Guest Post: Bayou St. John: Nothing Less Than A Dear Friend

Guest Post by Cassie Pruyn, author of Bayou St. John: A Brief History

Bayou St. John, a small, river-like waterbody fed by Lake Pontchartrain, meanders sluggishly through the heart of New Orleans. It’s one of relatively few places in the city where a person can sit by the water. It’s one of the relatively few places in New Orleans where a person can even see the water (except, that is, if it rains hard; then there’s water everywhere you look, including where it’s not supposed to be!). Historically, the city has responded to the threat of flooding by putting walls around its waterbodies, or else burying them. But Bayou St. John remains if not in its natural state then out in the open, along what is roughly its original path—thanks almost entirely to the residents of New Orleans, past and present, who have fought for its integrity and health over the centuries. A smooth, blue-brown ribbon, almost narrow enough to yell across, it hosts great flocks of visitors each year. Before I began researching its storied past, this was my relationship to the bayou: I loved visiting its grassy banks on weekends with friends, like so many others, and I found its presence calming. Now, after spending over two years immersed in everything bayou-related I could get my hands on, the bayou is a nothing less than a dear friend.

I’ve always loved water. I grew up near the ocean in southern Maine, and have always felt the appropriate mixture of awe, reverence, and fear towards that frigid swath of the Atlantic. And sure, rivers were around when I was growing up—tidal creeks and fresh rivers with rope swings. But mostly, Maine was ocean and lakes. Lakes! Lakes everywhere! And islands everywhere you looked, peppering the lakes, studding the coast.

So you’ll imagine my shock upon arriving in an alluvial river delta. As in, the mouth of a very large, very muddy river whose mud bloomed and accumulated for centuries, layer upon layer, until something like land was born. And upon this fluid plain, a city. A city full of magic, darkness, fortitude, and heart. A city that smells like it’s alive. Where I’m from, it smells salty, piney, and sometimes faintly metallic—that subtle scent of snow. And trust me, I miss the fresh air sometimes. But it has transformed me forever to live in a city that smells like jasmine, garbage, and river mud. That smells like a living body with a mammoth, land-building river running through it.

By “mammoth, land-building river,” I’m speaking of the Mississippi of course; this dramatic description couldn’t possibly belong to the humble Bayou St. John. But the bayou is one of the river’s spidery progeny, and far more navigable than its forbear; in fact, it was Bayou St. John that facilitated the founding of New Orleans to begin with. Who better, I ask, to spend day after day with than this modest slip, this manageable vein that nonetheless has had its unmanageable moments over the years? The Mississippi, for my purposes, was far too famous and dynamic. It was the Bayou St. John that took this New Englander in, that made her feel welcomed, and that still beckons to me as I pass over its blueish torso on the way to work. Don’t worry, BSJ, we’ll be friends forever. I’ll see you next weekend with my picnic blanket and my po’ boy, and we’ll shoot the breeze.