It was a warm, humid morning despite the early hour as Bennett, Melanie and I made our way to Charlie Hammond’s airplane hanger in Houma. When we arrived, Charlie, our pilot, asked us where we would like to fly that morning. We suggested a few places, but ultimately knew that Charlie would know the best places to flyover since he has lived in the area for more years than we have been alive.
After a quick conversation, we piled in the four seater airplane, Charlie and Bennett in the front and me and Melanie in the back. We buckled our seat belts, situated our in-flight headphones, and held our cameras at the ready. As we taxied over to the run way for take-off, Charlie talked to air traffic control in what sounded like code to the untrained ear. I guess somewhere in that conversation we were cleared for take off because before I knew it, we were off the ground.
We rose higher in the sky and not long after, the closeness of the encroaching water from the Gulf was evident. Not just a little bit of water, but a vast, watery expanse. As we flew near it, Charlie made his predictions for where the water would be in as little as the next six to eight years. He pointed out places that he said had not long ago been lush, green fields but are now under water.
Being in the air offered a unique perspective for just how daunting the encroaching water is. It is vast and powerful and always unyielding. The dredging of canals for the oil and natural gas industry causes salt water from the Gulf to steadily creep inland, which causes more marshes to break down causing more water to cover what was once land, leading to this environmental crisis of the wetlands disappearing.
The most striking part of the flyover was when we flew over the town of Pointe aux Chene. Having driven to Pointe aux Chene in one of my first weeks here, I knew what is was like on the ground there. I saw the semi-stereotypical image of water coming right up to the road on both sides, signs sticking up out of the water that clearly were from a time when the area on the sides of the road were open fields. I think those are the most sobering things to witness. Man-made objects out of place. Signs that say “no trespassing” in a body of water or the tops of tombs poking up from underwater. These are the moments when I realize this problem is very real.
When we drove to Pointe aux Chene, looking back, I think I didn’t want to believe what I was seeing. But when I saw it from the air, there was no denying the vulnerability of the community of Pointe aux Chene. The road was barely recognizable from the air: the water surrounding it made it look like a thin, pipeline stretching through the water, not a road. It took me a minute to realize that was the road we traveled on and that road connects this community to higher ground. That is the road that many generations of people have traveled to their home in Point aux Chene, and that is the road that will eventually be underwater, threatening this place, this community, these people.
After this sobering reality, Charlie flew us over a healthy marsh, one without many canals cut through it for boats, one with lily pads and cypress trees and marsh grasses. It was very hopeful to see a healthy marsh and not far from such an unhealthy area. But of course, we live in this tension of hopeful idealism and stark reality, and Charlie mentioned that this healthy marsh would most likely suffer from saltwater intrusion not too long from now.
A few weeks later I found myself in the tribal village of Pointe au Chien, not on land and not in the air, but this time in the water. I had the opportunity along with my fellow Young Adult Volunteers to go out in the bayou in the boat of a local couple, Donald and Theresa. They took us on their boat down the twisting and turning bayous with such ease that made us wonder how they don’t get lost out there.
If I ever had any doubt about how beautiful south Louisiana is, that doubt doesn’t exist anymore. It is gorgeous: the juxtaposition of the blue sky and the green marsh with the sun glittering off the water made this trip on the bayou the most beautiful witness of creation I have experienced since moving here. Donald and Theresa showed us crab traps, pointed out wildlife, took us down canals that were dredged by the oil and natural gas industries. Again I was faced with the sobering image of man-made objects coming out of the water when we boated by a line of telephone poles looking incredibly out of place standing in water.
The most exciting thing we saw on our bayou tour was dolphins. Yes, that’s right, dolphins in the bayou. Of course we all found it very exciting to see dolphin fins surfacing ten yards from our boat since it is a rare occasion to be so close to these majestic animals. Although exciting, the dolphins illustrated just how far salt water intrusion has invaded the bayou.
Prior to my experiences visiting the wetlands by land, air, and water I knew the wetlands were in danger, and I knew the crisis was just that, a crisis. I had heard the statistic “every 48 minutes a football field of wetlands disappears” too many times to count. But hearing facts, figures, and secondhand stories does not do the wetlands justice. There is no way for words or photos or stories to fully encompass the importance of this area and the dire need for this issue to be taken seriously. Only through feeling the saltwater spray on my face and seeing with my own eyes the eerie remnants of an area that was once land did this crisis become very real.