Writing the Disappearing Landscape

By Tori Moore

I’ve been trying to figure something out lately.  A professor said to me just a few weeks ago, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Louisiana poet who doesn’t say place is an important theme in their writing—why is that?”  I didn’t really have an answer.  Is the landscape of the South just something more noticeable, something exotic, something quirky, something kitschy even?  Something to turn into a souvenir of traveling through “Cajun Country”?  I think it’s presumptuous as a writer to say my landscape is better than yours, or more significant than yours, or more prominent in my writing than yours; BUT (and there’s always a but) us Louisianans do have something not everyone else has:  coastal erosion; climate change refugees; rivers that change course, creating new boundaries, stranding old towns; and always, always water creeping in.

When I was a kid we lived in a red brick house next to Little Lake LaFouche in north Louisiana, lake on one side, cotton field on the other, deep ditches to keep the runoff away, to keep the water away.  There’s always that danger.  But something else, too.  When it rained in the summer, my mother would let me and my brother put our swimsuits on and go swimming in the ditch in front of our house, would let us play in the water-soaked yard when the ditches overflowed, would let us fish in the swollen lake until dark.  We loved how different our world was under a few inches of water, everything floating to the surface, the drag and pull and suction of walking.  Mostly, though, we loved the feeling of escaping something dangerous.  When the rain stopped short of the house, we felt safe to play.  Knowing, always, that the next time it might keep coming.

My brother told me Lake LaFouche used to be a landfill, that that was why we had to wear shoes when we swam in it, why the muddy bottom was full of broken glass and sharp metal.  My brother was also a world class bullshitter, so I don’t know if that’s true, but what I do know is that the landscape of Louisiana shifts quickly—dry land becomes swamp or lake, high ground loses elevation, your home becomes something else entirely.  And of course this affects the writing.  We don’t write just to memorialize a place, a childhood, a memory—we write to conserve it.  When our land is always shifting beneath us, writing becomes a way to keep the ground solid, to keep our feet in that same familiar dirt.  In Louisiana you have to cling to the ground you’re given tenaciously, with more awareness of its leaving.  Right now there are whole communities of people—those climate change refugees I mentioned before—who are facing this issue head on.  They are some of the first, but they certainly won’t be the last, our landscape shifting, shrinking every day.  These are the things writers face.  If I could go back and answer that professor’s question, I would say this:  We write the landscape because it leaves us so quickly.

Our own J. Bruce Fuller, Louisiana poet extraordinaire, wrote, “We live on borrowed land”; he wrote, “It shapes you, this instability”; and he wrote that “We will take drowning too far.”

Of course we will—and we’ll keep writing about it, too.