Sunday, March 25, 2012

she's like a rainbow . . .

Iris fulva x brevicaulis 'God's Gift'
A natural hybrid that came up in our ditch some years ago...

“She comes in colors everywhere
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow.
Combing colors in the air
Oh everywhere
She comes in colors.”

– Jagger/Richard

Iris: Greek goddess of the rainbow, and a messenger of the gods . . . and/or . . . a Northern Hemisphere plant genus containing over 200 species, five of which are native to Louisiana.

Never has a plant genus been more aptly named, for not only is there a massive variety of flower color amongst the different species of Iris, but also a dizzying color array within each species.

Thanks in no small part to the Mighty Muddy Mississippi River and its brown, sticky unending supply of alluvium, Louisiana was proclaimed the “Iris Center of the Universe” by Dr. J. K. Small, Curator of the New York Botanical Gardens back in the 1920s. Small first glimpsed Louisiana irises from the window of a train, igniting a love affair which brought him back here on many occasions, collecting, researching, and naming some 77 color forms and natural hybrids – most of which placidly grew in the general vicinity of New Orleans alone! Back then, irises grew in wild profusion throughout the marshes and swamps of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and Orleans parishes, literally surrounding the city of New Orleans. There are even early 20th century references regarding color forms being collected off Frenchman Street. Small's main “honey hole,” though, was the Bayou Sauvage area, off Gentilly Ridge – presently encompassed by the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Sadly, few if any iris colonies have survived the saltwater brought in there by Katrina.

Given to us by Rosemary Simms some years ago as, 'Briar Queen'
this one looks very similar to Small's Iris miraculosa, found (probably)
somewhere in lower Plaquemines parish in March 1927 by Ruth & Arthur Svihla

Back in those days, incredible color variation could be found within a single Iris species, and within a single “iris field.” Collectors were few back then, for most folks associated irises with black stinky mucky mud, and snakes and alligators.

By the mid-1930s, the Louisiana iris craze quickly migrated from New Orleans to Lafayette, where Mary Swords DeBaillon had already amassed the world's “most complete” color form collection in her North Lafayette yard. And even more importantly, the discovery of the “Super Fulvas,” aka “the Abbeville Reds” and/or “the Abbeville Yellows” from the Bayou Vermilion floodplain just south of Abbeville in 1938 by W. B. “Mac” MacMillan. More than any other “Louisiana iris” it was the “Abbevilles” that launched Louisiana iris hybridization into a global obsession, eventually amassing horticultural converts from New York to California and Japan to Australia. Yep,the Louisiana iris saga is one of the most fascinating stories in horticultural history.

One of the legendary 'Abbeville Reds' said to have come from MacMillan's own yard!
Given to us by the intrepid Tyrone Foreman

Mary DeBaillon's amazing collection, coupled with the discovery of the “Abbevilles,” led to the formation of the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society in 1941, soon known as the Society for Louisiana Irises, reserving Mary DeBaillon's name for the Mary Swords DeBaillon Medal, award for best-in-show at the Society's annual gatherings.

Iris 'Dixie Deb' an outstanding landscape iris
developed by Frank Chowning, Little Rock, Arkansas

Of Louisiana's five native iris species, the four which have contributed to the fantastic hybrid complex known today as “Louisiana irises” are the copper iris (Iris fulva), the short-stemmed iris (Iris brevicaulis), the anglepod blue-flag (Iris hexagona), and the large blue-flag (Iris giganicaerulea), the latter of which is truly endemic (found nowhere else in the wild) to coastal Louisiana. Around the same time that Dr. Small was making his discoveries around New Orleans, Tulane herpetologist/naturalist Percy Viosca became interested in the ecological underpinnings of these irises. Which species were growing where? Which were not? Why? In fact, prior to MacMillan's discovery of the Abbevilles (believed today to be natural hybrids between I. fulva and I. giganticaerulea), Viosca had predicted that such a find awaited in at least two geographical locales within coastal Louisana, where swamps (traditional home of I. fulva) and marshes (traditional home of I. giganicaerulea) possessing specific hydrological regimes intersected. Indeed, one of the places he described was within the Bayou Vermilion watershed just north of its outfall into Vermilion Bay – precisely where MacMillan found it.

Those of you who are not from Louisiana should understand that New Orleans and Lafayette/Abbeville are by no means the only places where Louisiana irises grow wild. They grow wild throughout much of our state, but nowhere more prolific than in our coastal zone: 3 million acres' worth of marshes & swamps; beat up badly by storms and industry, but still standing...
I could go on and on. Like so many Louisiana gardeners, I was smitten by Louisiana irises early on, and moreso from Viosca's ecological perspective. My interest still is in natural color variants and natural hybrids as opposed to human-made hybrids. Still, I'll readily gawk at any Louisiana iris I encounter, regardless of heritage.

an un-named blackish-purple dwarf  I. brevicaulis
given to me (as a bribe...) by Dormon Hayden

From a conservation standpoint, it is the natural hybrids and color forms – those found in the wild by the first collectors – which are in most need of preservation. For the most part, the natural homes from which they were collected have been destroyed by development and/or salt-water intrusion by now. Secondly, from a horticultural landscaping perspective, the natural hybrids and color forms, along with the “straight species” themselves far out-perform the human-made hybrids in garden settings. Not only do the “naturals” self-propagate more easily, but they also live longer – almost indefinitely, in fact. These plants need to be ressurected by knowledgeable Louisiana iris folks and made available for plantings in parks, wildlife refuges, arboretums, botanical gardens, and private gardens everywhere -- but especially those in their original "homes" within the Louisiana coastal zone.

Iris 'Van Gough Blue' (my [definitely unregistered] name...)
a mysterious thing...can't remember who gave it to a
"Super Brevicaulis'....very vigorous....long bloom season....evergreen foliage!

Any student of Louisiana irises would do well to read The Louisiana Iris a 1988 book by Marie Caillet and Joe Mertzweiller. Another publication, quite rare by now I'm sure, is the 1991 fiftieth anniversary publication of the Society for Louisiana Irises, simply entitled, Society for Louisiana Irises 1941-1991, edited by Joe Mertzweiller and published by Franklin Press, Baton Rouge. In it are reprints of J.K. Small's Louisiana iris articles published 1925-29 in the New York Botanical Gardens journal, Addisonia, along with very-cool watercolor plates (done by the Botanical Gardens' Mary Eaton) of some of Small's favorite “finds.”

And be sure to check out the Society's website ( This year's annual meeting will be held April 19-22 in Shreveport.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

post-mortem of a flood

pot's on fiyah! the beginnings of a celebratory gumbo...a tad premature?
perhaps so, but that never stopped us from celebrating before.....

It's nearly 9:00am, and steadily raining – well, more like something between a drizzle and a rain. It's coolish (62F) and breezyish (5mph from the west) . . . perfect weather and a perfect time to put a pot of celebratory gumbo on the stove.

Some of you will remember the previous post on this blog (13 March), along with the facebook message I put out yesterday (20 March) detailing the ongoing saga of 12 March 2012's 10-15" Big Rain here just north of Lafayette. One week into the wake of the flood, and a number of us living just east of Bayou Vermilion are still boating to the blacktop (North Wilderness Trail, running atop Bayou Vermilion's east bank).

Yesterday, we were growing mighty anxious about the weather forecast calling for more deluge-type storms today. Presently, even though it's still raining, it appears we've dodged a cannonball, as the main squall line blew through 6:30-7:30 this morning, dropping only 1.25” more water up this way.

"crazy lil' thing, crazy lil' thing, how'd you get a name like crazy lil' thing?
prob'ly the name that drove you crazy, all along..." 
(quote by Captain Beefheart, photo by Russ Norwood

As previously mentioned, even though it's still raining, we're partying. And we're not alone. Outside, the local chickadees didn't even wait for the deluge to end before breaking out into courtship songs. No mere calls, vaguely uttered, but fancy show-off courtship songs (a quasi-strident, “See-see See-Saw” repeated at frequent intervals. . . you know a chickadee's feelin' happy when he's singing this song). Presently, Carolina wrens and cardinals have joined in, piercing the cool drizzly air with songs of love.

So I'm like, “What the hey! There's no time like the present . . .Gumbo Party!”

Living most of my life down here along the Gulf Rim, I've noticed that most Gulf Rimmers pass time by generally just sitting around waiting for a reason to celebrate; and that down here in Cajunland our celebrations often turn out to be just a tad premature. Oh well. Better to have celebrated in vain than not to have celebrated at all, vous connais?

Anyway, it looks like 1-3" or so inches this go round is not going to seriously hamper the progress of our Big Drain. In fact, I'm hopeful that we'll be driving to our homes by Sunday (25 March). If that's the case, then we'll have boated for 13 straight days – one day shy of our record of 14 boat days, set during the May 2004 Mega Flood.

I asked for prayers in yesterday's facebook update. The responses from my friends were interesting. Some seemed taken aback that I'd even suggest that “God” would/could push the forecast rains elsewhere. After all, isn't that “childish at best and selfish at worst” type thinking? Well, no. Not to a believer. And yes, after decades of studying every spiritual belief system proposed by humankind, I remain an old-school Jesus-believer. By the same token, I certainly don't expect anyone else to believe like I believe.

(photo by Larry Amy or Kevin Courville . . . or possibly, both)

Sometimes it seems the real childishness and selfishness of it all lies in the notion that we can actually find human words to satisfactorily describe What's Going On. Truly, It's beyond all that, else it wouldn't be “God.” I mean, if we humans could actually define “God,” that ain't saying much for “God,” you know?

On David Byrne & Brian Ferry's mid-70s record album, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” the preacher man said, “....He's so HIGH, you can't get over Him; He's so LOW, you can't get under Him; He's so BIG, you can't get around Him....”

(photo by Edward Watson)

Pardon me if this seems personal, but How big is your God? Does God fill your Universe? Might God go beyond the Universe as well? Can God fill you? To the point where it becomes your heart, and not your mind, that speaks and acts and runs your show? These are good questions to ponder. . .

So, grateful thanks to all those who prayed for us, all those who thought about us, and all those who directed dry vibes our way. . . and as always, to God.

Now on to the Celebratory Gumbo. Like my spiritual beliefs, it's an old school recipe. Old school southern Evangeline parish chicken & sausage gumbo. With a twist. Unlike the gumbos of Lafayette & New Orleans, “cajun prairie gumbo” is thinner – closer to carmel-brown than chocolate-brown. This is accomplished by simply adding a little more water. Emphasis on “a little.”

A thinner gumbo reveals way more complexity of flavor than a thick one. That's because roux is so powerful that it easily masks the more delicate flavors of the meat and vegetables. So you dilute it, and whoa! The taste.

So I start with about 2 cups of dark roux mixed with about a quart of water and a quart of chicken stock. Heat only to a simmer while stirring (to keep the roux from sticking to the bottom of the pot) in order to dissolve all the roux. Once fairly well dissolved (a half-hour) turn fire lower, and add 2 chopped onions, 1 chopped bell pepper, a couple of tablespoons of minced garlic, and 3-4 ribs of fine-chopped celery.

Initially, I season with about 1 rounded teaspoon of black pepper, 1 rounded tablespoon of cayenne pepper, and 2 rounded tablespoons of salt. Toward the end, I recheck seasoning, adding more if necessary. Be careful with the salt, however, as chicken stock can have a lot; and you really want to use chicken stock in this thing.

Add another quart of chicken stock and another quart of water (now you've got a total of 1 gallon of water/stock invested) and turn up the fire to a slow, rolling boil.

After about 45-60 minutes, add 1lb. sliced smoked sausage (I use turkey, but southern Evangeline parish tradition calls for pure pork) and 1 hen, cut-up. Then 1-2 cups each of chopped onion tops & flat parsley. Keep it on a slow roll for another 2-3 hours, adding water to replace that which has steamed off (that keeps it thin!), and you're almost done.

Turn off the fire and let cool for an hour, allowing the oil from the roux & chicken & sausage to float/pool up to the surface. Skim as much of this oil off as you can, using either a big spoon or soup ladle. Then check seasoning, adding if necessary, and add another cup each of chopped onion top and parsley. Now you're done!

So “my twist” I guess is in adding celery and in “double-adding” onion top and parsley. The result is a super-fine, hearty-yet-very-digestible, veggie-tainted gumbo. It's health food I tell you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

anatomy of a flood

"....and i wonder; still i wonder....."

Blame it on youth, I guess; but when Lydia and I moved back here in northern Lafayette parish on the Bayou Vermilion floodplain 30 years ago, flooding was the last thing on our minds. We'd been living out in the woods in various places since 1978, and by 1982 we were looking to put down roots for good. The joys of living in quasi-wild places apparently outweighed any concerns we might have had regarding flooding. Blissful ignorance.

We moved out here for good in August 1982. We experienced our first flood in January 1983. On that occasion we didn't even know enough to move our vehicles up to the blacktop, and ended up relatively stranded back here with one other intrepid couple for 11 days. We all worked 8 to 5 jobs. Fortunately, one of us was out working when it flooded, so we had one (tiny) vehicle with which to carpool. We scored a small aluminum boat to ferry us from our homes to the blacktop, and there you have it.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the big flood of March 12 represents the 19th flood we've endured back here. The other couple's long gone; and numerous other couples/families have come and gone as well. But we're still here – as Robbie Robertson put it, “...for the crime of having no where to go...” and I guess we've grown used to it by now.

For the record, this past flood was not the worst. Our home itself has only flooded on a couple of occasions: Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and The Great Prairie Basse Flood of May 2004, when we had 14” of water in our living room for 8 miserable days. This time around, the living room caught a little water during the peak of the deluge; but only for an hour or so.

Over the years, I've never had the time to “journal” a flood event back here. But since retiring from the 9 to 5 grind 4 years ago, I did have the time to do so for this flood. Below, then, is “Anatomy of a Flood.” Hope ya'll enjoy.

11 March 2012, 10:00 a.m. – Perusing the weather channel, I saw where one of the Hawaiian Islands had experienced 48” of rain over the past week. This caused a very brief flashback to May 2004 when we received 20-30” here in one week's time.

12 March 2012, 7:00 a.m. – Awakened to heavy rain and near-constant window-rattling thunder. Whoa. This got me to flashing back to May 2004 all over again. Outside our bedroom window, the rain gauge had 1.5” in it, and rising fast.

8:00 a.m. – Nervously drinking coffee with Lydia on the front porch. The back porch is our preferred coffee spot, but the roof overhang is only 4' there – not near enough to keep us dry. Here on the front porch we've got 8' of roof. As the rain poured, neither of us brought up any talk about floods. After coffee I flicked on the weather channel, only to be greeted by a “FLOOD WARNING FOR PARTS OF ACADIA, LAFAYETTE, and ST. LANDRY PARISHES.” Checking the rain gauge, I note that in one hour we've gained 1.25” for a total of 2.75” Now I'm thinking quite a bit about our flood history.

9:50 a.m. – We've got a 5” max on our rain gauge, so I had to go out and empty it, as it has now reached 4.0” and the rain's coming down harder than ever. Praying now.

10:02 a.m. – Taking this picture through the back door, I happen to glance at the rain gauge. It says 1.0” . . . what? In 12 MINUTES?!!?? So it's 5” in 4 hours. Oh my. At this point I realize that our road's going to go under pretty quickly.

going under...

10:20 a.m. – With our total now approaching 7” I know it's time to move our vehicles up to the blacktop. It's a half-mile trip and we'll have to walk back in this deluge. Lydia balks, lobbying to wait until the near-constant lightning/thunder eases up. Sorry. The water ain't waiting on us.

handy-dandy Megalo-mart mesh flood shoes

10:40 a.m. – Returning from the blacktop we were wading through about 6-10” of water on the road. I take a look at the rain gauge 7.75”

10:50 a.m. – As the rain gauge hits 8.25” weather channel radar shows an angry thunderstorm complex sort of disorganizing right over us. It doesn't seem to be moving away, but instead is just growing eastward toward Breaux Bridge and Henderson.

11:05 a.m. – I dejectedly go out to empty the rain gauge again. We've just gotten our first break in the rain in nearly 5 hours. Local weather reports I-49 shut down between Opelousas and Carencro, so it's no uber-surprise when I note water creeping into our living room. Fortunately, the break in the deluge came at just the right time. A few towels and a mop soak up the living room water, and I note that the water in our garage has gone down to almost nothing.

front garden going under....note 7' foot bridge on the move behind the bird bath

2:00 p.m. – After an unsuccessful attempt at a nap (constant window-shaking thunder is back), I hurry out and reposition/stake-down our foot bridge, which has floated off its base. Several floods ago I learned to do this, rather than attempt to yank a few hundred pounds of foot bridge back where it belongs, post-flood. Yes! I am capable of learning, water-logged brain and all . . .

Flashback: January 1983. It must have been like Day 8 of our first flood. Lydia and I are in the boat, and we're enjoying our first “light moment” in, like, 8 days. At this point, she tactfully reminds me that we don't want to look back on this episode with nothing but bad memories, because as time goes on, all you really have that's worth anything is memories. Wow. Oh yeah, Give her a chance, and Lydia can spout some wise stuff . . .

Roseate Spoonbill & friend

And thinking more on it, I realize that some of our most wonderful “nature” moments have come during the floods. Even during the evil May '04 episode, we recorded our first-ever Roseate Spoonbill and Black-bellied Whistling Duck back here.

6:30 p.m. – After a 3-hour break (from deluge to hard drizzle), here comes another gully-washer. Constant window-rattlin' thunder now to our south ('twas from the north all day). Local news showed pandemonium-level flooding in Carencro (5 mi. due west of us). Rain total presently stands at 9.5”

water attempting to sneak into living room via carport

7:30 p.m. – This last deluge just ended. 1.9” in 1 hr. bringing our total to 11.4” for the day. Thank God it ended when it did, for water was threatening the living room just as it ended. I'm thinking of friends up the road (behind the original Don's Specialty Meats) who caught 2' of water throughout their house by around noon. They only recently moved there, and the original owner had told them that the house never once flooded in the 40 years that he lived there. Wait a minute. We're the ones (idiots) living right on the floodplain. It is amazing to look back over 19 floods here and realize that we've lost only two living room floors (we've got ceramic tile now....duh....) and had to gut the living room only once. Other than that, it's been a downright charming existence.

our gravel road...Wilderness Trail Rd. is about a quarter-mile off in the distance...water depth ca. 4.5'
on 13 March 9:30 a.m.

Just heard that water from Bayou Vermilion is now over-topping Wilderness Trail Rd (the blacktop) and flowing back toward us. Not a good thing. A record crest is expected sometime tonight. During the May '04 flood, water gushed over Wilderness Trail for 5+ days, raising the level back here to within one skinny inch of our main floor. With the bayou crest from this event coming so quickly (tonight), I doubt that we'll get that kind of backwater. Time will tell.