We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Down on the Batture

Oliver A. Houck

Publication Year: 2010

The lower Mississippi River winds past the City of New Orleans between enormous levees and a rim of sand, mud, and trees called "the batture." On this remote and ignored piece of land thrives a humanity unique to the region-ramblers, artists, drinkers, fishers, rabbit hunters, dog walkers, sunset watchers, and refugees from Immigration, alimony, and other aspects of modern life. Author Oliver A. Houck has frequented this place for the past twenty-five years. Down on the Batture describes a life, pastoral, at times marginal, but remarkably fecund and surprising. From this place he meditates on Louisiana, the state of the waterway, and its larger environs. He describes all the actors that have played lead roles on the edge of the mightiest river of the continent, and includes in his narrative plantations, pollution, murder, land grabs, keelboat brawlers, slave rebellions, the Corps of Engineers, and the oil industry. Houck draws from his experience in New Orleans since the early 1970s in the practice and teaching of law. He has been a player in many of the issues he describes, although he does not undertake to argue them here. Instead, story by story, he uses the batture to explore the forces that have shaped and spell out the future of the region. The picture emerges of a place that---for all its tangle of undergrowth, drifting humanity, shifting dimensions in the rise and fall of floodwater---provides respite and sanctuary for values that are original to America and ever at risk from the homogenizing forces of civilization.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

read more

The Batture

pdf iconDownload PDF (243.3 KB)
pp. 3-4

...between enormous levees and a rim of land and trees. This is the batture, where the water beats against the land, and it is where the river breathes. at low water the batture may be a half mile wide, but come April it will often be zero feet wide as spring rains to the north swell the Mississippi from bank to bank, flooding the trees. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (359.6 KB)
pp. 5-8

The motorcycle sat apart from everything else in the woods. Squeezed between the river and the levee, this is the first stretch of trees upstream from New Orleans, past the docks and the stupendously plain buildings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, lord of their domain, the largest structures on the levee until Vicksburg ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (252.9 KB)
pp. 9-13

...pedaling like a bandit, eyes wide, but I have no sense that he sees me. I am already stepping to the side to make way when he turns abruptly and plummets pell-mell down the concrete apron towards a fifteen-foot mountain of dirt at the base of the levee. His bike bucks with the impact and then surges up a path beaten into the ...

read more

High Water

pdf iconDownload PDF (357.6 KB)
pp. 14-17

...hard to miss the superstructures of the big ships passing along the skyline like pieces of scenery gone mad. We begin to check the river gauge readings in the Times-Picayune, how many more feet until flood stage. Like hurricane season, it is a worrisome force. There is another river, however, with its own cast of characters, which I find ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (361.1 KB)
pp. 18-22

They said they were from Good Morning America. They wanted a local story to go with the big game. They talked about doing it from the French Quarter, but I said it would be better to film from the batture, maybe at Audubon Park. You’d be right at the river’s edge, I said, you could reach out and touch the hulls of the big ships ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (413.9 KB)
pp. 23-28

He is holding a jar with a fish in it, but his mind is on the larger question. I’d probably not answer the question, but he cannot be more than six years old, and a small six at that. His buddies haven’t come up to the top of the levee. They are still kicking around in the reeds below ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (366.0 KB)
pp. 29-34

...dressed in dark suits and narrow ties. They could be stockbrokers. We are at a wrought-iron table covered with glass. A fountain plays gently to the side. As we talk, a cockroach the size of a cigar crawls out from the garden, examines us, and crawls back in. They are unperturbed. To tell the truth they seem a little dazed, as if they still ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (364.9 KB)
pp. 35-40

...upriver, not too far, and that’s what triggered the conversation. It was a barred owl, the one that looks like a sack of laundry in a tree, and they tend to start calling right at sunset as their night vision kicks in and they are getting ready to hunt. Sometimes they chatter back and forth to each other in hoo-hoos and haw-haws like an ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (250.1 KB)
pp. 41-44

...woods. I can only remember two, over the years. One was camped in a small sea of wine cartons near the water intake for Ochsner Hospital, where the helicopters fly in low with emergency cases from the rigs offshore, casualties from another kind of war. It is an expedited drill; the ambulance is waiting on the landing pad before ...

read more

Low Water

pdf iconDownload PDF (366.1 KB)
pp. 45-50

...through the bare trees. The power plant on the west bank is outlined by the lights on its tanks and platforms, and behind them dark grain elevators reach their chutes down to an empty dock. Upstream are the shadows of the Huey Long Bridge and the Avondale shipyard. The air smells lightly industrial. There is nobody ...

read more

Parish Line

pdf iconDownload PDF (363.7 KB)
pp. 51-55

...railroad line leaves River Road and heads inland. The batture looks the same on both sides, but it is pretty much where east meets west and that line extends down to the water. I walk up here in winter when the underbrush has died back to stretch the dog and to look for hawks, which are easy to spot in the bare trees, but I am always ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (365.0 KB)
pp. 56-61

The other headline read, “Death Calls the Turn on Rudy O’Dwyer, One of Fabulous Figures.” It was a charming story, basically about Rudy’s menagerie of rare birds behind his house on Monticello Street, just off the batture, with homage to his public service and generosity. He endowed St. Agnes Church on Jefferson ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (406.0 KB)
pp. 62-65

We are standing in his tiny kitchen as he ladles out a serving of this strange fruit. Bayou Sorrel is running in the background, about a half mile from where it meets the Atchafalaya River and continues down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Atchafalaya used to be the Mississippi in its time, and would already be the Mississippi ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (251.6 KB)
pp. 66-69

...the parish was asleep. They entered the old plantation building and attached cables to the columns and another to the chimney inside. They ran the cables to a large bulldozer on the front lawn and were ready by dawn. Then they revved up the bulldozer and within minutes the 144-year-old Welham plantation was torn to the ground ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (361.7 KB)
pp. 70-74

...the parish was asleep. They entered the old plantation building and attached cables to the columns and another to the chimney inside. They ran the cables to a large bulldozer on the front lawn and were ready by dawn. Then they revved up the bulldozer and within minutes the 144-year-old Welham plantation was torn to the ground ...

read more

High Wires

pdf iconDownload PDF (245.8 KB)
pp. 75-77

...mauling each other happily in the shallows up by Ochsner Hospital. Every once in a while one would bound up the bank to where I was sitting, shove its wet fur into my side, look at me for appreciation, and then bound off again. I gave up any thought of reading and instead watched the sun drop behind the power plant across ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (376.4 KB)
pp. 78-82

...narrow road that loops around inside and has been off-limits to automobiles for years. At the present moment it carries a stream of joggers in all sizes, the lean and the pudgy, an evening ritual of uptown New Orleans passing him by. He is leaning on a cement balustrade in a sport shirt and slacks, silver hair combed to ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (356.3 KB)
pp. 83-86

...is on top of the levee facing the woods, the small, neat houses of River Ridge behind her, looking out at a squadron of small birds that are bombing the ponded waters about fifteen feet below. “They are baby seagulls,” she explains, when we do not immediately reply. We could be new here, and she will apparently be our guide ...

read more

Joe Louis

pdf iconDownload PDF (255.5 KB)
pp. 87-91

...off the roof,” he says. “We’d get a bunch and stand at the end of the street yelling to the kids on the next block.” Then the missiles started to fly. “You could curve them, you know,” he demonstrates, his wrinkled hands twisting in the air, “make ’em go left and right, sneak up on you sideways.” He got hit in the eye once and shows me his ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (357.9 KB)
pp. 92-95

...thing. The storm has blown through, some trees are down, poles, wires, pieces of roof. The only station we can get on the radio is a call-in and they begin, Oh Jerry, I’ve Always Loved Your Show and then they say something about water coming up to the front steps. I go stand outside. A couple comes down the street with plastic bags ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (407.7 KB)
pp. 96-99

Then I saw the men. The one in the lead was coming up the same slope fast, yelling, “I got him! I got him!” and waving what looked like a club. It was a club, a golf club with a round wooden head, the kind that knocks the ball a hundred and fifty yards from the tee. Behind him was his son, couldn’t mistake him for anyone ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.4 MB)
pp. 100-106

...slowly across the batture, past a tall monument, to the streetcars that circle deferentially around it, and then to Blanche DuBois who, in a southern voice tinged with decay, recites what a local writer calls Tennessee Williams’s brilliant metaphorical question: “First you take a streetcar named Desire . . . transfer to Cemeteries ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (357.1 KB)
pp. 107-110

...boys in the back seat, six years old and three, face deep in a nest of comic books, food wrappers, pillows, and a slingshot I purchased in a moment of weakness at a truck stop in Tennessee called Mad Harry’s. Driving into Dixie, all the gas stations seemed to carry names indicating the mental instability of the owner. Lisa says that ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (379.1 KB)
pp. 111-115

...We had four in all but mine was the oldest by far with a large yellow child’s seat still mounted on the back, its anchor nuts rusted to the frame. As the boys outgrew the seat it remained handy for carrying my books back and forth to school, the kind of adaptation that Darwin described with the beaks of finches a century and a ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (358.4 KB)
pp. 116-119

...more carefully than I am because I’ve been driving the last leg since Alabama. We are new to the city, and everything on Oak Street near the levee looks like it came from my childhood, circa 1945. There is a green shack with a rusty bicycle hanging out front like an advertisement for a saloon—wait, it may be a saloon—a lot full ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (376.6 KB)
pp. 120-124

...the dog and I, but Lisa means it. There have been some shootings lately, and a neighbor mowing his lawn last weekend ran over a loaded pistol. I say, “We will,” over my shoulder but what I am really thinking is that we are safer out on the batture these days than any other place in the city. I mean, a venue where nobody carries ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (358.5 KB)
pp. 125-128

...then it says, “Look out! It’s going for your leg,” and then I appear. They stop talking, connecting me to Ms. Bear who had gone in first. I say, “She’s fine, not a bite in her.” They just sit there, three black boys in stone, looking at the white man who had come onto their scene ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (363.9 KB)
pp. 129-133

...down by the river and the woods on the batture held the heat like a furnace, out of the trees staggered a tall man wearing black boots, black jeans, an unbuttoned black vest, black hat, and an assortment of neck chains, and dragging an enormous wooden cross. From a distance he looked like Jesus in a cowboy movie. It was Ricky ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (253.4 KB)
pp. 134-138

...after Katrina, I rounded the bend by the old village of Kennertown and plunged into a painting drawn a century ago, or maybe two centuries ago. American history condenses in the mind. The women were dressed in bright, calico gowns that stretched from high collars around their necks to the tops of their thick-soled ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (357.3 KB)
pp. 139-142

...Katrina, we found ourselves driving out River Road, batture trees to the left, shuttered houses to the right, fleeing another storm. I had made the stay-or-go decision on the last one, and we stayed. Lisa got to call this one and so we started up the car. Besides, staying didn’t seem all that interesting this time. National Guard troops ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (357.9 KB)
pp. 143-146

Ricky is in a chair on top of the levee across from Cooter Brown’s, and he is talking to a round-faced, Mexican-looking fellow in another chair about a foot away, their backs to civilization, looking out through the trees at the river rolling by. It is about eight in the morning and they are both holding paper bags from the top ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (361.8 KB)
pp. 147-151

...over the field between her kitchen and the Mississippi River to the green swell of the levee and, behind, the tops of the batture trees. Her friend Ruby has called. “Don’t you read the paper, dawlin’?” she says to Teresa, who has two tiny boys running underfoot and another baby on the way. “Ruby,” says Teresa, “I haven’t got ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (250.0 KB)
pp. 152-155

...although down in south Louisiana the charge is made as earnestly as if Fidel might invade us tomorrow if only he could purchase the gas. It has been one of the corporate world’s favorite words for environmentalists. Still, it was a little strange to find the C word out here on the batture, a place where no one who exercises more ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (361.5 KB)
pp. 156-160

...and eggs, and he doesn’t take them back in until after dark. There is a little plastic fire hydrant about two feet high, and a large plastic bowl of water. They are for you, or to be more accurate, unless you want to go down on your hands and knees, they are for your dog. The fellow who put them there will be in sight somewhere on the ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (358.6 KB)
pp. 161-164

I do not look at the man. We are standing next to each other in the men’s room of the old Army Corps of Engineers building on top of the levee, a yellow, one-story complex that looks like an abandoned primary school. The accommodations of military establishments in those days had few niceties like separators between ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (363.1 KB)
pp. 165-169

...each evening, 6:30 on the dot, wave after wave, as few as three or four and as many as fifty in a flight, the three or four seeming to make up for their numbers with even louder shrieks and cries, the whistling ducks coming home. For twenty frantic minutes the sky is full of them and then it goes silent again; they have safely passed ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (420.8 KB)
pp. 170-172

...to the batture, and soon she found her own sweet spot down here, a place she only recently showed me. If you wander upriver from the power lines, past the little batture houses, past an equipment graveyard with rusting truck bodies, jaws from river dredges, and oil retention booms, you come to a longer line of woods that runs ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (356.9 KB)
pp. 173-176

...a thicket of willows juts up like a haircut and to my right is the Mississippi, blocked from view by huge outfall pipes from the New Orleans water system. Every once in a while a gush of brown sludge spills out into the river, sediments from a filtering pond about a half mile uptown. Ahead of me as on a movie screen is the full width of ...

read more

Highest and Best

pdf iconDownload PDF (313.3 KB)
pp. 177-179

...slowly that the woods below the power lines still bottom on soft mud, criss-crossed by the tracks of either a herd of wild pigs or one of them on pharmaceuticals. The only human prints are my own as the mud tries to suck off my shoes and claim them for its own. The place has been swept clean by the high water, several years of ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (240.2 KB)
pp. 181-182

I’ve seen over the years out on the levee and have never known by name. Others like Ricky, Paggio, and Alcide Verret have contributed their part just by living out their lives on batture ground. Still others took the time to sit with me and tell their stories in much richer detail than I could capture here. They include ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (470.5 KB)
pp. 183-205

E-ISBN-13: 9781604734621
E-ISBN-10: 1604734620
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604734614
Print-ISBN-10: 1604734612

Page Count: 205
Publication Year: 2010