Runnin’ crawfish ponds.

Terry Dartez runs the crawfish ponds seated behind my Great Grandpas old house in Kaplan, Louisiana.  Last week, I met her for the first time while visiting Kaplan with my Grandpa.   Driving down the dirt road that led to the ponds, we arrived just as she landed on shore with a teeming bucket of crawfish.  Wiping her brow and smiling, Terry reached out to shake my hand, then turned to my Grandpa to give him a big hug.  When I think of salt-of-the-earth-type folks, people like Terry come to mind.

Three days later, I arrived pond-side and waited for her boat.    It was 9 am and the 
sun’s reflection shone brightly off the water’s surface. Pockets of grass bowed in the wind and flocks of white birds scattered the sky.  While waiting, I picked ripe blackberries and remembered coming here as a little-person.  I recognized the smells around me. I remembered my Great Grandpa’s smart blue dog that rounded up the cows.  The moss-filled tree that served as an umbrella for the front yard. Old leather chairs with cracks in the arms.  It felt somewhat surreal to be here, nearly 20 years later.  I listened as the sound of the motor got closer and louder.

Terry learned how to run crawfish ponds after agreeing to help her father when she got laid off in the oilfields.  She comes from a family of 7 siblings.  They all live within 6 1/2 miles of each other.  Terry’s immediate family has grown to nearly 70 people and she describes her family gatherings as being full of food and fun.  Her husband still works for the oil industry nearby Houston.  He is gone for months at a time so the effort she spends tending to the crawfish ponds helps out at home.  They have two children together, Tiffany ‘Tutti’ (32) and Tristan ‘Bubba’ (21).  Right now crawfish is selling at about $1 a pound and a sack is anywhere from 32-40 pounds….depending on the size of the crawfish.  Various factors decide how many bags she pulls each day.  “It’s really hard work”, she says “but I enjoy it”.  “My dad says one good season can make up for all the hard work, so I am patiently waiting for that season to come.”  “Also, I do it because I love being outdoors”.

Terry is a hard worker.  She cut up the fresh fish bait swiftly, using a homemade machine that makes the task go much faster.  “It’s best if you cut them when they’re frozen”, she explained, “once they thaw, it’s a much messier job…if you can only imagine”, she said laughing.  Once the slicing was completed, Terry hauled the three buckets of bait onto her small boat. After loading, she started the engine and we were off.

Scanning the pond in rows, we slowly passed the nets.  Lifting each one, she dumped the crawfish into the boat, tossed in a piece of bait, and set the net back into the water.  All the while, the boat never stopped moving.  At one point we saw a snake poking its head out of the net wire.  Finding snakes is quite common.  Terry said she usually pulls out 1-2 on any given day. There are water moccasins in the ponds, but mostly just water snakes, which may bite but are harmless.  Some of the cages she pulled had crawfish with missing tails.  Raccoons, minks, and small alligators are some of the predators that find their way into the cages and eat their fill.

I had a great morning out on the boat with Terry.  Here are some shots of the day:

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We eat frogs, too.

Fried frog legs are a delicacy in Southern Louisiana.  Bullfrogs are fun to catch, have legs close to the size of chickens, and make dern good eatin’.  The best time to catch them is after the sun goes down.  A while back, I went frog hunting with my 18-year old distant cousin and his two friends.  Equipped with a four wheeler, a large spot light, mosquito repellent and my camera, we left for the crawfish ponds after the sky turned black.  The four of us sat on the four wheeler as it moved slowly through the water.  Sounds of the bullfrogs were loud and sporadic as our spotlight scanned the landscape. We watched carefully for eye reflections and slight movements in the water or grass.

The technique goes something like this:  When bright light hits a frog, it freezes.  Slowly, you come up behind it and use your hand to grab its back bone, pressing the plump frog-body into the mud.  Bullfrogs have strong legs so if you want to keep it, it’s best to hold on tight.  Once you have a good grip, lift it out of the mud, toss it in the bag and proceed.  It depends on what kind of crowd you’re feeding, but you might need to collect quite a few frogs to fill large appetites.

At one point in the evening, I got off the four-wheeler and tried to catch one with the verbal guidance of my fellow frog-catchers.  We spotted the fat, burping frog that was to be mine.  Sinking my legs into the muddy water, I followed the light beam…creeping slowly towards the frog.  My hand moved closer and closer to its back.  With each breathe, I watched its body inflate. and deflate.  I stopped mid-motion. In this moment, it felt similar to the feeling I’ve had when standing next to an ice cold river waiting to jump in.  My desire to jump in was just as strong as my desire to say put.  I was frozen in the middle, turmoiled in decision-land.  In those crucial seconds, my hand simply would not move.  I had this irrational fear that the frog would turn around and bite me or its slippery skin would somehow feel completely unbearable.  I’m adventurous, I love being outdoors, but my city-girl lifestyle started to gain immediate transparency.  Snapping out of it, I decided to retreat from the frog.  Following this decision, I looked up to see 5-6 foot snake slither into the same body of water that I stood…about 3 feet too close to me. Needless to say I turned around as fast as I could and hopped back on the four-wheeler.  From then on, I stuck to my role as photographer.  Below you’ll find a photographic journey of our evening, and into the next day of food preparation:

(fyi: contains graphic images)

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When it’s in your blood…

Eighteen year old Blake Miller, of Kaplan, Louisiana has been playing the french accordion for 6 years.  A student of Mr. Donny Broussard, Blake has found his passion in playing traditional Cajun tunes.  Yesterday, along with my family, I attended an autism awareness event in downtown Kaplan.  Blake was on stage, giving it his best.  Afterwards I got a chance to talk to him a bit and here is what he had to say:

Why are you drawn to Cajun music? Because of my roots and family and the drive of it. Cajun music has such a drive compared to other genres.

What first inspired you? My dad played accordion when I was born and there’s actually pictures of him playing his accordion and me as an infant reaching up for his accordion, trying to take it from him. He let me listen to Cajun music all my life so it got into my blood.

What is your favorite part of playing the music?  The fun of interacting with the crowd and the band members. And seeing the people’s reaction to good music.

How long do you think you’ll be playing Cajun music?  All my life. I’m not going anywhere, not changing anything. I’m enjoying it too much.

Are there many people your age, playing traditional Cajun music?  There are a few my age. The youngest I’ve seen is probably about 9.  The younger generation is picking the music back up…it kinda died off a little bit but the younger generation is bringing it back.  That is what our goal is.

When you hear the word Cajun what do you think of?  I think of my life….my hometown, my family, where my roots are. Cajun is South Louisiana.

What do you think makes up a Cajun?  It’s in my genes, in my blood lines. I mean you can move down here and be a semi-Cajun. But when you’re born here and it’s in your blood….there’s just no doubt about it. You’re Cajun. You can’t change that.

Where do you see yourself in 20 years?  I’ll be attending school to be a paramedic.  I see myself being a paramedic, playing cajun music, and just enjoying life…as it’s supposed to be done.

What do you think is most important to keep this music alive?  To stick to the roots. People tend to veer off. But if you stick to your roots, if you keep to the traditional music, keep it alive and coming from the heart…then that’s what attracts people to it…from Louisiana and outside of Louisiana. They are attracted to that heartfelt feeling that the musician puts off that plays Cajun music.

Blake's grandfather, Mr. Prentis Gaspard, 79 years old.

Joyce and Nelton Gaspard

A Gift from Clyde Vincent.

Inspired by the stories of his 95-year old grandmother years ago, Mr. Clyde Vincent has dedicated most of his life to learning and keeping Cajun traditions & stories alive.  Growing up in Port Neches’ neighborhood deemed “Little Abbeville”, he found his passion to rest in Cajun history and genealogy.  Respected by many, he served as the president of Les Acadianes du Texas, a cajun cultural club in East Texas, for 30 years. In my grandfather’s words, “He is very honest, sincere and dedicated to Cajun culture…that is Clyde’s life.”

Yesterday I went to meet Mr. Vincent with my grandparents in his Beaumont home.  At one point, I shared with him that I’m learning Cajun songs on the banjo…but that maybe one day I’ll pick up a guitar so I can play along with other, more traditional, players.  This morning, he called.  He wanted to give me his guitar.

I headed over this afternoon to meet Clyde again.  We sat on his couch and talked.  He showed me his library of Cajun books.  A kind, gentle soul…this man knows Acadian/Cajun history and genealogy like the back of his hand.  He talked to me about raconteurs, traditional storytellers, and traiteurs, traditional faith healers.  I listened. I listened more.  In the end, Mr. Vincent expressed his disappointment and sadness for the dwindling numbers of club members attending Les Acadianes du Texas. He hopes the club can sustain itself until he has passed, because it would be far too painful to watch it fall apart while he’s still alive.  “People are getting old and there are so few interested in keeping it going”, he expressed.

I can only imagine what it would feel like to put your heart into something for so long…only to see it fade away with time.  I reassured him that I have seen many young people interested in keeping traditional Cajun music going.  I also told him the story of friend of mine that caught wind of a mother speaking Cajun french to her baby in a San Francisco grocery store!  But ultimately, I ended with a loss for words. What he says is true…some things are disappearing with my grandparent’s generation.

I suppose this is where we come in.  Ways to honor Cajun culture looks different for everyone, but caring goes a long way.  It’s one day later…and I have a beautiful guitar.  I’m signed up to attend the Louisiana Folk Roots Music Camp next week in Lafayette and when I get back to Port Neches in a few weeks, I’ll be heading over to Clyde’s house.  He promised me an interview…and I promised him a song.  Beautiful pastimes and connections are finding places to rest and awaken…one step at a time.

In preparation…

Calling all…folklorists, storytellers, parents, grandparents, and siblings…great relatives and musicians…dancers and students, historians, anthropologists.  Gumbo-perfectionists, pirogue-operators, accordion-detailists and archivists.  Traditionalists and nonconformists, artists and turkey-hunters.  Crawfish catchers and eaters.  Folks who sell boudain.

Hello, I would like to meet you.  I’m busy writing down each question that arises…and looking forward to learning about the history and the present as you see it.  I’m honored.

And by the way, Happy Easter.  It’s good to be back.

Marfa, “Adam’s World” and Documentarianisms

This little slice of ethnically diverse-rancher-eccentric artist-mixed traveler-small town
lifestyle in the middle of West Texas is filled with nooks and crannys.  Here: the expansive landscape lends itself to deep breathes.  Lifestyles vary and the land is cheap.  Marfa is three hours from the nearest big city of El Paso, Texas.  And still…tons of creative urban folk manage to make their way out here…to visit or stay awhile.  My stint here has been nice indeed.  And it’s going to be a little hard to leave.

At the end of 12 days, our crew produced a documentary on Adam Bork, titled “Adam’s World”.  The process was intense.  A bundle of emotions, stress-filled moments, and excitement all swirled into one…making a 10 minute documentary in 12 days from scratch is similar to being on a roller coaster.  In the span of two weeks I smiled, cried and almost threw-up.  But most importantly, I got spat out with many insights and some technical training that will become useful for my own projects in the future.    I’m not sure that making films is the direction I’m headed…but perhaps….

Screening at Marfa Book Store

Screening at Marfa Book Store!

Adam and Krista Bork, co-creators of Food Shark, live in Marfa, TX.  They run a mom and pop business providing fresh food to their community via a food truck.  Adam Bork, of Earthpig and Fire, has completed many original art and music pieces along with his hobbies of collecting vintage electronics and cars.  An incredible character indeed. Both of them were lovely to get to know and it was a complete honor to have been let-in on their life for these few days.

Anyway, let’s get to it: below is our end product that was screened at Marfa Book Store on Friday, March 30th.  Enjoy.

Purpose graced with artistry.

I’m about to roll on out of San Francisco in my new-to-me Subaru.  My last day receiving grocery pallets was Friday and since then, I’ve been busting it to get my things together.  A stockpile of food, camping supplies, camera, audio recorder, banjo, and music.  Yesterday I got flashes of being 23 again…

Only it’s nearly a decade later. And this time I have an almost-mid-life plan.  A plan living in so many cracks and crevices, I haven’t even begun to unpack what it all means to me.  Shifts and changes are bound to happen, but the ground from which I continue to sit, leap, spin and fall seems to be rather steady.  The steadiness will be my stronghold and if I can manage to return to that place, everything will fair ok.  I got trust.

A rather large piece of my personal goal is to refine my skills as a story-listener and story-teller.  In some ways, I feel like I’m going back to school…only I’m not quite sure yet who my teachers will be.  I like the idea of re-visioning what school can look like in my thirties.  At the sharp age of 26, I moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school for a degree in Cultural Anthropology.  Eight months later I left the program due to its shortcomings.  It’s 5 years later, over 15 students have either disappeared from classes or abandoned the gig, and the faculty have recently been fired.  The program is in total reconstruction-mode.  I wish I had the energy to be part of the civil lawsuit building, but I just finished paying off my loans, have finally come to terms with my anger and frankly, my time is much better spent.  So here I am….returning to school, only this time I don’t have to jump through misguided hoops.

I’ve always been interested in the lives and stories of others.  Not only does it make my own life more interesting, but my reserves of compassion usually become exponentially larger in the process. This compassion may create space for purpose and if I can remain open and fearless through all of it…the moments where I come eye to eye with creativity will happen.  For this project, my aim is to share a purpose graced with artistry.  I hope to place a finger on a story, or series of stories, that are tangible and needed.  An expression that will remain…at least for a little while.

So tomorrow I’ll start my spring jaunt through the desert, in anticipation that I’ll get to see a few cactuses blooming.  Friends (and hot springs) will house me along the way and eventually I’ll end up in Marfa, Texas…Donald Judd’s blank canvas. A town fashioned in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert where there is less than one person per square mile.  This is the part where I won’t miss squished-together-San Francisco for one second.  A wide-skied, open-spaced town adorned with eccentricity and airstreams, tumble weeds and strange unexplainable lights in the distance.  I was graced with an exceptionally great price to attend a 12-day documentary film workshop here through Barefoot Workshops.  These folks are incredible and I’m feeling the gratitude come at me pretty strongly.  Nearly two weeks immersed in documentary & film training with a group of others who are equally passionate about creating a canvas for stories to be seen/told.  This is exactly where I want to be.

From here, I’ll be heading to my grandparent’s house where a family reunion happens every year on Good Friday.  Here we’ll be boiling crawfish and new potatoes with spicy sauces, dumping the red exoskeletons on newspaper-lined tables, and eating for hours under the humid sun.  Can’t wait to break my stomach in.  Kale, I’ll miss you.  But I’ll be back…probably with a need greater than ever.

As for the rest of my time:  I have a few interviews lined up and enough connections to give me a place from which to saunter and/or leap.  The email interactions have been inspiring unto themselves…I wonder what will begin to unfold when I’m actually there.  In-person.  Cooking in the pot thus far is: a 3rd generation cattle farmer whose barn has been transformed into a Cajun/Zydeco music hall, a family from the Acahafalaya basin who are treating me to a tour of the largest swamp in the United States, professors who have written books in Cajun History and teach Cajun French, a museum curator, and an accordion builder.  I’ve been gifted with a list of elders who range from folklorists to farmers, hunters to craftspeople.  I have no idea where I’ll end up. Perhaps this is the beauty in all of it.  My adventure and goal will become threaded together by curiosity and necessity.  Life will be a real find, in whatever shape it takes.

I’m a little nervous.  I can’t lie.  But mostly…I feel extremely lucky.  I’ve got an entire community who have supported this project from its beginning stages: a work community that will hold my job for me until I return, a friend community who give me confidence just as fast as I continue to loose it, and the people I’ve yet to meet who are willing to trust that this project is worth something.  Honored with all of this:  I’m ready.