Pulling Up Holes, Pulling Down Hills

### How People Who Actually Work the Land Understand the Landscape on Which They Work

*Please note that this is the version of the paper from which I worked when presenting at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society: I did not, for example, actually read the conclusion. I would like to thank the members of the audience — all those folks from North Carolina — who gave such rich feedback. I made notes of your questions, but the richness and clarifications you demanded are not yet in this paper. Thank you for your generosity.*

#### Introduction

The cognitive anthropologist Charles Frake once observed that psychologists have a long, historical fascination with navigation because the task is clearly defined and has easily measured goals. By and large, psychologists prefer the confines of investigator-defined tasks and contexts so that they can control for variables. The problem with such an approach, as psychologists themselves discovered (and yet never seem to learn), is that contexts are themselves culturally-defined, or as one of my UL colleagues described it: how does one make claims for universality based on tests administered to a several dozen university undergraduates? One option has been to establish an infrastructure for the replication of psychological research results; another has been to find “performances that can be seen as displays of cognitive ability” that exist in the workaday world in which most of us find ourselves (Frakes 255). While such a description, “performances as displays of cognitive ability,” is redolent for folklorists, it is not entirely sufficient for psychologists who have worried that, in seeking out cognition in the world people actually live in, a task cannot possess sufficient enough precision such that its successful accomplishment is not open to negotiation. (I know: we regard this as precisely the kind of “deep” space for investigation. Here, humanistic depth must be shallowed for the sake of scientific precision, from the point of view of cognitive psychology.)

Navigation, as Frake noted, “provides an especially nice display of cognitive performance” if for no other reason than failure is clear: one either runs aground, is lost at sea, or arrives safely in port (255). Much of the work in psychology has focused on Micronesian navigation, and, as Frake states:

> The lesson to be drawn from these studies is that the islanders’ seafaring exploits do not depend on some uncanny intuitive powers, nor on personality quirks driving people to seek danger, nor on the luck of lost sailors adrift at sea, nor even on rote-learned “local knowledge”. Instead these navigational abilities depend on a profound general knowledge of the sea, the sky and the wind; on a superb understanding of the principles of boat-building and sailing; and on cognitive devices—all in the head—for recording and processing vast quantities of ever changing information. (256)

What Micronesian navigators present is a community of practitioners who engage in a clearly delineated task that is itself based on traditional knowledge. That knowledge is usually conceived of as a model by psychologists (Oatley 538).

Having spent the past five years working with fabricators and farmers in a largely agricultural ecology (but one still with boats in the picture), I have been a regular witness to a wide variety of tasks which have fairly fixed notions of a successful outcome: either a tool or machine works, or it does not; either a field produces a crop, or it does not. Well, it’s not entirely so cut and dry, to use an agricultural metaphor: after all, machines can work well or simply well enough. Cuts in rice fields can produce a range of yields, and those yields themselves are averaged across both a field as well as a farmer’s total acreage in production that year. That noted, it is my belief that there is probably an equal range of sufficient results in Micronesian navigation that allow for a greater range of results than the literature suggests.

Would it be possible, I wondered, to discover a task within my own ethnographic area of inquiry, define its parameters, and determine what it has to contribute to our understanding of human cognition? In this paper, I would like to focus on a single task, water leveling a rice field, to see just what it can tell us. [Not a great transition, but it will have to do to keep things short.]

The following study is based on two different kinds of data. The first consists of dozens of conversations with farmers, usually in impromptu situations, where I either listened to a conversation about sensing or where I was able to follow-up a passing comment about sensing with a question or two to ground the utterance in a fuller, albeit analytical, context. In some instances, when the conversation was taking place already among a group, I was able to step back from the question and follow as the group considered the matter largely among themselves: while they were always aware of my presence — they are not impolite men — they often warmed so much to the discussion that it became theirs. The other kind of data involved my embarking upon a series of what can only be called agricultural ride-alongs. I was able to do so because in most instances farmers use the largest, most powerful tractors for this kind of work, and the larger cabs of these tractors often have a jump seat of at least space for an observer to perch, although not necessarily a comfortable space for the hours one sometimes spends sitting there.

I should also note that because this work is so important and the machines involved so large, powerful, and expensive, the farmers mostly do this work themselves. It is not left to hired hands nor junior family members There is considerable skill involved.

A farmer depends upon his skill to level a field, and it is also the case that his skill is subject to a wider, often quite objective evaluation. Internally, a farmer who does not how to “feel the seat” — as an acute awareness of one’s machinery and the task to which it is addressed is called — spends too much time either looking at gauges in front of him or looking behind him to double-check the state of his plow. Looking at those things distracts him from seeing where he is going, resulting either in inefficient plowing or in very slow going. Externally, any field can be, and usually is, observed by other farmers. Uneven fields reveal themselves by changes in color and height or rice. A mottled field raises questions and comments in nearby equipment sheds, in agricultural supply stores, and after church. Its opposite, a field uniform in color and height, receives appreciative nods and comments.

Such an outcome depends on a profound knowledge of the topography of the landscape, including a sense of the underlying geology, as well as a highly attuned sense of one’s equipment. Mediating the relationship between the equipment and the landscape is a function of a collection of abilities and sensitivities, what Frake terms “a high order of cognitive ability,” that makes it possible for a farmer to know how much dirt he has in his plow, where he is in a field, and how far he has to go from a high spot, a hill, to a low spot, a hole, calculating the overall loss of dirt for the distance that must be travelled between those two points.

#### Defining the Task

The gentle topography and relatively thin layer of topsoil of south Louisiana make it a good terrain for rice, if, unfortunately, not good for much else. Farmers work the land to the best of their abilities, using the tools they have, many of which are, as I have detailed elsewhere (and look for the forthcoming book!), hand-made in nearby fabrication and equipment shops to their specification. One of those pieces of equipment is the water plow, a large blade pulled behind a tractor to grade a field level.

Each portion of a field, a step in a very shallow terrace, is called a cut, and the goal is for each cut to be as level as possible. Should one portion of a cut be higher or lower than the rest, the cut cannot be reliably flooded or drained when the time comes. The difference in height between cuts can be as little as a few inches or as great as a few feet. The difference allows one cut to drain into another until the water reaches the bottom of the field where it drains into a ditch, a coulee, or sometimes back into a canal, where it will get recycled. (During dry periods, water is pumped up from either wells or canals into the top cut.) The flow of water is managed individually either through drains that are opened or closed by hand or through drains that allow a farmer to set how much water to hold on a field. Fields will be filled or drained at various moments in the growing season.

Level cuts within a field are all important to the field’s overall functioning. The traditional way to level a field is to water plow it. Like its name suggests, water plowing is done with the cut “flooded up.” With water anywhere from calf-high to thigh-high, a farmer will drive into a field with a water plow attached to his tractor. Plows run from twenty to thirty feet in width, with the larger plows now possessing wings that can be raised and lowered for transport along area roads. Once in the field, a farmer will make a few rounds to establish the overall nature , or feel, of the cut, where it is high and where it is low. Before the arrival of the laser level, this was done entirely by feeling the way the tractor pulled the plow through the field and then turning to see how much mud and water was in the plow.

In the present moment, most farmers attend to the difference between a stationary laser transmitter stationed on the side of the field and spinning out an invisible, but level, plane of light and a receiver attached to the plow. A console in the cab of the tractor reveals how high or low the plow is to the norm set by the transmitter.

“Zeroed in”, either by feel in the past or a combination of feel and gauge in the present, a farmer begins the job of leveling a field which he cannot see. Already his circuits around have muddied the water. Now he drops the water plow blade into the water and proceeds to pull it this way and that. Sometimes he moves across the width of a cut, and sometimes up and down its length. Sometimes he moves diagonally and sometimes he goes around and around. The entire time he is, yes, keeping an eye on the laser level readout, but he is also feeling his way around the field. The goal of this exercise is to “pull down” unseen hills and “pull up” unseen holes.

The question before us is what cognitive devices are in use as a farmer navigates his way through cut after cut, slowly resolving a natural landscape into a series of artificial and thus highly productive planes. The answer, in our case, is that cognition is not “all in the head.”

[Expansion point here for fuller essay: review of Oatley’s scheme and its application here. Transition from cognitive model to cognitive devices needs to be made.]

#### Embodied Cognition

Viewing the enclosed cab of an eight-wheeled, articulated tractor from the road, one imagines that the operator is, if not quite a disembodied mind dully driving this way and that, then at least so alienated from the interaction between machine and landscape as to rely mostly on visual cues and the scant few sounds that make it past the roar of the engine and the insulation of the glass windows. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having ridden extensively both in these giant tractors while farmers plowed as well as in combines while they harvested rice or soybeans, I can safely attest to the fact of how little they actually pay attention to any and all gauges and readouts that report engine RPM, grain flow, or the height of grain in a hopper. Instead, farmers are constantly “feeling” and “listening” to the machines in which they ensconce themselves in order to get work done.

Recent research in psychology into haptic interfaces has mostly focused on how adding various kinds of vibrotactile cues can aid operators of cars or deep sea divers in processing diverse flows of information. For many, the ability to add a vibrotactile device to a car or to a watch is a way to overcome the visual overload many operators navigating complex environments feel. Ensconced within the tractor cab, we can delineate two distinct kinds of information:

The first has to do with the ground which passes underneath them unseen. Previous plowings of the field or the running of a crawfish boat can often result in ruts being left behind. From the farmer’s perspective, these ruts are undesirable in a rice field, since they can mean low spots where water may get trapped or they may, if long enough, drain the field inappropriately. In either instance, the ruts disrupt the farmer’s ability to control the water level in a field with the kind of granularity preferred. These ruts are felt as small, sudden drops in the body of tractor, and their width is gauged by a concomitant jolt. Most farmers have a very acute sense of the speed of their vehicle and thus typically a fairly good idea of the distance traveled between two moments in time. It also helps that they have had this ability to gauge distances and dimensions reinforced by knowing the width of a rut created by a crawfish boat wheel or by another kind of plow: these two kinds of information, one visual, but in memory, and one tactile, in the present, are combined in the moment of water leveling to afford them a high degree of precision. Depending upon the depth of the rut and the overall fit of the tractor, there may be a concomitant sound made by the tractor, which might also be felt. A tractor with a somewhat loose fitting somewhere, for example, will make a distinctive clunk, which many farmers will listen for, often knowing that the clunk is only prompted by changes in depth of a certain size or kind.

The second set of vibrotactile cues, which are also accompanied by a sonic cue, are produced by the tractor’s engine and reveal to the operator the degree to which the engine is under a load. Farmers typically describe this as feeling or hearing the engine strain, and it is, I confess, one of the more nuanced moments of perception that I have come across in my years of research: there is little to no obvious change in the pitch or the volume of sound these large, diesel engines make. At three hundred fifty horsepower or better, the engines in these tractors are capable of pulling a water plow through the water with relative ease, and it is not unusual for them to be doing so at extremely slow speeds. Because the plows can push so much water in front of them, farmers must work at slow speeds in order to make certain that they do not spill, or slop, water over the small levees that outline a field. During leveling, the water is rich in topsoil, and given the thinness of the layer of topsoil, sometimes only a matter of inches, in the area, any loss is considered needlessly wasteful. Thus, the larger engines are run at what almost seems an idle, heard and felt as a low rumbling. As the plow being pulled picks up water and mud, however, the engine begins to work a bit harder, and farmers listen and feel for that moment when, perhaps, the engine will need to be fed a bit more fuel.

In both instances, the farmer is highly attuned to the tractor. They described this process in two different stages. The first stage occurs when a farmer is just starting off, just learning how to farm, how to work with equipment. As a teenager working with an older family member or friend, typically fathers and sons but sometimes uncles and nephews, a farmer has to learn to “feel the seat” as one young farmer told me. It is a matter of learning how to feel the bottom of a field with the tractors’ tire, the young man noted, and in doing so reached out and down with his arms and spread out his fingers, as if he were imagining himself crawling through the water, feeling with his hands to determine how the land lay.

A farmer learns these things on a particular piece of equipment, and so the second stage occurs when he transitions from one piece of equipment to another, because each piece of equipment has its own feel, not only as a piece of machinery but also as a sensing device. Another farmer who had recently purchased a John Deere tractor after using nothing but Case tractors for twenty years noted that it was going to take a great deal of getting used to, “[the John Deere] tractor runs different, works different.” The same observation occurs when a farmer has gotten used to the feel of a particular brand of equipment and that manufacturer makes a significant change to the drivetrain, the suspension, or some other facet of the machine that requires the farmer to “re-calibrate” their senses.

#### Possible Conclusion

This way of thinking about the relationship between the thinking we do and the things with which we think is described by Edwin Hutchins as “distributed cognition.” An anthropologist, Hutchins has sought to bridge the gap between his own field and psychology, between culture and cognition as objects of study. Conventionally, of course, the two are considered distinct areas of inquiry, but only, as Hutchins observes, because the boundary between inside and outside have been so firmly drawn, which “creates the impression that individual minds operate in isolation and encourages us to mistake the properties of complex sociocultural systems for the properties of individual minds” (355). Hutchins’ argument is that cognitive sciences have over-allocated intelligence to the inside of human subjectivity. The problem with such a view from his, and we can now also say from Heidegger’s, point of view is that it mistakes, potentially, one dimension of a larger system for the system itself.

Hutchins notes that John Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment offers a nice encapsulation of the larger problem. In the thought experiment, Searle sets out the following scenario: he is locked in a room where messages in Chinese are slid under a locked door. He himself has no knowledge of Chinese, but he does have a book which allows him to determine the character sequences and to respond with a correct sequence of characters that he then slips back under the locked door. The outside observer perceives a meaningful reaction, but, given Searle’s role in the communicative instance, was there really any meaning? Searle’s response is not, and he intends the thought experiment as a rejection of the idea that the Turing test could gauge actual intelligence.

Searle intends the thought experiment, Hutchins points out, “as a demonstration that syntax is not sufficient to produce semantics” (361). But in setting up his experiment, what Searle has done is encapsulate a “sociocultural cognitive system.” On his own Searle cannot communicate but as an ensemble, he and the book in the room, can. That is, “the cognitive properties of the person person in the room are not same as the cognitive properties of the room as a whole” (362). Hutchins argues that much of the work done in artificial intelligence and in cognitive psychology consistently focuses on socio-cultural systems but mistakes them for individual minds. He concludes that the attribution to an individual mind of an entire system effects a kind of surgery in which interaction, and our chief means of interacting, our bodies, are removed.

Reduced so, the unhooking of cognition from interaction becomes clearly absurd. Hutchins responds that what we need is to study more cognition as it occurs in the world and study cognition less as a limited set of responses from an individual isolated in a laboratory. He proposes the term “cognitive ethnography.” Returning to some of the language used by Frake in his own description of cognitive psychology experiments, I am struck by the occurrence of performance, not just the use of the word but that it is used in ways folklorists would easily recognize:

We are concerned here not with judgements about the mentality of an age or the wisdom of a culture, but with the cognitive abilities of individual human beings. For evidence we must turn away from assessments of the strangeness of a culture’s beliefs or the weirdness of its symbols to an examination of performances that can be seen as displays of cognitive ability. But what counts as such a performance? Probably most things a human being does should count. The problem for the investigator, and sometimes for the performers them- selves, is to know what the performance is. “What’s happening?” Or, in psychologists’ language: “What is the definition of the task?” (255)

Frake notes that psychologists prefer to define their own tasks and remain anxious about user-defined tasks as being vulnerable to collusion. Folklorists and others who are used to working from the inside out see this less as a vulnerability and more as a matter of openness.

Such an openness to the “task world” allows us to form different understandings of what people do with their minds. But, as we have seen, “mind” must be broadly understood. And, to my mind, we must also necessarily be more open to the disciplines with whom we collaborate. Richard Bauman once noted:

that the enduring importance of the intellectual problems that the philological synthesis was forged to address constitutes a productive basis on which we as folklorists might orient ourselves to our cognate fields and disciplines. In my view, any scholar who is interested in any of the dimensions of interrelationship that link language, literature, culture, society, politics, and history together is potentially my colleague, whatever our degrees and whatever academic departments provide us a home and a living. (17)

Bauman is, of course, referring to the work that was begun as the ethnography of speaking and was later consolidated under the rubric of performance. It was, by the accounts of some of its vanguard practitioners, an attempt to take ideas and issues raised by philosophers like Heidegger and others working in the middle of the twentieth century to re-ignite the investigation of human being and to apply those insights within fields who had traditionally focused on the “other” of modernity. Forty years later, the new philology now has the opportunity to re-join philosophy as it itself has been transformed by studies of cognition across a wide range of fields.

[Dell Hymes was also part of cognitive anthropology at various moments.]

#### Sources

Bauman, Richard. 1996. “Folklore as Transdisciplinary Dialogue.” _Journal of Folklore Research_ 33 (1) (January 1): 15–20.

Frake, Charles O. 1985. “Cognitive Maps of Time and Tide Among Medieval Seafarers.” _Man_ 20 (2). New Series (June 1): 254–270.

Hutchins, Edwin. 1995. _Cognition in the Wild_. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Oatley, Keith G. 1977. “Inference, Navigation, and Cognitive Maps.” In _Thinking: Readings in Cognitive Science_, ed. P. N. Johnson-Laird and P. C. Wason, 537–547. Cambridge University Press.

Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Luciano Fadiga. 1997. “The Space Around Us.” _Science_ 277 (5323) (July 11): 190.

Ink and Paper

Beautiful student film about two technologies that I still love very much. Thanks to [Kottke](http://kottke.org/) for the heads up. Embedded video is HD. Watch it full screen, or if the HD is going to be too much, click on Vimeo to go to their site to watch it in SD.

Custom Graph Paper

Incompetech has a great collection of graph paper PDF generators: squares, multiple squares, axonometric, circular, hexagonal. You name it. I’m making come graph paper for Lily to do things like work with “math facts” — which is what the times table is now called.

Paper Press

Once upon a time, while I was taking in break from graduate school and working as a management consultant, I took the time to teach myself how to make paper and to make books — though I later took a class in bookbinding, because trying to learn how to sew a perfect binding from illustrations is not easy.

Now I find myself ready to teach my daughter, and perhaps some of her classmates, how to make something which they may interact with fairly little as adults.

What I never had in my little studio apartment was a proper press for my leaves of paper. I found [a nice one at Dick Blick](http://www.dickblick.com/products/arnold-grummers-papermaking-paper-press/), but given its simplicity I think I could probably make it:

Boats That Go on Land and Water (AFS 2007)

## Introduction

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 risk. Too much water. Too little land.

On the second anniversary of the storms, National Geographic reporting on the current state of things in New Orleans led off with the following:

> 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. (Bourne 33; emphases in the original)

Those five adjective-noun pairs — “sinking city,” “rising seas” — build to a kind of apocalyptic inevitability that underlines the absurdity — or, alternately, undermines the actuality — of living on, or in, an ambiguous landscape.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that the residents of Louisiana would come to imagine the relationship between land and water differently. New Orleans after all was established on a portage point between Bayouk Choupique, today Bayou St. John, and the Mississippi River. The city was founded, in other words, on land understood as a bridge between two waterways. Much of the state’s history is caught up in its need to negotiate on a recurring basis what parts are wet and what are dry.

During the colonial period, land grants, which were measured in lengths of river frontage, typically required land holders not only to build roads but also to build and maintain levees. The colonial authorities were right to worry about levees. The general consensus after Katrina is that the storm itself was not the disaster, the levees breaking is what changed everything for everyone. The Seventeenth Street Canal is now famous. Less well known is “Mister Go,” the common nickname for the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), which was dug in 1965 by the Army Core of Engineers through the existing land bridge and barrier islands. MRGO is commonly believed to be the ruin of Saint Bernard Parish. It is also, it should be noted, but one of hundreds of canals, locks, damns, weirs, pumps, drains, and other structures and bodies managed by a wide array of local, super-local, state, and federal agencies.

Closer to home, the Vermilion River that passes through Lafayette actually began through a slow process of coastal erosion, making its way up through the marshes, until, reaching Lafayette, where later a wandering distributary of the Bayou Teche would make the Vermilion into a true, flowing river. The Teche — itself a product of a complex geological history — is now fed by the Bayou Courtableau.

Just a few miles north of Krotz Springs, sitting just a football field’s length from the Atchafalaya River, Ralph Castille and his crew of eight men keep watch on the depth of the Bayou Courtableau. The number 17.64 has an almost magical quality for them. 17.64 is the height above sea level of the bayou at a particular point in its course that it is their job to maintain. When the bayou is in flood stage, there are two massive weirs designed to bleed off the excess water, but when the bayou is low, it’s Castille’s job to crank up one to four 1500HP motors and begin pouring water into the Courtableau. The water backs the bayou up to Bayou Fusilier, which in turn floods into the Bayou Teche. The Teche feeds the Vermilion River via Bayou Fusilier north of Lafayette and via the Ruth Canal south of the city. Both outlets are sometimes necessary when farmers like Keith Luquette start pumping their fields either to flood for planting rice or for growing crawfish.

Luquette’s farm is one of hundreds that cover the Louisiana prairies, which, interestingly enough, were first imagined in terms of the sea. Standing on some of the small mounds on the edge of the prairie, stands of trees seemed like îles, or islands. Conversely, when a patch of prairie was surrounded by trees, it was dubbed an anse, or cove. Driving across the prairies today, one passes through places like Anse LeJeune, Anse Maigre, Point Blue, and Pointe Claire.

It is perhaps no wonder then that when Alan Lomax drove across these prairies in search of the country Mardi Gras he imagined that he was in the midsts, or mists, of marshes silvered with fog. In fact, Lomax was, as the sign for Louisiana 13 reveals as it rolls by, on the highway from Eunice to Mamou, driving through fields freshly flooded in preparation for planting rice.

How, then, to go about trying to understand such a mixed-up, mutable landscape as this? More importantly, how does one go about understanding what the residents of the landscape understand? The obvious answer is that we need to turn to the actions of those residents, the things they say and do, in order to begin to understand how it is they structure the raw material of their physical environment into something like a landscape.

The larger project examines a wider swathe of the archeological record, discussing, for example, the few recorded instances where the land and water ship appears in folktales, or, for example, the variety of legends that always place buried treasure at a tree which is almost always located adjacent to a lake or in a swamp. There are also a number of jokes and a few songs that give us glimpses into the minds of Cajuns and Creoles making their way through the watery world of Louisiana’s landscape.

I have included in the handout a version of AT513b that George Reinecke found printed in the pages of Le Meschacébé, a French language weekly of Saint John Parish. This version was printed in 1878 as the last of a series, all in Creole (unlike the rest of the paper), called “Contes Nègres.” Previous stories in the series were all African animal stories, much like those later published by Alcée Fortier and Joel Chandler Harris. This version of the tale, Reinecke observes, “combines the theme of the male Cinderella suitor for the princess’ hand with three others: the king’s insistence on an amphibious ship, the unexpected but deserved help from a disguised supernatural being, and the presence of skillful helpers, each with a special gift, who allow the suitor to comply with the king’s increasingly difficult demands” (20).

The audience handout is in English, but I have inserted the French form of “a boat that would go on both land and sea” in italics.


In reality, there are a number of boats that can perform the folkloric feat of going on la terre com on la mer. The oldest boat imagined to be capable of doing so if, of course, the pirogue, sometimes said to be a boat that can “glide on dew.” Wood pirogues are still being made in Louisiana, sometimes out of venerable cypress planks and sometimes out of plywood, but there are also pirogues made out of fiberglass and out of aluminum. Pirogues and other wooden water craft have been documented by Malcolm Comeaux and Ray Brassieur.

Pirogues are still used for some hunting and some fishing and of course by naturalists, but they are not the preferred craft when you need to cover a great deal of territory, when you need to move quickly, and/or when you need to carry a load. In those situations, most Louisiana residents turn to power boats. The classic bateau with an outboard motor is very popular in south Louisiana. (My family is no exception; we own three vehicles: a car, a truck, and a boat.) The bateau, or john boat as it is sometimes known, traverses water as shallow as a foot, if carefully handled, but nothing less. In those instances, however, it is still possible to use an air boat.

Air boats were invented soon after airplanes, it seems, with the first documented craft being built by Alexander Graham Bell in 1905. By the 1930s, home-made air boats were in use throughout Florida and Louisiana. Air boats solve the power-to-weight problem in one way, by having the propeller out of the water, but it took some time before engines became light enough that a sufficiently powerful but also sufficiently light enough engine could be coupled with a propeller in the water, transforming the mid-century “put-put” boat into the late-century mud boat.

The classic mud boat has the engine mounted amidships with a long shaft running above the hull and through the transom. The mud boats I grew up riding in usually used Volkswagen Beetle engines because they were both light and fairly uncomplicated, both factors being a dimension of their being air-cooled. The mud boat got its name for being able to power its way through water so shallow as to be effectively mud. The introduction of the Go Devil engine in the early 1980s, and the innovations brought about by the Provost brothers of Pro-Drive in the last decade, changed the nature of the mud boat considerably, shifting the balance of production from home-made craft to three regional manufacturers.

Both the air boat and the mud boat are part of the current project, but for now this brief history will have to suffice.

The third boat capable of going on la terre com on la mer is the modern crawfish boat. The particular form that I will be discussing today is known, to those who build it and those who use it, more simply as “the hydraulic boat.” As the demand for crawfish grew through the sixties and seventies, and as rice production alone became less economically sustainable, area rice farmers began to experiment with ways of mechanizing what was still largely a hand and foot operation. That is, crawfishing rice fields was still a matter of a farmer pulling or pushing a pirogue or bateau, and working the traps as he himself stood knee to hip deep in water. (Probably should explain the geology of rice fields here: 4 to 12 inches of top soil on top of a clay pan.)

I should note that the willingness to embrace new technology or to innovate within an extant technological domain is not new to the area or to the industry. As one observer has noted: “Louisiana rice farming gained prominence, and market share, in the post Civil War period precisely because it was mechanized. Where older rice-growing regions in South Carolina and Georgia sought to remain viable, their labor-intensive practices were difficult to continue when workers were no longer enslaved” (ESC: 44-45). I should also note that the shift to rice agriculture seems to have been largely precipitated by an influx of German immigrants from other parts of the U.S. as well as from Europe. They were mostly assimilated by their Cajun neighbors, but there are some interesting ethnic identity issues that deserve a fuller treatment than we have time for here.

Our experimenting farmers — with names like Zaunbrecher, Frugé, Heinen, Richard, LeJeune, and Frey — tried a a variety of engines, gearings, and forms of power delivery — shafts, belts, chains — in an effort to harness small engines, which operate best at high RPM, to the task of moving a boat slowly through the water. Farmers were modifying standard bateaus in various ways so that they would “crawl” through a rice field/crawfish pond. There seem to have been a number of attempts at various mechanical configurations, almost all of which are only recalled in terms of their “contraption”-like nature. The arrangement that seems to have eventuated out of all of this experimentation involved mounting a small Briggs and Stratton or Honda engine to a Montgomery Ward tiller transmission on the transom of a boat and then transferring the power, usually with a shaft, to a driving wheel — the cleated wheel seems to have been part of the overall configuration from close to the beginning of the craft’s history.

Part bateau, part paddle wheel, part processing plant, the modern crawfish boat is both amazing to behold as an object and a thing of grace when operated by an experienced crawfisherman. The boat’s engine drives a hydraulic pump that turns the great wheel, lifts the wheel boom, turns the boat left and right, and controls the boat’s speed. Sitting behind a tray with sorting holes leading to mesh bags, the crawfisherman dances a water-born, cyborg ballet. Man and machine arc in and out along the line of crawfish traps, with each trap in turn being pulled, dumped, sorted, and rebaited just in time to replace the next trap which is in turn pulled, dumped, sorted, and rebaited.

The dance travels along the line of traps until a section of field is completed. The boat then reveals its amphibian nature as the powerful propelling wheel pushes the craft up a field levee until it noses back down into the next section. When a field is complete, the crawfish boat crawls up onto land and motors its way down the road to the next field, rolling both on the back wheel and on wheels tucked into the front of the hull.


Credit for the invention of the hydraulic boat is usually given to Gerard Olinger of Robert’s Cove. Olinger defers credit to a local farmer who first had the idea of using hydraulics as the only form of power delivery that would survive being immersed in water. Olinger made his first boats in 1983, and they quickly became the standard by which all others were judged. Over the next five years, he was joined by a number of makers.

Kurt Venable in Rayne, Mike Richard in Richey, Dale Hughes in Welch, and Jimmy Abshire in Kaplan, along with Olinger, are the five major makers of the hydraulic boat. (There are a few other builders still building boats and a few others who have come and gone, but that’s for another time.)

Kurt Venable is central both in terms of his location and in terms of being the most prolific of the makers, assembling something on the order of 40 boats a year. Mike Richard makes about 20 boats a year. Dale Hughes about a dozen. Jimmy Abshire and Jared Olinger about a half dozen each.


Each maker has his own “style” of boat, but the basic form of the crawfish boat, since Olinger introduced the front wheels, is fairly well established: the hull has the typical scow bow, flat bottom, square stern, and moderately flared sides of the traditional Louisiana bateau. Indeed, as I have already noted, the first crawfish boats were simply modified versions of the boats most commonly used for inland fishing. However the four-foot wide hulls of the widely available commercial hulls had a tendency to swamp when the boat turned. An immediate adaptation was to raise the sides of the boat near the stern. [I should note that the boat builders and the farmers and operators who are their clients do not use nautical terminology when discussing these craft. There are no sterns, nor transoms, nor keels. There are backs and bottoms.] It was a short-lived modification. Having wearied of reinforcing the commercial hulls which did not hold up well to the weight and thrust of the wheeled drive unit, the boat builders had already begun to build their own hulls, which led to the current hull form which is based on a five-foot wide sheet of aluminum that flares out to the craft’s six foot width. (The overall length of the boat has held constant at fourteen to fifteen feet.)

At the front of the hull, usually about four feet back, are a pair of wheels — typically the kind used on small utility trailers. On a Venable boat, the wheels are set inside wells in the hull. Olinger places his wheels in a bay, giving the front of his boats a very car-like appearance. Hughes and Richard mount their wheels outside the hull with an axle connecting them running through the interior of the hull, with the axle also acting as a stiffener. Both Venable and Olinger prefer to place decks in their boats, with the supports for the deck stiffening the hull.

At the back of the hull sits the massive drive unit, an articulated steel arm that raises and lowers, swings left and right, and holds a cleated steel wheel two to three feet in diameter and usually about one foot wide. Like the hulls, almost every facet of the drive units are fabricated “in shop.” The boat builders buy the following stock items: • the forward wheels (as noted above) • the gasoline engine (usually a Honda or Kohler)1 the battery the two rams, or pistons the hydraulic system components (pump, motor, valves, and hoses — the reservoir, however, is handmade)

Everything else is hand-made through careful combining of pieces of stock aluminum and steel materials. In addition to being available in sheets of various thicknesses, widths, lengths, and finishes aluminum and steel are also available in lengths of various shapes — like angles, channels, and beams — and in lengths of various pipe/tubing configurations — described in terms of shape (round or rectangular), thickness, and hardness.

The two basic parts of the hydraulic crawfish boat are closely denoted by the metals of which they consist: aluminum hulls and steel drive units. Where the two meet is where power gets transfered. This means not only securing the drive unit to the rear, or transom, of the boat, but also making sure that, once secured to the back of the boat, it doesn’t literally rip the back of the boat as it pushes. Mike Richard uses two sets of braces, interestingly one aluminum and one steel, welded or bolted to bars welded to the bottom of the boat.

The steel platform stretched across the boat is where everything, except the battery, that has to do with powering and operating the boat, are housed: the engine and hydraulic pump, the oil reservoir, the valves, and the driver’s seat. Richard is, in fact, known for the openness of his design.


When I first began approaching the boatmakers to ask them about their work, I admit that one of my concerns was how much they would be willing to tell me about their work. My concern was based in part on my experiences with the builder who, it turns out, is most known for his curmudgeonly presentation of self. He was simply the first one I encountered. As I began to work with the other builders, however, I realized that my concern was ill-founded. While each man is fairly certain that he builds the best boat, they all have worked on other’s boats, repairing or modifying them as customers’ needs, wants, and understandings change. And, it turns out, the farmers who are their customers are not only a source of and feedback, as well as their own ideas (which are variously received by the boatmakers) but also a conduit for information about developments by other builders. (Farmers talk. A lot. E.g., Dale Olinger’s “Cove News Network.”)

Front wheels were first put on boats by Jerry Olinger in the early nineties. Olinger had the idea when he realized that the reason hulls were wearing out so fast because farmers were driving the boats from field to field. He placed the wheels so they wold not to interfere with levee crossings — the hull needs to slide over the dirt ridges — but to be useful for riding down the road.

Sometimes the solution to one problem actually solves another problem. One of the complaints about the rear wheels is that they create trenches in the fields — they can create one foot or more drops in the bottom of a field. This has largely seemed an intractable (pardon the pun) problem with various solutions proffered — Olinger has gone to two six-inch wide wheels set two feet apart. About three years ago, Kurt Venable began to weld steel bars onto the edges of his wheels’ cleats. The problem he was trying to solve was how quickly a piece of three-eighths inch thick piece of steels four inches long can get worn down to a nub, sometimes, depending upon the composition of a farmer’s soil, in a single season. It turns out, however, that the reinforced cleats ride a little better on field bottoms and dig a little less. This was, all the builders agree, an unexpected bonus.

The more academic question I am hoping to address in doing this research, apart from having an answer to the question posed by the National Geographic quotation at the start of this essay, is to understand the nature of creativity, especially understanding creativity not in terms of an individual but in terms of a system, a network of individuals. There seems to be a gap in current research into creativity between human science studies that focus on fields and domains and humanistic studies that focus on the exceptional individual. My hope is that this handful of boatmakers will allow me to understand how creativity can be both dispersed and focused within a field, such that all participants are both part of the system and exceptions to it. My hope, in short, is to build a boat … of a kind.