The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish.
I am a man far removed from his origins — by miles, by years, and by more intangible measures. Every piece of wood, no matter how refined and sanded, is marked by the conditions where the tree was grown. The mix of nutrients in the soil and air, the shifts in temperature and humidity, high winds and lightning, the damage from insects and wood-boring birds, and cultivation — the human history of the land — leave their evidence. Who I am remains intimately gnarled with where I came from. And where I came from is the place making the news, the place in the line of fire, soon to be the eye of the storm. Though I’ve pruned from my speech all traces of accent, I’m from south of south. I am from Cypress Parish, Louisiana.
These days, Cypress Parish isn’t so very different from other places. The small towns of Cypress Parish angle in odd triangles, pointing from the highway that now clears a straight line to New Orleans. Defying swamp, people live in groups of brick houses laid out in flat grids in the 1960s or in newer houses with high ceilings and bigger windows and thinner walls, pocking roads that curve artificially around man-made hills and ponds claimed and quartered from marsh.
Most of the parish’s citizens drive to work in New Orleans or in the state capital, where men and a few women sign good laws as well as the statutes that give Louisiana its turn — with one or two other states — as national laughingstock. A few commute to the other nearby city, which is really only a large town and which crossed the national radar screen just once, when a spree murderer killed seven people in one of its casinos.
The people now boarding their windows in Cypress shop in the strip malls and club stores that most of the parish towns now boast. Those who are not Catholic worship in the large, well-advertised churches that the South has exported to the rest of the country. Like people in the rest of the country, they eat breakfast cereals out of colorful boxes and watch cable television. They attend their children’s games and plays and school carnivals. They go to work willingly in the morning but are glad to come home in the evening.
If a man driving through the parish on his way to somewhere else took one of the exit ramps leading from the highway, stopping off for the weak coffee and clean restrooms that make fast-food restaurants a traveler’s oasis, he would see the worst of what our country offers with none of its best. Though he might catch a clean whiff of pine when the breeze blows in from the east or of the salty Gulf when the wind moves south to north, he’d be as likely to breathe a noseful of the stink that only a paper mill can churn out. Nothing that entered his field of vision would strike him as reason to linger. He would, more than likely, finish the paper cup of whatever it was he sought refreshment in, seal himself back in his air-conditioned car, and be glad of the easy funnel back onto the highway.
But if for any reason he found himself driving the smaller roads that link the parish towns without reference to the no-nonsense stretch of clean black asphalt, his eyes would light on more peculiar things. If he was attentive, he’d pick up everywhere remnants of life as it used to be lived, of life as it was lived there and not quite the same way as anywhere else.
If he followed the winding two-lane road between Cypress, the town where I was reared, and Banville, the closest French town, he might identify a few stands of trees with the exact mix of cypress, oak, and pine that could be found before the logging companies bought, used, and then left this land. If he got out to relieve his traveler’s bladder behind one of those trees, he might be startled by one of the spotted salamanders that have lived there since before people and that live nowhere else in the world.
If he had call to go on to Banville or was driven there by some back-road curiosity he couldn’t quite name and found himself in the town with no excuse, he might notice that the finely made Catholic church, with its jewel-colored windows that seem to melt in the afternoon heat, still looks out of place. It sits as a clumsy testament to some long-removed Old World grandeur in a town where the wealthiest man is a hardworking lawyer and people are, more or less, still poor.
And if he entered Banville’s oyster bar — not the new one up by the highway but the one just off the town square, where the oysters are the freshest but the dirty concrete floors frighten away even those tourists seeking what they call the authentic — he would hear the flat local French still spoken with both emphasis and speed by the men who shuck the mollusks.
Chain restaurants are as trusted in the town of Cypress as they are everywhere, but a traveler can still find places, if he heads just south of the bedroom communities, where biscuits are made from scratch every morning, using fresh buttermilk and cut with an old water glass, places where the ham served spent weeks in a tilted, hand-built smoke shed and came from an animal that, for its allotted time, had a name.
If he pressed farther south, against the Gulf breeze that is sometimes mild but now blows with the force of the coming hurricane, he would hear more of the French patois but also a Spanish laced with its Canary Island origins though cut off from those roots for more than two centuries. In one village, he would hear more Italian than any other language spoken. If one of the women there caught him admiring her lush vegetable garden, she might invite him in for a flute of carbonated wine made from her homegrown oranges, and he would understand that the invitation was an order, that he could not say no to her.
Indeed there are sundry reminders of what life was like before my father and men like him and some unlike him laid rail and felled trees and, through their labor and sometimes treachery, made the soft, sterile bed on which we rest our modern lives. For anyone who listens closely and looks with attention, there are suggestions everywhere of life as it was lived before men with the power of money changed it forever.
And if a traveler were to come across an establishment more or less untouched by our national fads and fetishes, if he entered and waited patiently over a cup of strong coffee for the best shrimp stew he could ever hope to eat, if he eavesdropped on the old-timers — usually claiming stools at the counter and smoking cigarettes if they still can — he should not be surprised, not even a little, when one of their stories is about the water that rose in 1927. And he should not be surprised, not even a little, when one of those stories is about my father, William Proby, or about Olivier Menard or one of the other men whose names, before the flood, mattered.
Here on the eve of what the newscasters say will be more devastation by water, it is a few of these stories that I try to tell, mixing as best I can what I saw with my own eyes and what I understood later to be fact into the most complete picture I am capable of making. Yet the older I get, and despite all my training as a man of reason and method, the harder I find it to understand anything at all. If you were to place, side by side, the historical account of something that happened, a painting of it, and a scientific explanation of how and why it occurred, you might still not understand it unless, maybe, you lived through it yourself. Even then, you’d succumb to forgetting. An old man may remember the facts of his youth, but he cannot always remember what they felt like.
Text prepared by:
- Bruce R. Magee
Blackwell, Elise. The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. Denver, CO: Unbridled, 2007. Print. Excerpt used by permission.
Elise Blackwell is the author of four novels: