Friday, July 23, 2010

Atchafalaya Houseboat by Gwen Roland

While I wash dishes at my oh-so-non-glamorous job, I often play Vanderbilt University college radio. A few nights ago, they had "Sounds from the Bayou," and by golly I heard a genre that has never entered my ears before: Creole country music. Being from Nashville, I heard a familiar twangy sound emit from the radio, but then I realized the cheatin' and heart-breakin' lyrics weren't in English but in French! {Albeit with the craziest French accent} These "Sounds from the Bayou" in addition to (shamefully admitting this) True Blood episodes reminded me of a book about Louisiana that bewitched me last summer: Atchafalaya Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp by Gwen Roland. You might have seen a documentary about this experience on PBS, because that's how I heard about it. The idea for her book was brought about by the reprinting of a photograph below by C.C. Lockwood  in a National Geographic collector’s edition entitled 100 Best Pictures Unpublished in 2003.

This photo brought so much interest from my generation, that PBS made the documentary and Gwen decided wrote a memoir about her experience in 2006. Looking at this photo, you can understand why people wanted to know more. The story behind the photo and her book goes as this (taken from Amazon):

In the early 1970s, Gwen Roland and Calvin Voisin decided to leave civilization and re-create the vanished simple life of their great-grandparents in the heart of Louisiana’s million-acre Atchafalaya River Basin Swamp. Armed with a box of crayons and a book called How to Build Your Home in the Woods, they drew up plans to recycle a slave-built structure into a houseboat. Without power tools or building experience they constructed a floating dwelling complete with a brick fireplace. Towed deep into the sleepy waters of Bloody Bayou, it was their home for eight years. This is the tale of the not-so-simple life they made together—days spent fishing, trading, making wine, growing food, and growing up—told by Gwen with grace, economy, and eloquence.
After reading this book, Gwen was added to my list of heros. She is more "Passport Smiles" material than I'll ever be, as she is such an adventurer. Before her time on the houseboat, she was my age, and much like me in the padded bubble world of academia as a grad-student. What made this book accessible to me is that she wasn't a mother earth woman (those women scare me/ intimidate me). In fact, she knew nothing about organic farming, carpentry, fishing, etc. Despite this inexperience, she decided to leave all her comforts and do something completely unknown:
       "That summer {in the swamps} turned into an education…I became acquainted with my body, which had been ignored for years as just locomotion for my brain. It awakened from sanitary, air-conditioned hibernation to the trickle of sweat down my arms, the green fragrance of crushed cypress needles, and the sensuous luxury of a bath with Ivory soap (because it floats) in the bayou at sunset.
            As my body grew brown and hard, muscles I didn’t know I had ached to tell me of their existence. Food tasted better than it ever had in my life…In school, I had often watched midnight come and go, but now it was difficult to stay awake an hour past sundown."
To summarize, if you didn't wanna read all my scribblies: Gwen Roland is a badass and I wanna visit Louisiana. Also, read her book! It's short and sweet and will make you wanna build your own sweet houseboat.

7 comments:

  1. wow, what a cool woman! I may have to look into this book - I'm in awe of people who actually do these things I sometimes threaten to do but never act on :)

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  2. I read her excerpts with the perfect southern accent. I love it.

    I'd love to visit LA too, I smell a great Road Trip in the air....!

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  3. this was absolutely fascinating!

    thanks so much, i've got to investigate this further...

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  5. me emociona mucho. se volvieron a encontrar calvin y gwen,despues de tantos años. espero respuesta.

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    Replies
    1. Dear anon: Si, Gwen y Roland se volvieron a ver y CC tambien. Se juntaron para el documentario que estaba en PBS. En los 70s mucha gente tenian la idea de vivir asi, solos o en un "commune". Vivir naturalmente, sin toda la locura, creaciendo sus proprio vegetales y frutas, todos ayudando para el bien de todos. Lastima, pero casi nigun plan salio perfecto y la realidad se los despiertaron. Eran nosotros, los "hippies", que ya somos viejillos, pero tenemos la corazon fuerte aun

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