On returning home from France this summer, one of the first things I did was to run along Esplanade to Bayou St. John just in time to watch the dawn. Few sights are as agreeable as the sun coming up over that water, changing the sky from ultra-marine to dark gray, lavender and rose-gold. When I arrived that particular morning, I stood for a while, feeling the close heat in that open space before squatting low, not so much to work my legs as to get a better view, a better feel of the place:
"... dark, like the passionate women of Egypt; placid, like their broad brows; deep, silent, like their souls. Within its bosom are hidden romances and stories, such as were sung by minstrels of old. From the source to the mouth is not far distant, visibly speaking ... it winds about the northwest of the city ... orange groves on one side, and quaint old Spanish gardens on the other."
Given the chance, perhaps I'd have written as much. But Alice Dunbar Nelson beat me to it sometime in 1899. The story has no apparent plot or action. Its two protagonists never reach any real crisis or development. Instead, they serve as a kind of setting against which the bayou reveals its power. The sketch functions as a way of expressing something about the water -- perhaps only that it is old, inscrutable, dangerously appealing.
And while Bienville is credited with founding New Orleans because the bayou provided a better, more easily navigable waterway than the Mississippi, the Acolapissa had long lived on the water they named Bayuk Tchoupik. At least a decade before the actual founding, a number of land grants of narrow waterfront tracts were already being parceled out to the first European colonists. One year after the founding, a French settlement had sprung up on both sides. Only a couple of years later, nearly all that land was in the hands of a single owner. By the time the Louisiana Purchase rolled around, yet another developer had acquired the lot of it and was busy laying out Faubourg St. John. And while all this development changed the face of the bayou significantly, its appeal remained and remains powerful.
In her story-less sketch, "By the Bayou St. John," Dunbar-Nelson asks: "Who cares that the bridges are modern, and that here and there pert boat-houses rear their prim heads? It is the Bayou, even though it be invaded with the ruthless vandalism of the improving idea ... it flows, unimpeded by the faintest conception of man, and we love it all the more that, like the Priestess of Isis, it is calm-browed, even in indignity."
The old High or Bayou Road is likely the oldest surviving pathway in all New Orleans. It is the route along which the Choctaws led Bienville. It is the reason he chose the site that would become the city. I can see how coming on that particular expanse of water would make a wanderer tarry, return and, eventually, settle. I can see why he lied to the Crown and fought with engineers to maintain the city at this site.
Whenever I've gone to the bayou mid-morning or later, I've been struck by how different a place it is by day than in pre-dawn hours. By day it's an almost ordinary body of water, busy with people walking dogs or tossing Frisbees, driving past headed someplace else. By dark it's overrun with wildlife -- raccoons, possums, colonies of muskrats neighboring with ducks, tall herons and cranes, slim egrets tending to stand apart even from one another. It is steeped not only in history, but in ritual, lore and caution. Malvina LaTour is said to have danced there. Juan-dù-ki-là of many a Seventh Ward child's night-fears was said to tarry on the farther side, just waiting to snatch young souls. On St. Joseph's Day, Mardi Gras Indian tribes met there to "make hum'ba," to chant and pray and generally "carry on." And every summer of my youth, someone's child drowned in its apparently "shallow water." Old folks say that what belongs always returns. Every morning now I wake in the dark. I dress as quickly as possible and head out for the High Road. I round Tchoupik and head back home.