And So It Begins

Note: Work on Genius Loci has begun. I can’t promise to publish everything of the book here — I don’t think my publisher would be too keen on that — but I would like to share with folks what the book is looking like. As always, comments are welcome. (Send them to me by e-mail or post them on Reddit or Digg or even Facebook.) I’ll have more news about other parts of the book, and, I hope, quite a few more glimpses.

How It Begins

The wind that blew lightly over the freshly plowed rice fields was just cold enough to chill exposed fingers and cheeks and just strong enough to rustle nearby trees. Perched somewhere unseen in the trees, a few birds whistled their wakefulness. Moving across a narrow blacktop road, the wind picks at the surface of a flooded field, transforming its smooth surface into thousands of fractals, each reflecting the sun, still low in the sky, differently.

It was, for all the world, a quiet country morning until a small engine clattered to life. Its owner ran it up for a moment, and then let it settle down to an idle that will let it warm itself to the day’s work. The sound of the motor was high, almost nasally when compared to the throatier roar of the big diesel engines that typically make their way across these fields powering tractors. This sound was more like something you would hear on a suburban lawn than an agricultural field. And that was about right, since this motor could only offer up twenty-five horsepower.

The motor continued its fierce vibrato, while Randy Gossen finished loading his boat with bait for the morning’s run. The plastic tubs were full of frozen fish chopped, depending upon their original size, in halves and thirds. The fish were chub, trash fish to most fishermen and a bycatch of the menhaden fishery. The tubs were the same ones seen in any retail store when shelves are being restocked. The chopped chub were packed tightly in the tub, but they still managed to shift a bit as Gossen slid them off the lowered tail gate of his truck and onto the floor of the boat. He countered the shift using his tall frame to his advantage, and the chopped fish settled back into place with a low squelch.

The boat’s engine rumbled low and steady, while Gossen continued to prepare for the morning’s work. The gas tank was already filled, the oil already checked, the boat already given a good once-over before anything else got done. Everything done, he glanced over the water sparkling in the morning sun, as he prepared to climb into the boat. It was another great morning.

An investigator the rest of the year, Randy Gossen lives for crawfish season. It is his time. A time to be outside. A time to think. A time to watch the slow turn and change of the world. Two nearby television antennas that tower over him went up as he watched from the seat in his boat. The land from which they rise is not being farmed now, but somewhere in Gossen’s eyes there was a long view of things that saw a tractor, or some other machine not yet imagined, one day turning the soil in order to coax rice or soybeans from the land. If that future machine does, perhaps there will be a chance to coax crawfish out of the land, too.

Randy Gossen himself does not farm. He works in collaboration with his cousin Dwayne Gossen. Dwayne farms over a thousand acres each year. Some of it is family land; some of it belongs to others, who have placed in him their trust to bring it the best crop possible. Some fields he will plant with rice, and others soybeans. Some of those fields will rotate between those two crops in years to come, but others he will rotate between rice and crawfish, and in those fields he places his trust in his cousin.

Crawfish are not a crop like rice or soybeans, and they have largely, as we will see later, resisted easy understanding. Wresting them from the ground successfully comes from years of patient observation as well as individual trial and error. Anyone who crawfishes can tell you that even then, getting the crawfish reliably out of a field and into a sack is nothing to be taken for granted.

Randy Gossen stooped under the boat’s canopy and stepped in. He slid the tubs into place, his tall frame into the driver’s seat, and the sorting table back on its rails so that it was within easy reach. With everything in place, he throttled up the engine, and slid the boat backwards off the land and into the water. With a practiced sense of timing, he flipped the lever that switched the boat into forward motion and began his first run of the day. Ahead of him lay a string of crawfish traps, spaced approximately forty feet apart.

With the boat itself setting a slow deliberate pace, Gossen began his day by picking up an empty trap he had left near the beginning of his run and baiting it. The trap is made out of nylon-coated steel mesh and looks like a three-sided pyramid, a tetrahedron, with a large, cylindrical chimney coming out of its top. At each bottom corner of the pyramid, the mesh has been pushed back in on itself, forming a funnel which opens into the body of the trap.

Properly placed, usually anchored with a steel rod but sometimes only carefully set down, a trap sits on the bottom with the funnels offering an easy entrance to its interior. The bait is the welcome sign to the crawfish, who, having made their way in, cannot get back out. Their exit comes as Randy plucks a trap from the water, empties it from the top, re-baits it, and then places the trap not where it was but where the next trap is, as it itself is plucked from the water to be emptied, re-baited, and then replaced. The boat never stops. Its engine’s roar changes rarely.

Gossen proceeded along his first line of traps, his body quickly remembering the rhythm and tempo of the work. The light breeze occasionally pushed at the boat, sliding sideways over the water, and he responded with a deft tap of his feet to the steering pedals that lay beneath the sorting tray. At the end of the first line, a steady push of his left foot on its pedal turned the boat leftwards, where more traps lay waiting. This morning, Randy began by working the line of traps at the perimeter of the cut — as the small, leveed off sections of rice fields are usually known. As he approached his starting point, he turned in and started working the next line of traps in the forty acre cut, following what amounted to a large, oblong spiral.

Trap upon trap, the work is steady. At each trap, Gossen leans a bit out of the boat and reaches down with his right hand to snare the rim of the trap. He switches the rim to his left hand as he picks the trap up and uses his right hand to dump its contents into the sorting table in front of him. He switches hands again and digs for a piece of slowly thawing, and increasingly smelling, fish and drops it into the trap before placing the trap back into the water. That done, he has time to regard the contents of his catch, surveying the crawfish — Are they getting bigger? Have they molted recently? What price will this lot fetch? — to determine what changes he needs to make, if any, to his operation and to pluck out weeds and any other detritus that have come up in the trap. Today, the catch was reasonable and Gossen was enjoying the steady, if also a little slow, accumulation of crawfish on the table. Every few traps he opened the doors to the chutes that guide the crawfish into the waiting sacks hanging off the table and then he cleans the table of any remaining bits with a deft swirling motion of his hand that catches everything in it.

After about a half hour or so of steady work, Gossen had a sack of crawfish already tied up and lying on the bow deck of the boat, and he had two more sacks that were close to full hanging off the sorting table. This part of the field was done and it was time to move onto the next.

Gossen continued on this way, adding thirty acres to forty acres to twenty-five acres and slowly working his way across the entire field. The work is always the same, but the views change as the boat moves about and as the sun rises. With luck, the cool breeze and the warm sun combine to make for a pleasant day. On other days, the wind blows cold and hard and picks up an impressive bite as it crosses the water and slams into the boat’s slab hull, pushing it about. Towards the end of the season, the breezes die away and there is only the heat growing heavier as the day wears on. And then there’s the rain.

But today was a perfect day. Trap after trap. Line after line. Cut after cut. Each rhythm combined to make the time pass quickly until the moment came to move from one field to another, and that was when something amazing happened. Not so amazing for Randy Gossen who does it many times a morning when crawfishing, but amazing for anyone else who might happen to be standing nearby and watching: Gossen pointed the boat at a corner of the field which led to the road where his truck sat. The boat dutifully took his directions and quickly ran its bow up onto the dirt at the field’s edge, pushing water in front of it, slicking the dirt into mud. Most boats would have stopped there and awaited the pull of an arm or a winch to beach it thoroughly, but Gossen drove the boat further and further onto land, with only a slight pause to give the engine a bit more gas and to operate a hydraulic ram.

And the boat, the boat heaved itself onto the land, exposing for the first time the wheels just behind its bow and demonstrating quite forcefully the power of its drive unit, which was not a propeller, but a large, cleated steel wheel that rolled the boat down the field road, where Gossen turned and dropped into the next field.