St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Grand Isle LA

We rambled to Grand Isle, LA state park, sort of the deepest south you can get into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Very windy and about 50 degrees meant walking the gulf beach was pretty cold. We were looking for BP oil spill evidence. The beach has been and is scraped regularly with a big loader that piles the debris (sea weed, drift wood, and misc) in small piles away from the beech. We found a few small pieces of tar -- about the size of a silver dollar or less--but not much evidence of what was a lot of oil 6 months ago.
Tourism is pretty much down yet after really bombing last summer. Local businesses are hoping things turn around this spring and summer.
It is an interesting area--all the buildings up on stilts; a big Exon oil refinery and helicopters coming and going from oil platforms in the gulf.
We are here for 3 days before heading back inland.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shivering Oranges

Shivering Oranges

It turned cold down here and so instead of moving a little north into Mississippi last week, we went a little south to Bayou Segnette State Park on the SE edge of New Orleans (pronounced naw-lins) last week. The temperatures dropped to 33 overnight twice, and it rained and blew reminding us of an April shower. This was “break into normally scheduled programming” weather for the locals!

Heated shelters opened for homeless and those without heaters; winter cap and coat drives were on for the poor; a 15-car pileup closed a Baton Rouge icy bridge; schools were closed and road workers shutdown until temperatures rose above freezing the next afternoon. At our park on the edge of the Big Easy, several neighboring RV’ers stopped over to worry about us freezing in our popup trailer.

We have an electric space heater and use an electric blanket in the camper and can stay comfortable down to zero outside, so it was no problem. Our neighbors, mostly southerners, hunkered down in their big heated vehicles waiting it out. However, a sprinkling of us Canadianers and Midwesterners bantered about in short sleeves and baseball caps, “won’t see dis nice weather in Manitoba til May.” “Ja, you betcha, Ma’s in der gettin lathered up with SPF 30—she burns if it gets above freez’n.” “Ja, dose Canada da grees are bigger dan da US ones, much worser,” and so on.

Along the entrance road to the campgrounds, a new flood wall is taking the place of the old breeched one; stronger, prettier, and topped with 12 feet of concrete to let New Orleans, much of which is at or below sea level, get through the next big 100 year flood. With Katrina, the levees failed and nearly 80% of the city flooded. We drove through the northeast part of town where boarded up houses and flood damage mixes with repaired homes and businesses. Lots of empty buildings.

We put on our light winter jackets and tromped the French Quarter at 10 am Monday, wondering why hardly anything was open, the restaurants not cooking, and the streets empty except for the beer, liquor, wine and food trucks refilling the hundreds of bars and restaurants from the weekend crowds and garbage trucks hauling away the evidence.

We managed to get a beignet, a square donut without the hole, the specialty of CafĂ© du Monde along the waterfront. Canvas walls rolled down and flapping in the cold wind, the few customers inside gave themselves away with the familiar “eh’s” and “uff da’s” of the far north. Rugged Japanese tourist families roamed the empty parks, preying on strangers to take their pictures as they lined up in front just about anything.
We walked to Bourbon street, and through the even more colorful areas of town; all buttoned up waiting for a warm night. The stiff east wind rattled posters promising floozies, booze, and jazz inside the door, shaking them as if the scantily clad women were shivering. Margo clutched her purse in reaction to TV news warnings of packs of I-pad, I-phone and purse snatchers prowling the porticoed old streets.

We warmed up in museums; the old U.S. Mint and the Louisiana State Museum with exhibits remembering Katrina and the history of New Orleans. The Katrina display was new, with dozens of film clips running live reports gleaned from the Courics and Brokaws of disaster. Whipping palm trees, crashing waves, floating cars and houses backed by a deep rumbling soundtrack in darkened rooms with lights flashing like lightning. One theater screen was an askew house wall; behind framed windows of were TV screens showing hurricane footage as if we were looking right through the windows.

A few shops were open, selling dried alligator heads, voodoo dolls, tee-shirts beads and tourist gimcracks. Margo had a hard time finding a tee-shirt tame enough to wear in Cushing. In all, it was rather disappointing to see the French Quarter so deserted. Cold weather is hard on iniquity.

Another cool rainy day, we drove south to the ocean in Placquemines (plack a min) Parish, a finger of land stretching far into the Gulf. Highway 23 parallels the west levee on the Mississippi extending 60 miles south of New Orleans. We were after evidence from the big spill.

Here and there were rows and fields of orange trees, some bare and some bearing. Only one fruit stand was open. “There are about 500 acres of orange trees in this area with about 100 trees per acre. There are many small owners, but my boss is the biggest with 100 acres or so and rents more. We raise tomatoes (they had some fresh picked ones for sale) and lots of cool weather crops now, broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, greens. We have yams, and other things on hand. We will be planting our 2011 gardens starting in a few weeks,” the short mid-thirties, bundled up woman tending the stand told us.

“The orange picking season started in late November and we will be picking fruit for about 6 more weeks as different varieties ripen. We raise Samatsu, Navel, Blood and a few other varieties of Oranges. My boss raises and sells thousands of orange trees each year to other states. There used to be more orange growers around, but it keeps dwindling. Each season is different; this year we have a good yield, and the price is pretty good. We have some lemon and grapefruit trees, but mostly oranges”

“We have to spray the trees for bugs and diseases that attack the tree itself. The fruit doesn’t get wormy like apples because of the thick rind. However, in the last few years a disease that makes brown ugly spots on the orange fruit has come in and we have to spray with copper, a fungicide, to keep it from spoiling the looks of the fruit.”

“Oranges can stand cold weather, it makes the fruit sweeter if we get some before harvest time. It can get down to about 18 degrees for up to 4 hours without damage to the tree and fruit, something that very rarely occurs here. The trees are pretty tough!”

Our intention, as we drove Hwy 23 south, was to follow it to the Gulf and see if we could find a souvenir BP tar ball to bring back for show and tell at the Men’s group. Another RV’er told us they had camped at Grand Isle, a state park a little west of where our road would lead, and all they found was a few tar balls along the beach—nothing else from the spill at all.

The whole road south of New Orleans followed the Mississippi west bank levee and the big shipping channel that lets ocean boats up river You couldn’t see the water over it from our road, but you could see huge ocean liners and tugs sticking above the ridge, only a few hundred yards away, as if they were in another lane of our highway. Occasionally we turned out drove to the top of the levy to see the rusty ships headed to and from the ports to New Orleans.

One roadside area was piled high with vast mounds of black crushed coal, the size of coarse road rock. Next was a series of high wheat elevators, the round concrete ones you might see along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.

“Barges coming down the Mississippi, loaded with western coal sent by train to the Mississippi and loaded up north are unloaded here, piled and then reloaded on to big ships headed to other countries as is wheat and corn. Lots of it comes from Minnesota,” said the attendant at a gas station-casino nearby. Casinos here are often just a few slot machines in a room off a restaurant or gas station. If they really wanted to get my business, they would turn the gas pumps into slot machines; you pay for your gas and throw in an extra dollar to get a chance at getting it all back!

The last 25 miles of the road had some big flat drained fields, pasture to large herds of cattle. Although the grass was mostly brown, clover was bright green and the cows were out grazing. Occasionally there were forests of live oak or other green leaved plants, short and ocean wind blown along with marshes and a continual string of housing; mostly trailers and manufactured and messy, often up on stilts.

Oil production facilities lined the last 10 miles of the road. Vast security fenced lots filled with cars and helicopters support the offshore drilling/pumping platforms. Fenced crude oil tank farms; pipelines running helter skelter, and one huge huge Conoco-Phillips refinery, separated from the Mississippi by levees obscured the wetlands.

Five miles from the end of the road was the first hill we saw a limitless flat land of water and tidal marsh. A prominent hill far ahead turned out to be a “sanitary landfill,” truly oxymoronic. Windblown garbage littered the road, and atop the huge pile, trucks unloaded; bulldozers pushed and compacted and thousands of gulls dove in for food scraps before it all was covered with a layer of dirt.

The ugly scene set the pattern for the last few miles of the road into the Gulf. Narrow roads turned to gravel, one side the tidal ponds and hundreds of shore birds wading in abandoned pipes, hurricane strewed tin roofs, and other man made waste; the other side fenced lots filled with oil company tanks, pipes, equipment; much of it salt water rusted, ugly and abandoned and other lots still in use, security fenced and just plain ugly. It reminded us of a vast wrecking yard and dump that had been placed in some of the most pretty wetlands you can imagine.

Oil production here has been ongoing for 75 years with the bulk of the efforts starting in the 1950s and then as the easy-to-find oil in the shallow marshes ran out, pushing on out further and deeper into the ocean living the litter of old fields, tanks and equipment behind. Debris dumping appears to have been going on just as long!

“The junk is mostly just as bad as you go out into the Gulf waters,” a local man fishing along the road at the end told me, “but it doesn’t look so bad as it is underwater! Most of this land is still owned by the oil companies and although it looks abandoned, is still used at times; the pipelines from farther out come through here, pointing to ugly rusted huge pipes and junctions coming along the roads and the rusting tanks nearby. Maybe they will clean it up someday. It would make a wonderful wildlife refuge.”

“The main problem here with the spill was the local fishermen were told they couldn’t fish or collect seafood in the Gulf around here anymore. They just opened it up again last month. They couldn’t make a living, and of course the businesses who depended on them had trouble too. There was some oil cleanup around here—out farther from the shore, but that’s gone except for a few tar balls on some beaches. Can’t see anything left. Some folks are still bothered about eating the fish and shrimp and stuff they catch here, but most seem to think it is OK again. The oil dispersants (detergent like chemicals dumped to break up the oil) are more worrying for us than the oil itself,” said a fisherman holding his rod and reel fishing in a small tidal pool lined with debris and opposite a rusted old security fence surrounding an abandoned oil tank farm when I stopped to talk.

“About the only think left you can see from the spill are all the lawyer signs along the road trying to get us to hire them to get money from BP!” he laughed. “Lots of folks have applied for BP money to cover their losses. Twenty billion from BP has corrupted many honest folks and attracted lots of scum in a greedy feeding frenzy. That brings in the big sharks with law degrees. I think the money might hurt us more in the long term than the oil spill!”

We plan to ooze along to another Louisiana park for this our 5th week on the road. Right now we think that we will head back north at the beginning of March, but it all depends on Margo. Last week we parked over a fire ant hill, and after a few days they figured out there was fresh meat in her bunk and bit her up a lot before I got them under control. By tying her hands, I got her to stop scratching the raw skin and am spraying her down with benzocaine regularly until the stinging subsides. By the time you read this she should be fine, or in the hospital.

Black History

When we travel, I like to have a purpose, something I want to learn about. This trip south, on the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, I decided to try to find out if the Civil War did any good in solving the problems with slavery in the south. My rather weak recall of history is that although the slaves were freed, they were treated badly for the next 100 years, and only the Civil Rights laws and movements of the 1960s brought about real change, but things are fine now.

The first place we explored was Hammond, LA. This town has been in the news recently. Local Justice of the peace, Keith Bardwell, made the news in October 2009 for refusing to officiate at the wedding of an interracial couple. This town was the 1980s initial setting for the fictional town “Sparta” in the first season of “In the Heat of the Night.” In that TV show, black northern cop Virgil Tibbs (Howard Rollins) comes to work in a southern white town with police chief William Gillespie (Carrol O’Connor), exploring contemporary racism, modern policing, and other issues. I remember it as a good show.

Hammond is located in Tangipahoa Parish (Louisiana’s name for a county) east of Baton Rouge. It is mostly rural, crossed by freeways with a lot of urban mall sprawl. It has 70% white and 29% black people. Median income is about $30,000 with about 30% living under the poverty line. Total sales tax rate is 9%, split locally and state wide; property taxes on a $250,000 house were about $2,000; state income taxes are based on income level, 6% over $50,000. Louisiana is rated as a low tax state, but the ratings seem to represent a low income state where taxes are relatively high on lower income folks and relatively low on high income folks.

The week started with Martin Luther King Day, something taken seriously here where 30% of the folks are black. We chose to visit a local Black History museum. It was a very interesting, very professional and privately financed museum showing black folks history from their lives in Africa and the history of slavery from transport, sale, plantation life, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Civil Rights era ending with a display of current black leaders including President Obama.

We were led on the tour of the former blacks-only school by a teacher who had taught there named Adelle. She was 82 years old, strikingly handsome, with long black and white hair parted in the middle, flowing widely on each side. She spoke in very educated English; a school teacher’s precise enunciation, fluent, yet with passion. I started by saying “My great great grandfather gave his health to free slaves and his oldest son his life. One hundred and fifty years later, we are here to find out whether it was worth the effort.”

Adelle tells the rest. “After the war, there was a time that black folks did well—as long as northerners were in control, the Reconstruction. We had the vote, elected blacks to all levels of government and things were headed in the right direction. By 20 years after the war, the Federal government soldiers pulled out and local white folks took over again and proceeded to strip us of all of our rights. We lost our right to vote, lost our integrated public schools, and over the next 20 years, the whites took control of everything and made rules, down here they are called Jim Crow laws. They enforced everything with violence; the Ku Klux Klan rode around burning, shooting and terrorizing any black folks who spoke out.”

“They separated kids into separate schools. White folks paid taxes that went to white schools; black folks paid taxes for black schools. Blacks were poor and so our schools were poor. Black schools when I went to school in the 1930s ran only a few months a year, because we had to work in the fields with our parents to make money. “

“If a black man complained, he got lynched. There were hundreds of lynchings of black people down here. The whites ran around with sheets over their heads, the Kluxers (Ku Klux Klan) burning, shooting and scaring black folks who complained.”

“We had a few black colleges. I went to one for two years to get a teaching degree. Then, in 1952, I got a job teaching in a black elementary school. We got the old desks, books, and supplies from the white schools when they got new things. My salary, $51 per month, was half of the white teachers on the other side of town.”

“We did a good job with the children who did come to school, but many didn’t stay in school. Even with an education, black people couldn’t get a decent job down here—just in the black school or black hospital. Women worked as house servants; men as field hands and day laborers on plantations. You complain, you got fired.”

“We couldn’t stay in the white hotels, couldn’t eat in the white restaurants, had to sit in the back of the bus, couldn’t vote without getting in trouble. I got married and my husband didn’t dare look at a white man or woman straight on without worrying about getting arrested or a visit by the Kluxers. We sent our two daughters north for an education and they both work in good jobs, lawyer and business, but not around here. Still not possible down here for most black folks.”

“This building was the Mooney School, the local black school until 1968 when the school district was told by the court it had to integrate black and white. They had claimed that they had separate but equal schools, but they were not equal, not even close. They shut the school down here, because whites wouldn’t send their children to such a poorly built school. “

“Do you know that the local district is still under court orders because instead of really integrating, they have continued to play games with boundaries of districts that keep schools either white or black. Last March the court found they were still out of compliance and ordered more changes.”

“After the black school, this building, closed in 1968, few black teachers got jobs in the new supposedly integrated schools. I did, and what I remember most was the big boost in my salary! The schools really have never been integrated here; white folks with money moved their kids to private schools or new neighborhoods where new schools were again white. When the black schools closed, it was really hard for a black teacher or coach to get a job in the new schools—still is even with a court order that 1/3 must be black, never got near that. “

“You see this picture. ( She showed us posters of the 20 -30 black folks marching up main street in 1966.) Dr. King started us on non-violent marches to try to get our rights. That’s me. She pointed out a tall strong looking young woman marching in the front of a street following mounted police with angry looking white people lining the streets. I marched in those times. We got attacked many times by the whites along the side, throwing stones at us and sometimes punches. The white police pretended to try to protect us, but they were on the other side too. We registered to vote, and then politicians had to worry about our vote too!”

“It is certainly better now. There still is racism; white folks down here don’t give up their prejudices and privileges easily. But it is not out in the open like it used to be. They don’t lynch us anymore, we can vote now without being attacked. “

“I was so excited when Mr. Obama got elected president. I had always taught my students that if they worked hard, they could become president of the US, but inside none of us really believed it. We were trying to give the children a good education, and we did, in our black schools, but there just wasn’t opportunity for decent jobs down here“

“When Mr Obama got elected, I just knew I had to go to Washington DC to see it. I was 80, but I told my daughter I had to go! She tried to talk me out of it; but she hasn’t seen what it was like to be black in the south like I have—to be treated second class so much of your life that it just becomes part of you. I just had to go and be part of the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my whole life. She realized I was going to go what ever she said, so she took off work and we got to be in the huge crowd at the Capitol for inauguration day. We stood all day long in the huge crowd, so excited we didn’t even have to go to the bathroom. We milled around the area and managed to see President Obama as he got out of his car. It was so wonderful to see a black man president of the US. If I had died right then, it would have been worth all of the trouble and bother of 80 years of being black in the south to see this happen!”

“It is hard for me to see President Obama criticized. I think underneath a lot is really racism. It isn’t gone from here. It is much better, but, my how hard it has been to be black here for 82 years. I hope my grandchildren don’t have to see how people can have raw open hate for people just because of skin color. I think that is why some people are so vicious in attacking President Obama.“

“Religion has been a consolation for me. Whites wouldn’t let us worship in the same churches, so we have our own. I never could understand why, when we were all Christians, that white people thought making slaves out of us was right. Sometimes I think religious folks can be the worst when it comes to treating others decently.“

After the tour, Adelle and three other retired teachers who had taught in the segregated visited with us. I told them, “Up north, we don’t have discrimination in our churches.” Adelle said “It must be nice where women can be ministers or priests; gays are welcome and your preachers don’t rail against scientists and Muslims.”

Raising Cane

It’s hard not to feel a little guilty having enjoyed mostly sunny mild weather through January down here in Southern Louisiana, while getting emails from up north telling about 32 below and snow. If we were there, we would be burning fuel trying to keep warm, adding to the increasing cost of energy and dumping carbon dioxide into the air. Helping the environment by sacrificing the comforts of home for strange places and tropical climates does give us a warm feeling of doing our part over those of you who just ordered another tanker load of fuel for February.

We had one pleasant 3-inch rain overnight, the rain drops falling on the canvas over our bed in the pop-up camper soothing our slumbers and drowning out the roar of frogs, gators and owls. The temperatures have ranged from a few days in the 40s to a sweltering 75 last Friday that brought some mosquitoes to life. Made us nostalgic for Wisconsin and Minnesota. There are individual orange and grapefruit trees in yards here and there and a few orange groves—the oranges appear to be ripening, but none for sale yet. Almost 100% of the fields in the 30 miles around the area we have explored are in sugar cane.

Lake Fausse Pointe State Park is on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, just west of the levee that channels the Atchafalaya river into a 20 mile wide, 150 mile long swamp. At the north end is a big set of gates that controls the Mississippi, allowing the US Corp of Engineers to run water down the current Mississippi channel, or divert some to the old Mississippi channel, now called the Atchafalaya River. Without the diversion project, the Mississippi would have already changed its main channel to the Atchafalaya years ago.

The area is honeycombed with old and new oil wells, the area underlain with natural gas and oil that has been pumped since the 1930s. In the 1950s to 1970s, huge dredges created cross channels to allow access to new well drilling. This has changed some of the freshwater marshes into saltwater, as the ocean has flowed into the deep channels. We are far enough away from the oil spill (to the south east of us) that the only effect are the claims for BP oil money being distributed to those who can prove financial losses from the spill. The locals in that area have gone pretty much hog wild making claims—some fraudulent, some wildly exaggerated, and some legitimate. There is 20 billion to be distributed of BP money, and every crook from Texas to Florida has managed to put in some kind of claim to confuse the legitimate ones. The folks down here take after their politicians; corrupt as you can possibly be.

The Mississippi has been channelized most of the way south from Iowa and thus runs through faster. Before this, the silt coming downriver deposited at the mouth of the river, creating the huge swamps and marshes that are here. Now it rushes through and dumps the silt out over the continental shelf, into deep water and so the land along the southern Louisiana coast is gradually disappearing rather than building up—29 square miles per year according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One Wisconsin township is 36 square miles, so almost one township is disappearing each year. This has been going on for 50 years or more. It would be a good idea for some of the farmers up there in Wisconsin and Minnesota to revert to their high erosion, clear field plowing to bring back the days when tons of topsoil ran down the streams and rivers into the Mississippi, or Louisiana may just disappear altogether.

Where we are camping is about 50% under water. Built up roads and natural ridges are surrounded by standing water and bayous (Indian name for streams) and cypress swamps. The whole of the area is ranges from about 3 feet above sea level to sea level. It seems to me that if everyone in WI and MN melted the ice cubes in their refrigerator and ran them down the drain, we would surely be under water here. Most of the buildings are up on 8 foot stilts anticipating the spring floods that come most years.

This area is almost exclusively in sugar cane fields—large, flat corrugated fields, some having been in sugar cane since it was first introduced here in 1751. We toured a museum at Jeanrette that was devoted to the sugar cane industry—they advertise the town as “Sugar City.” As a farm kids and maple sugar people ourselves, Margo and I were fascinated by the sugar cane growing and processing going on in the area.

Sugar cane fields are laid out in ridged rows about 18 inches high and 6 feet apart. The water table is high and with frequent rains, the ridges allow the plants to be up out of the water. Water drains down the troughs and into larger drains and out of the fields without drowning the cane. Farmers have special disks, pull graders, and cultivators to make and handle the ridges. These ridges and drains are called the “bank system.”

Wikipedia says: “Sugarcane cultivation requires a tropical or temperate climate, with a minimum of 24 in of annual moisture. It is one of the most efficient photosynthesizers in the plant kingdom. It is able to convert up to 1 percent of incident solar energy into biomass. In prime growing regions, sugarcane can produce 20 lb of biomass for each square meter exposed to the sun.”

“Although sugarcanes produce seeds, modern stem cutting has become the most common reproduction method. Billets (chunks of stem that look like bamboo with at least one junction where a sprout will form) harvested from a mechanical harvester are planted by a machine which opens and recloses the ground. Once planted, a stand can be harvested several times; after each harvest, the cane sends up new stalks, called ratoons. Successive harvests give decreasing yields, eventually justifying replanting. Two to ten harvests may be possible between plantings.”

In Louisiana, one-third of the land is fallow, waiting to be planted, and the rest in sugarcane. Every 11 months a harvest is made in the fall. Cane here is harvested 3 times over three years off the same root before a total replanting. One third is replanted each year. It seems, that like alfalfa, it gradually produces less each year. Planting is in the fall when the tops of the sugar cane stalks are available to be spread in the ditches between the ridges; then the old ridges are disked over the stalks and make a new set of ridges. Cultivation is not done after the first season.

Monsanto and other cane seed producers are tinkering with the genes in the cane plant and expect to have a “Roundup-Ready/Bt” plant available by 2015. Growers are debating whether consumers will balk at genetically modified sugar products. Sugar beet farmers in NW MN are already into a legal debate over the use of “Roundup-Ready” beets there. Sugar cane is sprayed for pests and fertilized quite heavily.

Slaves were brought to this part of Louisiana primarily to work on sugar plantations. It is a year around effort with harvesting lasting from about September to December. In the old days, everything was done by hand with the aid of mules. Nowadays, it is highly mechanized with expensive harvesters that cut the stalk, clean away the leaves and any dirt, cut it into billets and have it ready for processing at large central sugar plants, often farmer’s co-operatives. Much of the cane sugar here ends up as Domino brand.

Farmers traditionally have burned the cane fields in the fall to get rid of the leaves and smaller stalks parts and just leave the juicy canes. It is a real controversy here because of the nuisance to the neighbors and our higher rates of respiratory problems. A letter to the editor in the local newspaper last October describes it: “Giant smoke plumes all around the horizon; black ashes falling like snow. I knew that the burning had begun because I awoke with my sinuses full. Sure enough, when I left for work, I could see the angry plumes. Nothing like the familiar view of insecticide-laden haze all around!”
“Oh and it’s good for the economy, too. The hospitals, pulmonologists and respiratory therapists will all benefit from an increased load of lung patients (asthmatics, COPDers, sinusitis patients) flooding through their doors. “

Bigger farmers who can afford a $150,000 harvester don’t burn anymore, but smaller ones can’t afford it and still burn. The harvester cuts the stalks into billets, which are delivered at the factory where they are washed, ground, crushed and pressed to give up the sweet cane juice. Then many steps of filtering and boiling and crystallizing are done to end up first with raw sugar, sort of a brown looking sugar, then more of the same to end up with pure white sugar. Molasses and bagasse (pronounced as two words-bag gas) are the byproducts. Bagasse is the fiber left and is burned to fuel the boilers. Molasses is sold for mixing in animal feed and for the grocery. Inside the sugar warehouses, huge trucks and loader tractors handle the sugar—looking like the activity in a gravel pit. Eventually it is bagged and shipped to retailers. Some local cooks insist that cane sugar is better for cooking with than beet sugar.

I was hard pressed to find out the actual profit for a sugar cane farmer in Louisiana, but it appears that on a very good year, when the yield is good, the harvest season is not too wet, the sugar content is high, a profit of up to $300 per acre can be had; other years are break-even only or losses that are somewhat covered by insurance programs. In a radius of about 40 miles from the park, we saw only sugar cane fields. Rice has moved further west and north. There appears to be no crop rotation in this area.

Sugar was very profitable in the 100 years before the civil war. Labor was from slaves and huge land holdings made some planters immensely rich. They built large mansions, known here as ante-bellum plantation homes. There are still many around to tour.

We toured “Shadows on the Teche” in nearby New Iberia. Most of these plantation homes are the same—huge columns supporting porches at the front and back; storage and servant quarters on the 3rd floor, family living quarters on the second, and office, dining, kitchen, parlor and library on the main floor. The ceilings are 12 foot or so the heat will stay at the top of the room. Each room has a fireplace for heating, the only built in item. The rooms are furnished with hardwood wardrobes, sideboards, beds, tables, fine woodwork, expensive curtains, paintings of the ancestors, expensive china and porcelain objects and statuary in the gardens.

Each house was originally surrounded by outbuildings including a separate cooking building, a smokehouse, servants quarters, and housing for the animals. The tour guides are always very careful to use the word “servant” when they mean “slave.” The local tour guides almost completely ignore that the whole plantation culture and life of leisure portrayed was on the back of black slaves. In touring a dozen or more of these homes over many years, I have never seen a black person as a tour guide. Tourist from the north ask questions about slavery, and the tour guides generally say something like “most masters were good to their slaves and treated them as part of the family. When the Union soldiers came through they destroyed the culture.”

In almost every slave owner’s plantation (Shadows on the Teche owner had about 300 slaves), many of the slave children were “mullattoes,” product of the white male owners having children with the slave women. White wives looked the other way and continued to insist that the southern plantation culture was above that of the money-grubbing businessmen of the north, the Yankees.

When the war came, this area was a battleground and had a lot of destruction. After the war, the former slave owners had to convert to a hired labor role. Blacks who had hoped to become land owners and farmers in their own right, were for the most part pushed into plantation jobs that barely paid enough to live on. The white folks did what they could to keep black people uneducated, without the rights of a citizen (voting, holding office, fair trials…). They succeeded for 100 years and only since the 1960s have things begun to change for the better down here.

The area is backwards in terms of education, housing, salaries etc. Just about any measure comparing states puts Louisiana and its southern neighbors of Mississippi and Alabama at the bottom. “People down here kept black folks down for a few hundred years. You can’t prosper as a state doing that,” said Leon, a native Louisianan and retired school teacher who was RVing near us. “That and our history of mostly corrupt politicians at every level, make us more like a third world country. There is a third factor too, we are a very religious people – about 1/3 Catholic and most of the rest fundamentalists. Our church leaders teach us that our reward will be in heaven. I think this gives us an excuse for not improving our own condition here.”

Probably the most striking thing you see down here on the back roads are the water filled ditches filled with floating litter; the Styrofoam, aluminum, plastic and paper wastes that you see folks chucking out the windows. Towns and cities have made great efforts to clean their litter, but my how ugly the rural areas next to them are. Beer, Mountain Dew and McDonalds seem to predominate, but if it comes in a package of any kind, you will see it in the ditches of Louisiana. Margo thought we might volunteer to pick up some garbage along a stretch of waterfilled ditches. “Well, be careful of the poisonous snakes and the gators,” warned Leon, dampening her enthusiasm significantly.