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.

Text Editors for Everyone

I am now, more than ever, convinced that writers should be taught how to write on text editors and not on modern word processors. The same goes for beginning writers as well as advanced writers.

Why? Good text editors — and there are plenty of good ones for the Mac, for Linux, and for Windows — do not give you WYSIWYG. (“What You See Is What You Get” is a close approximation of what the printed page will look like). Instead, text editors give you a blank screen, perhaps some line numbers, perhaps some syntax coloring (more on this in a moment) and no real sense of what the output is going to look like. And that’s a good thing, because you shouldn’t be thinking about the output while you’re writing. You should be thinking about what it is you are trying to communicate. You shouldn’t care what the margins look like, what the headers and footers look like, what the headings look like, etc. What you should be paying attention to are the words themselves and how you structure them into paragraphs and sections that convey what it is you are trying to say.

Unfortunately, most word processors sidetrack writers, especially inexperienced writers, into worrying about formatting, into confusing the styling of typography with styling of prose. (Mark Turner’s [Clear and Simple as the Truth][cst] explores what style really is.)

I want to be clear: typography and design are important, but they are only important insofar as they reflect and/or augment what it is the text itself is trying to say. Or, as I will say more about in a minute, design should be a function not only of the text and the audience and the intended meaning but also the medium in which the transaction is taking place. Even some of university professors and high-powered business people confuse formatting with structure, and so what hope for beginning writers and thinkers? And it’s going to get worse before it gets better, because for every web application that uses [Markdown][md], [Textile][tt], [ReST][rest], or some other version of easy-to-use markup, there are four web apps that provide a WYSIWYG editing interface.

So let loose the dogs of **bold** and *italics*! Facebook and MySpace have made everyone having a home on the internet easy, but in making it easy they have also taken a lot of thinking out of the process. Okay, I’m a humanist. I think thinking should always be a part of the process. It stings me that so few humanists worry about this. I understand that not everything needs to be thought about. My wife is a good example. For her, Microsoft Word works just fine. And, so far, she has never had a Word document go bad. I have. And it only took a time or two before I began thinking about not only how my data was locked up in someone else’s proprietary format — it’s a lot like someone encoding your data and turning it into a secret message that you can’t open with anything else but their key — but also how fragile that format was. Fragile both in terms of corruptibility and in terms of longevity. And never mind that every document was ten times, *ten times*, the size of the data it contained. What else was Word stuffing in there?

Elsewhere I’ve written about the importance of thinking about [platforms][pf], so I won’t go into it here. But obviously one thing having “just plain text” that can then be transformed into **xhtml** and from there into an **rtf** document or a PDF or a myriad of other things does is allow the writer to move quickly across platforms, multi-purposing their work. It’s my belief that we’re going to have to teach both humanists and communications people not only how to do this but the mindset behind it. I know the humanists aren’t getting it in their classes, and I’m pretty sure the communications folks aren’t either.

Personally, I think this is the key not only to good thinking, but also the key to good design. Once you “get this,” then your world changes. Suddenly, all media forms become languages that have their own grammars that you are free both to use conventionally and also innovate within — depending upon your objective.


What Platforms Do

In everyday usage, the word **platform** usually means a surface raised above ground level in order to accomplish some task. One such task of platforms is at public events, so that performers or speakers may be seen and heard quite literally above the audience or crowd, and hence the ideas upon which a group founds itself are sometimes called a platform. It made sense, then to extend the metaphor even further within the realm of computing to be “the standards that set the parameters for what a system can and cannot do.” The notion generally refers to the microprocessor at the heart of the computer’s hardware or the operating system which orchestrates interactions between the user and the hardware. In essence, a platform is an agreed upon set of conventions. Within a computing platform, there are agreed upon ways to interact with the kernel — there is, in fact, a term for this: API or “application programming interface.”

In less technological realms, political parties establish platforms, and those who wish to run for public office agree to abide by an agreed upon set of tenets or ideals when allying themselves with one party or another. Using *platform* in this fashion reveals that we live in a world of platforms — the irony of the “platform shooter” within the video game world should not be lost here — if we imagine that platforms are spaces within which we agree to live by a certain set of rules.

Television and cinema are one such platform: though there is room for negotiation on quantity and quality, everyone agrees that images and sound are central to publishing on that platform. If you want to work within that industry, then it’s incumbent on you to learn the basics of good shots — sound, lighting, composition — and how to edit those shots into a montage that conveys your idea. There are further refinements of the platform, depending upon what you want to achieve. If your goal is to produce the next great sitcom or next great Discovery documentary, then you will need to understand and abide by the conventions established within those forms. Please note that none of this precludes innovating within a platform, across platforms, or developing new platforms.

Arguably, the personal computer and the internet have become not only a new platform but also one that can deliver other, older media platforms like television and radio. The innovation it has spawned as a result of not only absorbing those older platforms but also shaking up the conventions within which they operated can easily be seen in the rise of the “podcast.” Formerly, radio programming was bound by clocks, because it went out as a live broadcast or stream and viewers could not tune in later to catch the same program. This meant a viewer had to know when a program began and ended. It became the convention to start programs either on the hour or the half hour, in order to make it easier for viewers to remember when a program aired. That meant a program had to be in increments of half hours, at the very least.

But suppose one didn’t have half an hour of content? Too bad — for the viewer that is — expand it to fit the space. But it turns out that a lot can get done in ten minutes, and the ten-minute podcast is a rather common length. With the rise of personal computers and the internet, immensely powerful forms of data aggregation and analysis as well as communication of syntheses in topic-appropriate media became something within reach of individuals and not the exclusive domain of institutions and industries.

I originally wrote the above as the prelude to a course syllabus for on computing in the humanities. I concluded the syllabus with:

>The goal of this course is to introduce participants to the basic elements of the computing platform: the creation of texts/data and manipulation in order to arrive at new insights, interpretations, and knowledge.

And then I offered up the following units:

**The Command Line.** The humanistic user of any platform should have a reflexive understanding of the very basics of its operations. In the case of the computer, the place to start is the command line. In this unit, we will learn how to: log into the shell, understand and navigate directory hierarchies, create and edit texts using an editor (e.g., Nano, vi, emacs).

**Working with Texts.** After creating and editing texts, we need to be able to search quickly through them for things they have in common in order to discern larger patterns. In this unit, we will: manipulate texts using grep, sed, and other shell programs including the use of options and pipes to control results; work with regular expressions.

**From Texts to Data.** It doesn’t take long before the average writer or scholar has not only a wide variety of texts but also a great umber of them. Keeping such a large number of texts organized and being able to call up relevant results when needed is best achieved by committing information to a database. There are a variety of database options, free ones even, but the emergent standard for basic tasks is MySQL.

**Of Packets and Ports.** The nature of communication. How is information exchanged?

**The Structure of Things.** There are a confusing array of MLs out there. The two most common are HTML and XML, but their approach to describing data and documents is different enough that we need to spend some time talking about different needs and approaches. In this unit we will explore the differences between document structure (HTML) and information structure (XML).

**Outputs.** None of our research and productivity means much if the data we have collected, the information we have developed, and the knowledge we have created isn’t made accessible and/or public.