Much of the best nature writing about Louisiana has been done by authors who live somewhere else.
Luckily, we also have writers within the state who deftly chronicle its natural beauty. Mary Ann Sternberg’s “Winding Through Time,” which is about Bayou Manchac, and Oliver Houck’s “Down on The Batture,” which touches on the Mississippi River, are two recent nature books that showcase the skills of Louisiana-based literary artists.
But sometimes, a visiting writer can see the state with an outsider’s eyes, helping us to appreciate familiar landscapes in a new way.
That came to mind this week when a copy of Ann McCutchan’s new book, “River Music: An Atchafalaya Story,” arrived in my mailbox.
McCutchan will be reading from her book and signing copies of it this Sunday at 2 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 2590 CitiPlace Court. Published by Texas A&M University Press, the book sells for $24.95.
McCutchan didn’t grow up in south Louisiana, although she did become acquainted with the region in the 1970s, when she lived in New Orleans as a struggling musician.
“When I left the state for better work,” McCutchan tells readers, “I merely crossed over into Texas, and though I’ve lived in other places since, I’ve mostly resided within a day’s drive of the Atchafalaya, the heartland of Acadiana and North America’s largest rain forest. Somehow, the region has always called to me.”
In “River Music,” McCutchan, who now teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, tells the life story of Louisiana musician, naturalist and sound documentarian Earl Robicheaux.
Many coffee-table books have detailed the visual beauty of Louisiana’s wetlands, but “River Music” makes the point that places like the Atchafalaya have a special sound, too. McCutchan follows Robicheaux as he records these soundscapes for use in documentary recordings, scientific research and musical compositions.
She tries to translate what she calls this “grand racket” into words: “blasts of cicadas, chirps of crickets, high hums of tree frogs, the tantaras of a thousand birds . . . Now and then a bullfrog contributed a resonant boing, like the striking of a loose kettledrum . . . When the surging violin section of insects retreated, I heard the muted owls . . . And beneath this, the swish and swash of water along the edge of the raised trail, hinting at muskrats and alligators out for a late-night swim and a snack.”
“River Music” includes a companion CD featuring some of Robicheaux’s Atchafalaya recordings. The CD, like Robicheaux, is idiosyncratic.
There’s no narration and little labeling to help the listener identify exactly what he’s hearing. Robicheaux seems more interested in the cumulative effect of so much life singing at once.
It’s a chorus worth preserving for future generations, as “River Music” makes clear.