River Music: An Atchafalaya Story by Ann McCutchan (review)
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River Music: An Atchafalaya Story. By Ann McCutchan. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011. Pp 186, 12 black-and-white photographs, CD, index.)

Ann McCutchan’s book is an account of two inextricably linked phenomena, the Atchafalaya [End Page 94] River Basin, an area of swampland in southwest Louisiana, and Earl Robicheaux, a musician, sound documentarian, and naturalist who has long been associated with the basin. Both the basin and Earl Robicheaux are worthwhile topics for those interested in the connection between landscape and culture. Like the basin, Robicheaux’s journey has taken many twists and turns, at times taking him to places, both geographically and spiritually, where he never expected. Neither is easily accessed, but both are well worth the effort. McCutchan guides the reader on the journey, often allowing both entities to tell their own stories.

In her opening chapter, McCutchan describes the Atchafalaya River Basin as “the vast backyard Earl has prowled since childhood” (p. 1), emphasizing the lifelong attachment that Robicheaux has for this piece of landscape. Understandably, much of the text focuses on the changes that have occurred in both during the last 50 years. McCutchan journals Robicheaux’s journey from Catholicism to what she now describes as “mostly a Buddhist, open to whatever happens to sing or growl or croak on a given day” (p. 3). She also mentions, but doesn’t dwell upon, his recent battle with cancer. His journey from being, as she describes him, a “son of the Basin” to acclaimed musician and sound recordist for both radio and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a story of struggle and self-discovery. Overall, though, the picture painted of Robicheaux is one of a person who now knows his place in the world, even if it has taken him some time to find it. McCutchan occasionally includes details of her own journey, suggesting to the reader that we are all traveling from somewhere to somewhere else. It is the kind of book that opens up and explores mystery.

Nevertheless, the book is not vague. It offers specific details of both Robicheaux’s life and the life of the Atchafalaya River Basin. She explains how the Atchafalaya’s name is derived from the Choctaw words hacha, meaning “river” and falia for “long,” and how, until the flood of 1927, it was largely left untouched. After the flood, the Corps of Engineers and other groups got involved to the point where she now describes the area as “vast, rich lands compromised by development” (p. 3). McCutchan also refers to Robicheaux as a member of “the last generation with intimate ties to the Atchafalaya Basin” (p. 8) as though both represent the best of something that will not be found in such pristine form in future generations.

Robicheaux’s quest to create his own kind of music is presented on a CD accompanying the book. His artistry also seems to personify the basin’s own unwillingness to compromise. Robicheaux, himself, seems to have mixed emotions about the basin, as he is aware of its potential to both heal and harm. For example, he describes how he stopped hunting in the basin. Curiously, one major deterrent that affected this decision was the danger of being bitten by something deadly, but his connection to the Atchafalaya—despite its dangers—remains unquestionable. His place as an intellectual and defender of the basin also places him in something of a unique position, a dichotomy that McCutchan attempts to describe as she is driving with him in his truck and notes two of his possessions: a fishing rod and a biography of Marcel Duchamp. These two, she explains, represent “the paradox that is Earl: the outdoorsman who grew up around the swamp . . . and the composer with the Ph.D” (p. 2).

Much of the text describes the history of the Atchafalaya during Earl’s lifetime and the challenges and triumphs that both have experienced. Various ecological features appear in the book, and all tell the story of a unique piece of American landscape and its connection to the local populations and economy. These influences include the rise of the nutria industry and the increased...


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