Chapter One: Calls
by Ann McCutchan
from River Music: An Atchafalaya Story
Texas A&M University Press
May 23, 2006
Earl Robicheaux and I are driving east on I-10 in his little red pickup truck, slurping Community Coffee from to-go cups, chinning the irregular downbeats in The Rite of Spring. We don’t know which Louisiana Public Radio station is broadcasting Le Sacre midday—Lafayette, which we’ve just left, or Baton Rouge, down the road—but we agree it’s the perfect sound track for a bird-recording expedition in the Atchafalaya River Basin, the vast backyard Earl has prowled since childhood.
“I call it the Magical Kingdom,” Earl says. “But it isn’t Disney World—it’s the real thing. Cage would have loved it—the whole basin is one big John Cage happening.”
One can be reasonably sure my old friend is the only Cajun man on the road this morning talking about the pioneer composer of electronic and “chance” music—music in which at least one element is determined by a random process or performers improvising “in the moment.” One can be equally confident Earl’s is the only Louisiana pickup with both a fishing rod bouncing in the truck bed and a biography of the French Dada artist Marcel Duchamp (the one who turned a porcelain urinal into art) jammed in the glove compartment. Here, in two possessions, lies the paradox that is Earl: the outdoorsman who grew up around the swamp, gigging frogs from a pirogue, and the composer with the Ph.D. inspired by the most unruly imaginations in Western art. Yet his combined experience in Louisiana’s wilderness and the hallowed halls of learning has made him an astute, poetic chronicler of the Atchafalaya environment: 1.4 million acres of earth, mud, and water stretching 140 miles, from the river’s origin—peeling off from the Mississippi River at the ankle of Louisiana’s boot—all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya Basin, encompassing “Cajun country,” is North America’s largest river swamp, and its troublesome fate is directly tied to longtime manipulation by government, industry, and individuals. In the past few years, Earl, now fifty-one, has devoted himself to documenting and expressing the basin’s complicated story in sound, and as a fellow musician, I’m here partly to learn about how he does it, and more important, what drives him to do it.
It’s a gray day, but Stravinsky’s jagged rhythms spark it up. We cross the West Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee and enter I-10’s longest bridge: an elevated concrete chute more than eighteen miles long, bisecting the Atchafalaya River and its multifarious waterways, marshes, and fugitive lands so ill-defined that distinguishing the river itself seems impossible. We continue over the great Henderson Swamp to a swath of dry land and take the Butte La Rose exit, looping down into the Atchafalaya Welcome Center’s ample parking area. Like so many Southern welcome stations, this one is built to mimic an antebellum plantation home: long and white with green shutters, and a wide porch offering rocking chairs from which to view a freshly trimmed lawn and a hedge of Indian hawthorn in bloom.
Here, we’re supposed to meet a ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers who will give us a key for a gate to an ATV trail in the Indian Bayou Wildlife Management Area, a 28,500-acre tract north of the center. The trail, usually closed to automobiles, leads to an agricultural field and a beautiful swamp, Earl says, with a tree line perfect for sighting birds and recording them. Earl started his bird work in 2002, a few years after moving back to south Louisiana from Texas, where I met him. First he produced field recordings for Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology but soon found uses for birdsong in original electronic pieces, as well as in wilderness soundscapes for educational exhibits, radio programs, and a CD that he hopes will help alert listeners to these vast, rich lands compromised by development.
Today he wishes to capture something new—what, it’s impossible for him to say. Raised a French Catholic with altar boy credits, Earl is mostly a Buddhist, open to whatever happens to sing or growl or croak on a given day. And recently, he’s been critically ill with cancer. This is his first outing since his chemotherapy regimen ended, and he’s simply glad to be back in the swamp.
But we’re more than an hour late for the ranger, because it’s been a slow morning. Earl’s elderly mother, Eula Thibodeaux Robicheaux, with whom he lives in Berwick, at the basin’s southern terminus, has a cold, and first we had to run to the pharmacy for cough medicine and then to Cannata’s, the local family market, for soup. Then Earl, easily fatigued, needed a rest and a shot of sugar from Ginger’s Bakery down by the river. At Ginger’s, the morning rush of shrimpers, oil workers, and police officers had subsided, and Earl took his time deciding between a bear claw the size of a catcher’s mitt and a croissant bulging with chocolate.
He finally chose the croissant, accepting the wax-papered treat from the counter help, an upbeat, pony-tailed girl who called him by name. “I need to gain some weight, anyway,” Earl said, taking the croissant in three bites.
“True enough,” I said, glancing at his diminished form, swimming in a wrinkled khaki shirt and trail pants. Not long ago, Earl tended a respectable belly built on shrimp, crabs, and doughnuts.
“This is the only positive thing about going through so much chemo,” he said. “Now that it’s all over, I get to eat whatever I want.”
Well, the ranger will be here, or he won’t. Neither he nor Earl carries a cell phone.
Earl parks, straightens his cap, and presses a tan hand to his door latch, releasing it after three tries.
“You OK?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “But I could use more coffee.”
We lope to the Welcome Center, me checking my usual brisk stride.
“Hear that?” Earl says, stopping, and I listen. Blackbirds. Carolina wrens. Cheeping, peeping, chirruping from beneath the faux-plantation home’s eaves.