Mary Afton Day is one of eight students participating in a year-long educational venture into a community to learn how citizens make decisions about the issues that concern them. The project is called Living Democracy, since we believe you can’t learn it until you live it, and she and others will live and learn in unique communities around the state of Alabama during the summer of 2012. Six students recently traveled to Bayou La Batre, one of our participating communities, the seafood capital of Alabama. Our adventure was led by David Pham of BPSOS, included a fun encounter with artists-in-residence Peggy Denniston and Sheila Hagler, and was rounded out by a fascinating seafood waste treatment plant tour with Kat Bryant.
When you think of the coast, one thinks of white beaches, high-rise hotels and resorts with the blue chairs and their occupants. This Americanized, vacation minded ignorance allows no room for discovery, understanding, or awareness. This past weekend my discovery of Bayou La Batre was surreal. Small in size, large in ethnicities and importance, the Bayou deserves its small dot on the map of the state. Known as Bubba’s (of the movie and book Forrest Gump) home place, Bayou La Batre encompasses the whole that is a fishing community.
Now, fishing I’ve come to understand in the Bayou, is not merely the things with fins and gills, it is the odd-legged shrimp and the pincher crabs. It’s not just a trade of fun; it is a trade for a livelihood, a means to live daily. The heart of the people in Bayou La Batre beats in rhythm with the ebb and flow of the ocean. The one fact that the people want to get outsiders to understand is that they do not do this to get rich; they do it because they love it and to get by. A hard life, a hard misunderstood way life is what faces these families day in and day out—as if with the coming and going of the tide.
Only being immersed in the community for what seems like a millisecond, the love of it was just as quickly created. The appearance of a dolphin friend, discovery of a reclusive hermit crab, and the breathtaking sunset on the horizon was an unrivaled welcome one could get from a new place. Starting off on a great foot, David Pham’s tour on Saturday led to the introduction to every aspect that creates Bayou. Visiting the Vietnamese Buddhist temple gave a taste to one cultural community and understanding of how deep the cultural identities are. The viewing of the not yet released documentary on Bayou La Batre and meeting two of the stars, Peggy and Sheila, was an adventure in itself. Both women are eccentric and intriguing. Their life in Bayou, twenty years, could be seen in their interaction with Rodney (who, come to find out, was in the documentary and shot a wild boar in Sheila’s backyard) and other locals. The adventure continued when they gave us a “tour” of Peggy’s cousin’s land at the “river.” Though named Snake River, it is in reality a bayou, with alligators and everything (the whole package). Their acceptance of our group was touching and their easy-going way of life just added to the richness that is Bayou La Batre.
You cannot go to the coast without encountering some degree of the salty and fishy smell. Well, our trip went well above that aspect, which led to a tour of a seafood composting plant. One of only two in the nation, this experience (as gag-reflex inducing as it was) opened my eyes to another milestone in the green movement and the simplicity of greatness it was doing. Taking the wastes of local seafood industries, the grinding, churning, and drying of the outer shells of shrimp and crab are created into a grain-like product that is then sold and used as fertilizer. Kat, the awesome, energetic director of the plant, was a great tour guide and her enthusiasm of new ideas and potential for her work was neat and heartening.
As stated above, though only there for a day and a half, Bayou La Batre has found its way into my heart and mind. It has raised my awareness, my understanding and my want to know more and get involved. You hear about the effects of hurricanes and oil spills, but without being a native of a coastal town, understanding is unreachable and incomparable. The life of a fisherman, a shrimper, is inspiring, not by monetary standards but by the standard of persistence, strength and passion. They are skeptical of outsiders, but I’ve realized I would be too if I was in their shoes. Outsiders are biased and oftentimes look to the Bayou’s way of life as worthless and unrewarding, while natives look at it as simply life. It’s a life they love and have only known. The simple way may not be the easiest, and in Bayou it is the hardest, but the willingness is what makes it worth it. Bayou La Batre becomes a part of you. Not by the smell in your hair and clothes, but in how you approach life after experiencing/tasting of theirs.