, fishers, rabbit hunters, dog walkers, sunset watchers, and refugees from Immigration, alimony, and other aspects of modern life.Author Oliver A. Houck has frequented this place for the past twenty-five years. Down on the Batture describes a life, pastoral, at times marginal, but remarkably fecund and surprising. From this place he meditates on Louisiana, the state of the waterway, and its larger environs. He describes all the actors that have played lead roles on the edge of the mightiest river of the continent, and includes in his narrative plantations, pollution, murder, land grabs, keelboat brawlers, slave rebellions, the Corps of Engineers, and the oil industry.Houck draws from his experience in New Orleans since the early 1970s in the practice and teaching of law. He has been a player in many of the issues he describes, although he does not undertake to argue them here. Instead, story by story, he uses the batture to explore the forces that have shaped and spell out the future of the region. The picture emerges of a place that---for all its tangle of undergrowth, drifting humanity, shifting dimensions in the rise and fall of floodwater---provides respite and sanctuary for values that are original to America and ever at risk from the homogenizing forces of civilization.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-462-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-1)
    (pp. 3-4)

    The Mississippi River winds past the City of New Orleans between enormous levees and a rim of land and trees. This is the batture, where the water beats against the land, and it is where the river breathes. At low water the batture may be a half mile wide, but come April it will often be zero feet wide as spring rains to the north swell the Mississippi from bank to bank, flooding the trees. It is one of the most surprising places in America.

    The batture is largely woods here above the city, but it is certainly not wilderness....

    (pp. 5-8)

    Sometimes I think I should have photographed the motorcycle, or nobody would believe me. I just assumed that it would last. So you’ll have to take my word for it because there is no picture, only the wheels and a rotting log with a strange pan of concrete at one end. Who would know that it was the vagina?

    The motorcycle sat apart from everything else in the woods. Squeezed between the river and the levee, this is the first stretch of trees upstream from New Orleans, past the docks and the stupendously plain buildings of the U.S. Army Corps...

    (pp. 9-13)

    The boy is coming straight towards me on the levee path, pedaling like a bandit, eyes wide, but I have no sense that he sees me. I am already stepping to the side to make way when he turns abruptly and plummets pell-mell down the concrete apron towards a fifteen-foot mountain of dirt at the base of the levee. His bike bucks with the impact and then surges up a path beaten into the side of the hill, tops the crest, and soars into thin air, rearing back in space like a rodeo horse, disappearing on the far slope. I...

    (pp. 14-17)

    At high water we rediscover the river. For one thing, it is hard to miss the superstructures of the big ships passing along the skyline like pieces of scenery gone mad. We begin to check the river gauge readings in theTimes-Picayune, how many more feet until flood stage. Like hurricane season, it is a worrisome force. There is another river, however, with its own cast of characters, which I find quite by accident while taking a bike trip up to Luling this spring when the Mississippi is rising to the foot of the levee and people have come out...

    (pp. 18-22)

    First of all, when they called me about a show on the Mississippi River I had no idea they meant at the Superdome. They said they were fromGood Morning America. They wanted a local story to go with the big game. They talked about doing it from the French Quarter, but I said it would be better to film from the batture, maybe at Audubon Park. You’d be right at the river’s edge, I said, you could reach out and touch the hulls of the big ships going by. They said ok. Then they told me the time in...

    (pp. 23-28)

    “Do you believe in jesusoursavior?” he asks me, first thing. He is holding a jar with a fish in it, but his mind is on the larger question. I’d probably not answer the question, but he cannot be more than six years old, and a small six at that. His buddies haven’t come up to the top of the levee. They are still kicking around in the reeds below.

    I am lying out on the grass along the spillway with my head propped against the bicycle seat, munching on a snack bar, which buys me a little time to answer....

    (pp. 29-34)

    We sit in a quiet courtyard overhung with plants and a flowering tree, utterly foreign. Although the day is hot they are both dressed in dark suits and narrow ties. They could be stockbrokers. We are at a wrought-iron table covered with glass. A fountain plays gently to the side. As we talk, a cockroach the size of a cigar crawls out from the garden, examines us, and crawls back in. They are unperturbed. To tell the truth they seem a little dazed, as if they still can’t believe what they did. A couple of years earlier they and, at...

  10. ELVIS
    (pp. 35-40)

    “The owls, they’ll eat yourdog!” Ricky says, poking the fire with a stick.

    I say I didn’t know that.

    “Hell, yes,” he explains, “come right down and take ’em away.”

    I say a man I know over by the Atchafalaya shoots owls because he says they take his chickens, but taking dogs is news to me.

    “Oh, yeah,” he says, as if it happens several times a week.

    We are both listening for another call. One had sounded upriver, not too far, and that’s what triggered the conversation. It was a barred owl, the one that looks like a...

  11. STATUE
    (pp. 41-44)

    You rarely see women on the batture, at least down in the woods. I can only remember two, over the years. One was camped in a small sea of wine cartons near the water intake for Ochsner Hospital, where the helicopters fly in low with emergency cases from the rigs offshore, casualties from another kind of war. It is an expedited drill; the ambulance is waiting on the landing pad before the vehicle sets down, and the stretcher is offloaded and en route to the hospital doors before the big blades have stopped rotating. The wine lady had a tarp...

    (pp. 45-50)

    It is late fall now, the sun has just set, and the river shines through the bare trees. The power plant on the west bank is outlined by the lights on its tanks and platforms, and behind them dark grain elevators reach their chutes down to an empty dock. Upstream are the shadows of the Huey Long Bridge and the Avondale shipyard. The air smells lightly industrial. There is nobody in sight. Judging from the horizon, we could be in northern New Jersey.

    Suddenly, around the bend comes a mirage, a wedding cake structure on the water, three full decks,...

    (pp. 51-55)

    At the boundary between Orleans and Jefferson Parish the railroad line leaves River Road and heads inland. The batture looks the same on both sides, but it is pretty much where east meets west and that line extends down to the water. I walk up here in winter when the underbrush has died back to stretch the dog and to look for hawks, which are easy to spot in the bare trees, but I am always aware that I’ve crossed the parish line. Jefferson is the only place I have been given a ticket for the offense of dog-off-the-leash.


    (pp. 56-61)

    On November 27, 1940, the front page of theNew Orleans Itemcarried two headline stories. One was an interview with the Duchess of Windsor, then residing in Nassau with the man who abdicated the throne of England to marry her. She talked discreetly about his drinking problem.

    The other headline read, “Death Calls the Turn on Rudy O’Dwyer, One of Fabulous Figures.” It was a charming story, basically about Rudy’s menagerie of rare birds behind his house on Monticello Street, just off the batture, with homage to his public service and generosity. He endowed St. Agnes Church on Jefferson...

    (pp. 62-65)

    “There’s not a man alive can beat my molytones,” says Alcide Verret over his gas stove. “I cooks them nine different ways.”

    We are standing in his tiny kitchen as he ladles out a serving of this strange fruit. Bayou Sorrel is running in the background, about a half mile from where it meets the Atchafalaya River and continues down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya used to be the Mississippi in its time, and would already be the Mississippi again if the threat of that recapture hadn’t animated Congress to put a billion-dollar barrier upstream to hold the...

  16. GHOSTS
    (pp. 66-69)

    They came with flashlights at an early morning hour when the parish was asleep. They entered the old plantation building and attached cables to the columns and another to the chimney inside. They ran the cables to a large bulldozer on the front lawn and were ready by dawn. Then they revved up the bulldozer and within minutes the 144-year-old Welham plantation was torn to the ground. As a finale they pulled a steel cable through the wreckage, reducing it to rubble. By the time the news photographers arrived, the deed was done.

    Granted, they owned the plantation. Marathon Oil...

    (pp. 70-74)

    You might see a couple of them at the rail of the big tankers, thirty feet above the water, looking at the batture as they go by. They rarely wave back. They seem like distant prisoners on a traveling jail, serving out their time. The other day the paper reported that a couple of them had jumped ship just north of the city, swimming to shore. The sheriff’s office was said to be looking.

    They were a Chinese crew, apparently, on a ship owned by a Greek businessman, registered in Liberia, last inspected in Panama, piloted by an Armenian captain,...

    (pp. 75-77)

    It was late summer, the river was low, and several dogs were mauling each other happily in the shallows up by Ochsner Hospital. Every once in a while one would bound up the bank to where I was sitting, shove its wet fur into my side, look at me for appreciation, and then bound off again. I gave up any thought of reading and instead watched the sun drop behind the power plant across the river. The sky turned orange, a dead clear evening, strong breeze up from the south. That’s when I heard the whistling ducks.

    They were coming...

  19. CASINO
    (pp. 78-82)

    He is standing at the entrance of Audubon Park, facing the narrow road that loops around inside and has been off-limits to automobiles for years. At the present moment it carries a stream of joggers in all sizes, the lean and the pudgy, an evening ritual of uptown New Orleans passing him by. He is leaning on a cement balustrade in a sport shirt and slacks, silver hair combed to perfection. His face is inscrutable, but I am thinking how alien this scene must look to him. He is not in a city that loves him like the rest of...

    (pp. 83-86)

    “Look at the baby seagulls!” she says to us as we walk by. She is on top of the levee facing the woods, the small, neat houses of River Ridge behind her, looking out at a squadron of small birds that are bombing the ponded waters about fifteen feet below. “They are baby seagulls,” she explains, when we do not immediately reply. We could be new here, and she will apparently be our guide.

    The fact is, we do not reply because these are not baby seagulls. They are adult terns, tiny and natty as little fighter planes, and they...

    (pp. 87-91)

    Joe Louis is telling me about the slate fights. “Wind blew them off the roof,” he says.“We’d get a bunch and stand at the end of the street yelling to the kids on the next block.” Then the missiles started to fly. “You could curve them, you know,” he demonstrates, his wrinkled hands twisting in the air, “make’em go left and right, sneak up on you sideways.” He got hit in the eye once and shows me his scar, a small ridge of white against black skin. I show him my scar, cut right through my eyebrow. Throwing dirt bombs,...

    (pp. 92-95)

    Tuesday, August30: It is Tuesday afternoon and we don’t know a thing. The storm has blown through, some trees are down, poles, wires, pieces of roof. The only station we can get on the radio is a call-in and they begin, Oh Jerry, I’ve Always Loved Your Show and then they say something about water coming up to the front steps. I go stand outside. A couple comes down the street with plastic bags in both hands, full of clothes, picking their way over the branches. I say, just making conversation, where’s the water? He says, about four blocks...

  23. RABBIT
    (pp. 96-99)

    The rabbit came barreling up the slope and across the path ahead of me like a racing dog, stretched flat out, ears laid back, one big eye showing white all around. The belly was swinging heavily; it could have been carrying young.

    Then I saw the men. The one in the lead was coming up the same slope fast, yelling, “I got him! I got him!” and waving what looked like a club. Itwasa club, a golf club with a round wooden head, the kind that knocks the ball a hundred and fifty yards from the tee. Behined...

    (pp. 100-106)

    The movie is in black and white. The opening shot pans slowly across the batture, past a tall monument, to the streetcars that circle deferentially around it, and then to Blanche DuBois who, in a southern voice tinged with decay, recites what a local writer calls Tennessee williams’s brilliant metaphorical question: “First you take a streetcar named Desire … transfer to Cemeteries… get off at Elysian Fields.” There is no need to tell the audience anything else; we are in New Orleans. The trolleys, the river, and the voice, we could be in no other place in the world.


  25. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  26. FERRY
    (pp. 107-110)

    We come into the city for the first time along the river, two boys in the back seat, six years old and three, face deep in a nest of comic books, food wrappers, pillows, and a slingshot I purchased in a moment of weakness at a truck stop in Tennessee called Mad Harry’s. Driving into Dixie, all the gas stations seemed to carry names indicating the mental instability of the owner. Lisa says that is to show how low his prices are. We are sodden with fatigue.

    Suddenly Gabriel’s voice pipes up from the back seat. “Look! Trains!” and there...

    (pp. 111-115)

    Someone broke into the tool shed and took our bicycles. We had four in all but mine was the oldest by far with a large yellow child’s seat still mounted on the back, its anchor nuts rusted to the frame. As the boys outgrew the seat it remained handy for carrying my books back and forth to school, the kind of adaptation that Darwin described with the beaks of finches a century and a half ago. The day after the theft I walked out front and found my bicycle on the grass. Not Lisa’s bike or those of the boys,...

  28. PAGGIO
    (pp. 116-119)

    “Watch out for the jerk,” says Lisa, who is watching a little more carefully than I am because I’ve been driving the last leg since Alabama. We are new to the city, and everything on Oak Street near the levee looks like it came from my childhood, circa 1945. There is a green shack with a rusty bicycle hanging out front like an advertisement for a saloon—wait, it maybea saloon—a lot full of what look like marble pillars, and a store that says Five And Dime. What is right ahead of us, however, is a sports...

    (pp. 120-124)

    Lisa calls out, “Be safe,” as we walk out the door. We take it idly, the dog and I, but Lisa means it. There have been some shootings lately, and a neighbor mowing his lawn last weekend ran over a loaded pistol. I say, “we will,” over my shoulder but what I am really thinking is that we are safer out on the batture these days than any other place in the city. I mean, a venue where nobody carries any money and most people you come across have absolutely nothing to steal. Someone is going to try to rob...

  30. EVEN
    (pp. 125-128)

    Before I get within sight of the clearing I can hear a voice say, “It’s adog,” as if it might have been a wolf or a tiger, and then it says, “Look out! It’s going for your leg,” and then I appear. They stop talking, connecting me to Ms. Bear who had gone in first. I say, “She’s fine, not a bite in her.” They just sit there, three black boys in stone, looking at the white man who had come onto their scene.

    This is the clearing that Ricky and others occupy for most of the year, but...

  31. GYPSUM
    (pp. 129-133)

    On a summer day so still the only oxygen in New Orleans was down by the river and the woods on the batture held the heat like a furnace, out of the trees staggered a tall man wearing black boots, black jeans, an unbuttoned black vest, black hat, and an assortment of neck chains, and dragging an enormous wooden cross. From a distance he looked like Jesus in a cowboy movie. It was Ricky, instead, and it took him several minutes to haul the cross to the riverbank, lay it down, and start taking off his clothes. stripped to only...

  32. FIGHT
    (pp. 134-138)

    Bicycling up the river one summer morning, a year after Katrina, I rounded the bend by the old village of Kennertown and plunged into a painting drawn a century ago, or maybe two centuries ago. American history condenses in the mind. The women were dressed in bright, calico gowns that stretched from high collars around their necks to the tops of their thick-soled shoes. The men wore Sunday outfits of dark cloth with long tails and white shirts puffed out the front. A few had shed their coats and were holding onto their suspenders like the poles on a moving...

  33. GUSTAV
    (pp. 139-142)

    On august 30, 2008, the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we found ourselves driving out River Road, batture trees to the left, shuttered houses to the right, fleeing another storm. I had made the stay-or-go decision on the last one, and we stayed. Lisa got to call this one and so we started up the car. Besides, staying didn’t seem all that interesting this time. National Guard troops were already on the streets, and the city was going into lockdown. You were outside and not on your own property, you went to jail.

    Just two days earlier the mayor of...

    (pp. 143-146)

    “… And when I saw them coming towards me I threw the knife into the bushes and said,‘Officer, I’mhurt… take me to thehospital!’”

    Ricky is in a chair on top of the levee across from Cooter Brown’s, and he is talking to a round-faced, Mexican-looking fellow in another chair about a foot away, their backs to civilization, looking out through the trees at the river rolling by. It is about eight in the morning and they are both holding paper bags from the top of which peek beer cans easily a foot high. I cannot tell whether...

  35. IT
    (pp. 147-151)

    “Honey, they going to do what?” Teresa Róbert looks out over the field between her kitchen and the Mississippi River to the green swell of the levee and, behind, the tops of the batture trees. Her friend Ruby has called. “Don’t you read the paper, dawlin’?” she says to Teresa, who has two tiny boys running underfoot and another baby on the way. “Ruby,” says Teresa, “I haven’t gottimeto read the paper,” or watch the news on television either, she is thinking. Teresa is fully occupied with the kids and running a little restaurant called The Cabin with...

    (pp. 152-155)

    It is not every day that I get called a Communist, although down in south Louisiana the charge is made as earnestly as if Fidel might invade us tomorrow if only he could purchase the gas. It has been one of the corporate world’s favorite words for environmentalists. Still, it was a little strange to find the C word out here on the batture, a place where no one who exercises more power over the river than to pee in it ever goes.

    To begin with, you can hardly see this first patch of woods. It might take you five...

    (pp. 156-160)

    They are out there every morning together, like ham and eggs, and he doesn’t take them back in until after dark. There is a little plastic fire hydrant about two feet high, and a large plastic bowl of water. They are for you, or to be more accurate, unless you want to go down on your hands and knees, they are for your dog. The fellow who put them there will be in sight somewhere on the batture nearby, weeding a garden, cutting grass. He is one of the most tireless workers you will ever see. He lives in camp...

  38. OIL
    (pp. 161-164)

    “You think the Atchafalaya is bad,” he whispers to me. “Check out Chene, Boeuf, and Black.”

    I do not look at the man. We are standing next to each other in the men’s room of the old Army Corps of Engineers building on top of the levee, a yellow, one-story complex that looks like an abandoned primary school. The accommodations of military establishments in those days had few niceties like separators between the urinals, so you got used to staring intently at the wall ahead of you as if it contained vital messages in small print, looking neither left nor...

  39. TIME
    (pp. 165-169)

    You can set your watch by them, they come so regularly each evening, 6:30 on the dot, wave after wave, as few as three or four and as many as fifty in a flight, the three or four seeming to make up for their numbers with even louder shrieks and cries, the whistling ducks coming home. For twenty frantic minutes the sky is full of them and then it goes silent again; they have safely passed. The other night I fixed a line of ten birds in my mind and began counting. By 6:50 they were at 1,290. In just...

    (pp. 170-172)

    One spring while I was away, Lisa took to bringing our dog to the batture, and soon she found her own sweet spot down here, a place she only recently showed me. If you wander upriver from the power lines, past the little batture houses, past an equipment graveyard with rusting truck bodies, jaws from river dredges, and oil retention booms, you come to a longer line of woods that runs up to the Huey Long Bridge and miles beyond. Well before the bridge is a set of barges banked against the batture like a buffer, five and six deep....

  41. DOG
    (pp. 173-176)

    I am sheltered against a log, grading papers. To my left a thicket of willows juts up like a haircut and to my right is the Mississippi, blocked from view by huge outfall pipes from the New Orleans water system. Every once in a while a gush of brown sludge spills out into the river, sediments from a filtering pond about a half mile uptown. Ahead of me as on a movie screen is the full width of the water, boats going up and down, huge tankers the length of a city block and rafts of eight barges at a...

    (pp. 177-180)

    It is summer again, and the high water has been receding so slowly that the woods below the power lines still bottom on soft mud, criss-crossed by the tracks of either a herd of wild pigs or one of them on pharmaceuticals. The only human prints are my own as the mud tries to suck off my shoes and claim them for its own. The place has been swept clean by the high water, several years of accumulated beer cans, plastic bags, old tarps, and miscellaneous clothing that humans seem compelled to leave behind. We are the animal that trashes....

    (pp. 181-182)
    (pp. 183-205)