Boats That Go on Land and Water

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In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there ranged a variety of debates and discourses around the nation about the wisdom of rebuilding in the areas struck by the 2005 storms. It makes no sense, many argued, to build a city, especially a modern American city, on land so, well, not land. The same argument has been made before about New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana: too much water, too little land. Two years later: National Geographic, a fairly sensitive observer on such matters as people and land, had this to say about New Orleans:

> The *sinking city* faces *rising seas* and *stronger hurricanes*, protected only by *dwindling wetlands* and *flawed levees*. Yet people are trickling back to the place they call home, *rebuilding in harm’s way*. (emphases in the original)

The editors of _National Geographic_ seem to be suggesting that Louisiana’s choices are barren landscapes beautiful but devoid of people or landscape full of poor people and thus not worth very much or a landscape which is in fact not land at all.

As a native of Louisiana, I knew my understanding of the world was fundamentally at odds with the way others were describing the world in which I, and others, lived and worked, but how to go about explaining our world to them? Where they see confusion, we see mutability, the opportunity to change one thing into another.

This transformative character of the landscape, and what we do with it and on it, seemed to me central to understanding how people in Louisiana imagine their world. But how to communicate it? As a folklorist, I had access to archives of folktales and folksongs, and they were rich sources of information, but they did not really address the *transformative* nature of the work people in Louisiana do when it comes to working, and imagining, the land.

I remembered a folktale recovered by folklorist George Reinecke and printed in the _Louisiana Folklore Miscellany_ in 1994. The story, which has European origins, appeared in the French-language paper of St. John parish in 1878 under the heading “Contes Negres.” It was printed in its native Creole and it told of a boat that could go on land and sea.

The answer was right in front of me, and it was such an obvious thing of imagination that I almost fell over them, or into them, as it turned out: *boats*. Boats that go on land and water.

Such a boat is surely the stuff of tall tales, folk tales, fairy tales, and yet it exists. It is the product of a limited number of individuals participating in a loose network of ideas, all of which exist within the confines of the very landscape that outsiders perceive as being “in harm’s way.” It is an inspired response to that landscape, and as such it begs for us to understand it as a creative response to a particular context.

Boats that go on land and water are everywhere in south Louisiana, and they are all made right here. While the pirogue is often cited as the first boat that could glide on the dew, there are two modern incarnations of that same idea and not only did they originate in south Louisiana but they originated at around the same moment in time: the shallow water, or surface drive, engine (and boat) and the crawfish boat.

My mission is to chronicle the history of these craft, highlight their makers/inventors, and document the boats and their use as much as possible.

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