August 8, 2012

ARCHIVE POST: An Atchafalaya romance. Um, Gesundheit?

(originally published on September 21, 2011)

The introductory text and photos were taken from here.

In the 1970s, Gwen Carpenter Roland was about to start work on her doctorate when she decided instead to live off the land — and water — in the Atchafalaya River Basin Swamp in south-central Louisiana.
With a box of crayons and the book How to Build Your Home in the Woods, Roland and her then-partner, Calvin Voisin, built a houseboat on a barge. They lived there for six years, with no electricity and no running water.
Roland has written a book about the experience, Atchafalaya Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp.

I have not read Roland's book, but I saw a documentary about her a few months back, while I was still in the States. It was one of those moments when you walk by the TV set, carrying dishes off to the kitchen or something, and then something on the screen catches your eye and you sit down, quietly and reverently, dirty dishes in your lap and all, and don't move for the next hour. I was captivated.

This woman up and left to live in a swamp for the hell of it. These two young people worked from sunup till sundown catching fish, feeding chickens, raising vegetables, and occasionally went back into town for supplies and mail, just because. Some sources say it was six, some eight years.

Please do me a favor. Stop for a second and look at these photographs. Whatever you're doing, scratching your balls, picking your nose, scribbling your grocery list on a napkin, please stop and look at this woman. The golden hair, the muscle tone, the curve of her brow, the expression on her face. She looks like a friggin' John Everett Millais painting.

And do you know what the best part is? That is the face of self-reliance without a smidgeon of being unkind. This is a person who knows what she wants and doesn't care if you follow. Assertion without authoritarianism, drive without domination, serenity without sentimentality. I dare say that no privileged white male could ever radiate at this frequency. This is the face of an Other, of insight beyond the pale.

Of course, I am headed somewhere with this. I mean, the swamp is a fascinating habitat, but you didn't think I was in it for the animal husbandry, did you now?

What prompted Gwen to leave the swamp, you might ask? What ended the bucolic of silent toil and took her back to land, where she still lives, with and off it? Well, it was pretty much like ABBA. While the relationship lasted, so did the gig. When the relationship ended, the houseboat was history.

The couple's dog got sick and they needed extra money to pay for the vet bill, so Gwen got a job on a riverboat. And fell in love with an engineer who worked there. I have to paraphrase now because I don't have a transcript of the documentary, but this is roughly how she described her decision:

I met a man on the riverboat. And I told Calvin that I needed to go and be with this other man.

Jesus H. Christ, she knew. She met a man and she knew it was time to go. I felt so belittled by the calmness of her certainty, like a nervous little bird puttering around her nest, shuffling poop from one messy heap to the next, flapping her wings on the edge from time to time, as if bravely, but then jumping back in to find more poop heaping up, merely contemplating migration. From what I understood, thirty-some years later she was still with this other man. But that is not even relevant. She knew when she needed to know.

Here she is, thirty-some years later. After all the seriousness, a calm smile on her face. Yep kids, I did it.

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