Geology

I pulled off the road near where a large tractor circled inside a muddy pond. Its four pairs of wheels, slicked with mud, glimmered in the gentle afternoon light of late winter. Around and around the tractor went, as if it were trapped in the pond, a restless beast looking for a way out.

Suddenly, as if sensing my presence, the great machine broke its stride and lumbered to a spot in the pond near where I stood. Up at the top, a cabin door swung open and from its interior a head popped out. Dwayne Gossen’s gentle smile spread across his face as he pushed his sunglasses up on his head and waved me over. Gossen is both a first cousin to Randy Gossen, and a second cousin to the Olingers. He is also related, through an intricate genealogy that I do not quite follow, to Kurt Venable. While he is close to the Olingers, both because he farms family land and because his own farm is so close to their shop, he once worked for Venable, helping to build Cajun microwaves while in high school.

Dwayne Gossen is quite typical of so many of the farmers of the area, quiet to the point of seeming shy, but a font of warmth and hospitality when asked an honest question. (So many of these men are like this that one wonders if the world would not be better for having everyone take a turn at farming.) I leapt across the ditch separating the road from the edge of the field and almost lost my footing as my boot squelched and sank into the earth softened by Gossen’s activity. A fortunate tilt forward brought my hand close enough to a hold on the tractor to steady myself and land my other boot on the lowest step. At the top of the ladder Gossen motioned me to the jump seat that almost all manufacturers install in large tractors like this case.

“It’s nice to have company,” he said.

Big tractors like this one, a Case Steiger 385, are not designed for small jobs. They are not a utility tractor that gads about a farm, performing any number of small jobs, the smallness being either a matter of the power required or, in the case of larger jobs, for the amount of time it is required. The tractor’s number reflects its horsepower and its eight wheels give it the ability to use its power to pull large implements, like the twenty foot blade currently attached to it, all day long. Rarely is it the case that such days occur singly: when the Case comes out of its shed, or off its spot in the equipment yard, Gossen is already committed to days, if not weeks, of long days that begin at first light and often end well past dark. The big tractors make the work, when glimpsed from the side of the road, appear effortless, but no one who has spent any time bouncing along with a farmer working a field, constantly turning both the tractor and his own body to check how things are going behind him, would call the work anything less than exhausting, an exhaustion usually made unavoidable by the narrow windows of time within which the men must work, ahead of or just behind whatever schedule mother nature is on for a particular year.

As I shut the door, Gossen revved the tractor’s engine back up to its working speed and slowly allowed it to begin to pull itself through the muddy water. Perched so high up the landscape on which he worked was easier to see. The tractor worked inside one part of a larger field, called a cut, which was separated from other parts, cuts, by a small levee. The field itself was enclosed by a larger levee, beyond which lay ditches and roads. All of the cuts were full of water, pumped from a well over the past fews days to make the land more workable, following a tradition of leveling a cut while in water reaching back several decades. It is yet another instance of an intelligent use of an abundant resource, water, to make the land more useful to humans.

Perhaps the most common misconception of south Louisiana is that much of it is naturally occurring wetland. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I bounced along with Gossen in the tractor’s cab, I recalled the opening scenes of Alan Lomax’s film, _Cajun Country_. Lomax was a well-trained and committed documentarian: early in his career he had criss-crossed the country, including Louisiana, recording songs and melodies that they both feared would soon be lost forever in the face of the onslaught of commercial music. His exposure to an earlier American landscape made it possible for Lomax to return again and again to places he knew were rich in intelligence and beauty that other observers might overlook. His commitment and the wealth of materials he made available inspired many, including myself, but like all long-time observers, and lovers, of a place or thing, his vision could slowly transform it into something other than it was.

_Cajun Country_ begins by first introducing you to a number of musicians, like Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee and Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot. Lomax gives a quick version of the usual history of the area and announces to his viewer that the film’s subtitle is drawn from an old Cajun saying, “Ne lache pas la palate” (Don’t drop the potator), which is a local saying sometimes still heard that reminds its audience to hold onto the things that matter. As if seeking to ground his discussion in the landscape which provides the mythical potato, Lomax then plunges the viewer onto a fog-darkened road. Two signs creep past the camera. The first says “Mamou 18” and the next “Soileau.” Mamou and Soileau are places, one gathers, somehow to be founded in this misty, mythical land. Strange sounding places, but places nevertheless. You’re in one, Soileau, and you’re headed toward the other, Mamou. Lomax confides to the viewer: “I want to share with you one of my most extraordinary experiences: driving down a misty road, past shining silver marshes that are so typical of that area. Of course, it’s all low-lying. You’re always draining water so you can farm. It’s a rice area.”

The road ahead in the film is indeed misty, and the landscape along it retreats into the same, silvery mist. And much of the landscape as one travels around south Louisiana looks like what is seen through the lens of the camera. Sometimes roads curve and bend to follow bayous and rivers, but at other times they cut straight across a landscape which everywhere seems to be inundated with water. In the summer, grassy rice stems crowd the water, making the fields look a lot like marshes to an untrained eye.

But it isn’t marsh, it’s prairie. Buffalo once roamed here. They were later replaced by herds of cattle when Cajuns ranched the area, and, now, a range of descendants of Cajuns and Germans farm rice, soybeans, and crawfish. Many of the farmers insist that the land is not good for much more than that because the top soil is so thin, in some places only a few inches deep. Beneath it is a tough clay pan that is impermeable to almost everything: water holds on it or runs off, trees have a hard time rooting in it.

Looking out across the series of flooded cuts making up several fields, I remembered a recent conversation with geologist Gary Kinsland who started off by emphasizing that the way Louisiana was built could be a little confusing to most. We are used to land being created by events like continents colliding and volcanos exploding, but Louisiana, especially south Louisiana, is the product of a slow, even gentle, process of building layer upon layer of sand and clay and rocks, a variety of materials that reveal themselves to us in the gentle topography of the lower part of the state, where the highest point in this part of the state is 190 feet, and that’s from the vantage point of a salt dome.

As Kinsland told it, Louisiana was built from the north. Much of what we think of as the state is, in geological time, quite young. When the two American continents separated, the sea we now know as the Gulf of Mexico was a much larger ocean whose northern coastline ran through the middle of present-day Arkansas. Eastern Texas, all of Louisiana and Florida, and most of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia did not yet exist as dry land.

Later, in the Paleozoic period, the two continents swung together again, as part of the larger supercontinent of Pangaea, and the ocean, compressed into a much smaller space, became the basis for the state’s current wealth of salt deposits. As Pangaea broke apart, and the two continents were again divided, Louisiana was under water. As a shallow sea, it accepted the mud deposits, rich in carbonates, that would become the source of petroleum. As sea levels rose and fell, northern Louisiana began to fill with sediment, but the prairies of south Louisiana that run gently to the Gulf of Mexico were in deep water.

All of this changed with the increased volcanic activity and the meteorite that struck off the Yucatan Peninsula that ended the life of most of the dinosaurs. The Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, as it is known, marked the end of the Mesozoic Era and the beginning of the era in which we now live, the Cenozoic. Over the next sixty million years, the southern edge of North America crept slowly southward, thanks to the steady flow of sediments through a developing network of rivers. The thing to remember, Kinsland assured me, is that while we mostly think of sediment as being the fine silt we see in contemporary rivers, it was not always so. In the past, a wide range of materials have come tumbling down river beds and then spilled across a sea floor. Those sea floors gradually rose as they were built up and ever so gradually fell again as the material of which they were made compacted.

Another reason for the falling, and which is an essential part of Louisiana’s geological story, lies in the Earth’s crust, which gave slightly under the weight of the material piling on top of it, rather like, as Kinsland pointed out, a piece of jello giving under the weight of your thumb. The combined effect is to create a series of nested bowls, each edge a little lower than the last. The lips of the bowls are terrace like in appearance, and the whole stack tilts ever so gently toward the gulf.

All of this occurred, of course, as the Mississippi River slowed emerged as the dominant river in a complex system of rivers. Much of the materials that form the many layers of Louisiana are, depending upon the time period, from much further north. All the little round rocks found in Louisiana, for example, are called chert and are silicate rocks created 300 million years ago and were eventually washed down from Canada through this complex and powerful river system. As the Mississippi slowly developed its course, it developed, like many rivers do, its own system of banks, which were built up from the same materials it had also so generously previously distributed across the landscape. The great western levee of the Mississippi can still be easily discerned, albeit on the western side of the Atchafalaya Basin, about forty miles from the river’s present course. It is known locally as “the coteau”, or sometimes as the slightly redundant “coteau ridge,” and is part of the names for several towns in the area, including Grand Coteau and Coteau Holmes.

“This all was built in the last couple million years,” Kinsland reminded me. “A short time for geologists.”

Seventeen thousand years ago, sea levels were three hundred feet lower. The Mississippi River valley between Lafayette and Baton Rouge once descended 300 feet, so that the river could get to the Gulf. When sea levels rose, the river almost filled in the valley, leaving the coteau. The prairies are between 85,000 and 125,000 years old and were created during a previous period of high sea levels. The lowest levels were during the last great ice age, but there were fluctuations between these two dates. The deposition during this period is similar to that going on now in the marsh areas.

He went on to point out that the northernmost steps, sometimes also called terraces, are the oldest. At the bottom of the state, the newest area, are the coastal marshes. In between is the prairie terrace, or simply the prairie, which was built up during a period when very fine-grained sediment poured down the Mississippi.[^cf1] Its surface is dense clay, whose low permeability makes the land hold water easily, an important element in rice farming, or, conversely, a fact of life farmers have accommodated by growing a crop that tolerates water like rice.

Further north, Kinsland noted, is fluvial sediment. Its fine grains are buried but what remains is sandy. Five miles north of Ville Platte, you arrive in a different world. The surface is permeable. The crops change. You are out of the prairies, out of the grasslands, out of _Cajun Country_, out of the area that the geographer Fred Kniffen once dubbed “the French triangle.” The triangle of land, stretching from down from where the Red and Mississippi Rivers meet is bounded by the Atchafalaya Basin to the east and by a southwesterly line to the west that results from the deposited material compacting, even to this day, as it slopes slowly to the Gulf of Mexico.[^cf2]

As the last great ice age ended, and the topographies, and bathymetries, of the current landscape were revealed, the prairies would forever be limited in their capacity to support life by the thick, touch clay pan that underlay them. In places, the top soil is as thin as four inches; in others it increases to eight inches. In any case, there is not much there. Before European colonization, the prairies supported a few native grasses that fed buffalo and deer, that were in turn preyed upon by various Native American groups. When the Cajuns arrived on the eastern edge of the prairies, they mostly ranched the region, with subsistence farming sprinkled throughout. Only along the rich banks of the bayous could the plantation system thrive. Further west, the land simply couldn’t provide much of a base for sustained agriculture.

Not until folks like Dwayne Gossen’s ancestors arrived and began, purposefully, to flood the land to grow rice. They built levees to hold the water in, and the divided the fields into smaller cuts in order to make each area as level as possible. The gentle topography of Louisiana makes it harder to see these “rice terraces,” which are similar to the ones glimpsed along mountainsides in other parts of the world, but they are terraces nevertheless. Like terraces elsewhere, their purpose in Dwayne Gossen’s fields were to control the distribution of water.

The idea behind breaking up any slope into a series of steps is to make each step as level as possible. The importance of this becomes clear the first time you see a rice field drained: a properly leveled field will be clear of water across its entire breath. (See Figure #[rice field in profile].)Uneven patches will result in some areas of a cut holding water. Conversely, when a farmer floods a field early in the growing season and only wants to hold an inch of water over his newly sprouted rice, he does not want to see small hillocks of dry land where plants will not get the benefit of his careful, and, depending upon energy costs, sometimes costly pumping. Someone as careful as Dwayne Gossen does not want to see more than an inch of variation across an entire cut, and getting forty acres of land that level requires a great deal of work.

The work consists of dragging a large grading blade, essentially a much wider version of a bulldozer blade, behind a tractor. A few farmers do this when the fields are dry, known as dry leveling, but the traditional way is with water pumped into the cuts, an appropriately called water leveling. Before the advent of laser leveling systems, water leveling worked through a combination of a farmer’s skill at handling the blade and moving the dirt around, his knowledge of the land, and the simple physics of suspending a fair amount of dirt in water, resulting in an even dispersal of the mud across an area as it slowly precipitated out.

Gossen finished up the field he was working in and he pulled to the side of the field, not too far from where he had parked his truck. We climbed out of the tractor and into the truck. We pulled into the driveway of the nice home next door to the field and drove down to where the trailer, its elevated platform, and adjustable pole sat. Gossen got down from the truck, opened the back door of the crew cab, and fetched out a yellow, hard-plastic case. He walked to the trailer and climbed up the steps to the platform. He unbolted the beacon, a fairly expensive piece of equipment, from a post braced in the middle of trailer. He opened the case and placed the laser transmitter that was about the size of one of those old-fashioned flashing lights on police cars from earlier in the twentieth century. The transmitter works on a similar principle: a laser mounted inside the body of the transmitter shines up into a rotating reflector, creating an invisible, at least to naked eye, plane of light a set number of feet off the ground.We then cranked up the four feet at each of the trailer’s corners that not only stabilized the trailer but also made it possible to get it closer to level than when it is simply parked somewhere. Rarely do farmers have the luxury of being able to put a trailer on level ground that also happened to be conveniently placed to where they are working, the beacon’s mount gives you some flexibility, but considering that trailers are often wedged between a roadway and a field edge, the chances of starting from less than a fifteen degree tilt are not great.

We both got back into the truck and headed back down the driveway. A woman walked out of the house and Gossen stopped and rolled down his window.

“Thanks again for letting me park my trailer. I hope I didn’t it didn’t mess you up in anyway,” he said.

“Oh, it’s no problem, Dwayne,” she said with a nice smile. It was clear she enjoyed his good manners. “It’s all God’s country and you take such good care of it.”

With the exchange of such pleasantries, we were off. Gossen told me he always tried to do the right thing, to thank people when they were helpful and to try to limit the mess he made as he worked, especially when people’s homes were so close to the fields he worked.

We drove west down the highway and turned left down a narrow blacktopped road. Gossen found the next spot where he wanted to put the transmitter trailer and deftly backed it right about where he wanted it. He reversed his steps, grabbing the yellow box out of the back seat, and stepping onto the trailer with its four-foot high telescoping pole. He bolted the transmitter in place, atop the adjustable pole that itself was on a platform mounted about four feet off the trailer, leveled it using the built-in bubble, and cranked it up to what experience told him would be about the right height.[^cf3] We got back into the truck and drove back to where the tractor still sat in a field. Gossen asked me to drive the truck to a spot where it would be conveniently located when he finished the next field: his directions required sometimes translating locally renown landmarks into something I could understand, often by counting driveways, or some other obvious physical distinction, in his head in order to give me a number to go by.

With everything in place, the tractor and water leveler moved from one field to another, the laser transmitter with no visual obstacles to it swirling signal, and the truck awaiting us at the end of a series of cuts to be graded, Gossen once again got back to work. His first maneuver was to make a circuit of the cut, establishing high and low points in reference to the laser beacon. He did this by watching a series of numbers appear on a readout mounted on the right front pillar of the tractor’s cab. The readout’s data flows to it via a cable that runs from the tractor to another post mounted on the top of the water leveler itself. A receiver, which amounts to a collection of eyes, moves up and down on the post until it locks onto the plane of the transmitting laser. With the lock in place, Gossen can choose to let the grader blade rise and fall with the wheels, moving the receiver up or down if it falls too far below or rises too far above the transmission plane or he can slave the height of the grader blade to the receiver, forcing the blade to remain at a constant height while the rest of water leveler raises and lowers to make that happen. Raising and lowering the instrument occurs via hydraulic pistons that are themselves powered by the large tractor, and thus the readout inside the cab is actually a fairly powerful computer constantly monitoring the underwater topography of the cut and making adjustments accordingly.

It all seems fairly automatic, and almost all farmers now rely upon the assistance of a laser leveling system. Before its arrival, a lot depended upon the eye, and feel, of a farmer as he drove around and around in a cut filled with a foot of muddy water. The laser leveler takes some of the eye out, but it cannot take away the importance of a farmer being able to feel what is going on with his top soil as he swirls it around with a twenty-foot wide blade hauled behind his tractor. It also requires that a farmer understands how to move earth around in order to maximize his efforts and minimize his time. There are, after all, more cuts awaiting his attention.

Up in the cab of the giant Case, the work seemed effortless as far as the tractor was concerned. Its diesel engine rarely seemed to rise above a fast idle, but Gossen was alert to changes in the roar and in the rumble, his head was in constant motion, checking gauges, checking the leveler’s readout, and then twisting backwards, usually with the upper half of his body following, to see how much mud he was pulling in the blade, how well the tire ruts were filling as he worked the soil.

“I like to make a few rounds before I start pulling,” he said.

Managing the agricultural landscape of rice is all about pulling. If you are rotating soybeans and rice in a field, then the first thing you do after you harvest beans is to pull up a levee in the autumn so that it will be hardened by spring. Conversely, if you are done with rice in a field, you pull down those levees. Inside a rice field cut, you are either pulling down hills or you are pulling up holes. To add to the complexity, a farmer needs to be careful not to over-pull or under-pull, as he grades a cut. Much of this particular turn of language must reside in the fact that all of this work is done with implements, levee plows and water levelers, that are pulled behind a tractor, and so in the same way we extend our instrumentality to say we hammer a nail, farmers in the region say they spent the day pulling up levees.

The man and the machine are part of a larger thing, and good equipment operators are acutely aware of their machines, in almost the same way that a runner is aware of his shoe as an extension of his foot. Gossen can see neither high nor low spots in the muddy water of the cut. Instead, he senses things through the tractor itself, through subtle changes in pitch or vibration that alert him to slight changes in the amount of work the tractor is doing. He is also always twisting in his seat to see how much mud, if any, is creeping up on the blade and to see what the mud looks like behind the blade: a twenty-foot wide that is also twice as high as the water in a cut moves a considerable amount of water out of the way. In its wake it is almost possible to see the ground itself, without any water on it, before the water comes rushing back in from both sides.

After Gossen had made his observatory rounds within a cut, he set the blade to lock its height to the receiver and made his first pass, tracing the outside edge of the cut. He then began a series of slow and careful sweeps diagonally across the cut, always slowing a little toward the end of a sweep so as to minimize the chance of water topping the cut’s levee. How he sweeps, and at what angle he sweeps, is a function of the shape of the cut itself. Only a few cuts in any given field are reasonably rectangular, and those are usually at the very top or bottom of a field. All the rest of the cuts tend to wrap or wiggle around in an attempt to follow the nap of the earth in order to make leveling within as easy as possible. (See Figure #[rice field plan].) The cuts are bigger these days, and their shapes are simpler, a function of the much more powerful equipment available to farmers, but the land itself, in combination with gravity, still dictates what is possible and what is not.

At the heart of an collection of rice fields is well. A pump draws water out of the well and feeds it into a handful of large pipes, each usually a foot or more in diameter, that spider out to local high points. At each high point, the top of a field or a couple of fields is a rise, literally a giant spigot out of which gushes cold ground water that pours into the top cut of a field. Each cut has at least one drain in it — the drains can be pipes or plastic curtains across low spots in a levee — that allows a farmer to distribute the water from the top cut, through a series of intervening cuts all the way to the lower-most cut of a field. (See Figure #[Flow of water in a rice field].) Each drain, be it a pipe or a curtain, is adjusted to just the right height for the particular moment of the growing season, and the goal is to fill all the cuts with right amount of water and not a single drop more — draining a field, especially after any kind of application of something like fertilizer is literally throwing money down the drain. Farmers not only care about their environs, they also care about their wallets. A heavy rain at the wrong moment results in some very colorful conversations in equipment sheds throughout the area.

Gossen had been running his pump for several days to get the water up to a height that he could level his fields. He was particularly worried about the cut we were in. In previous years he had a hard time with a low spot in one of its corners. He focused his efforts on trying to erase it without overworking the cut.

Not completely satisfied with how things were feeling, as he ran over and around in the area, he said, “I don’t know. I don’t like to leave it like that, but there’s only so much you can do at a time.” With that, he pointed the tractor at another corner of the field and pressed the button to raise the water leveler. The machine moved easily ahead, seemingly enjoying some relaxation after an hour’s tension of constant pulling.

Gossen continued to work cut after cut, finishing out the one field before calling it a day. Each cut had not only its own shape, but its own personality, if you will, which was a function of his experience of the cut over the years: what it wanted to do, how it tended to go. This personality of a cut or a field is something farmers carry around with them, discussing them when they see each other at a local shop or after church or at a local community event — such as fundraisers or ball games. In some ways, fields have their own lineages which are not only a matter of who owns the land but who has worked the land. Sometimes an older farmer will know something about a piece of land being worked by a younger farmer if only because he was friends with the man who worked it before, and he can remember that a particular cut never produced much rice or that another cut always produced the biggest crawfish or yet another cut was never dry if the rainfall was anything more than average.The men carry these stories around and swap them intermingled with stories about their children. The land can be as mysterious as a family member, as recalcitrant about responding in a way you expect as another person.

This is the difference between land and anything larger within the realm of nature, like the weather. Land is broken into discrete entities, like people into bodies, and thus it can be imagined that way. The weather is separated by years, or more accurately, by growing seasons, but it is too large to be cognizable in the same way as the land. Though I have stood under the shed roofs of many an equipment barn and watched isolated thunderstorms pour rain over one man’s land and bypass another’s entirely, farmers never imagine storms as discrete, nor even fronts.

[^cf1]: “When large continental ice sheets covered the Midwestern United States, summer and spring melting at their southern edges created huge volumes of meltwater that flooded down the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers. As the ice sheet melted during the spring and summer, the melt water carried large quantities of glacial sediment downstream with it. This sediment included considerable silt-size particles created by the grinding of ice sheets over bedrock and silt derived from Late Pleistocene sand dunes in Nebraska and eastern Colorado. The meltwater flowing down an extensive braided stream system spread the glacial sediment, including large volumes of silt, over the Pleistocene floodplain of the Mississippi River (Krinitzsky and Turnbull 1967; Snowden and Priddy 1968; Miller et al. 1985).” [Paul Heinrich, 2008, Loess Map of Louisiana.]

[^cf2]: Geologists call this processing of deposited materials compacting “subsidence.” It is this process, land built up by centuries of flooding slowly settling down that actually explains a lot of what is called coastal erosion. No doubt, the loss of vegetation caused by canals cut into the landscape have hastened the loss of a lot of habitat, but the bulk of the land lost is to subsidence.

[^cf3]: I have seen any number of such trailers pulled around by farmers. I have even helped place large, heavy metal objects on top any number of trailers, wondering all the while if the trailer would make it to the end of the drive, let alone its final destination. Trailers are trailers in this world. This one was no different. As long as the wheels rolled and kept their cargo off the ground, the trailer would be pulled to its next stop.