Bryan Piazza at work.

Favorite Nature: Bryan Piazza on Coming to the Atchafalaya

Bryan Piazza celebrates the Atchafalaya Basin in his new Texas A&M Press book The Atchafalaya River Basin: History and Ecology of an American Wetland. But unlike many who love the Atchafalaya, he wasn’t born there. How does a self-described Wisconsin boy become a bayou scientist? He recently sat down with Conservancy writer Cara Byington and shared the path that brought him to the Atchafalaya. (Read more about Bryan’s book and how the Basin may be a glimpse of the future on our sister blog, Cool Green Science.)

In a way, I came to Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Delta via Canada. I went to the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and was doing field work up in Canada at the Delta Waterfowl research station. I was finishing out my time there and really wanted to come to Louisiana, and this Louisiana State University professor said, “Do you have any interest living out in the middle of the marsh working on a project with colonial water birds?”

So that’s what I did. And that’s how I came to stay in the Atchafalaya Delta.

I’d do four or five days at a time out in the field. I drove this old Ford Ranger and I’d leave it at the dock and make the 45-minute run from Berwick to where I stayed out on the Delta. I ran crab traps and caught catfish, or I’d run out to where the saltwater was and catch red fish. I’d go back to Baton Rouge to wash my clothes unless I could get a better deal. I had a lot of buddies in the fisheries program and I was in the wildlife program so I was down in the coastal wetlands and they were up the river.

They had a camp on the banks of the Atchafalaya in the Cypress swamps. So when my weekly hitch in the wetlands was up and I was due for a break, I’d call them up – we all used VHF radios back in those days — and I call them to see if they needed any help. If they didn’t need me, I’d go back to Baton Rouge and do my laundry. Most of the time they were happy to have the help, so I’d just say, “Screw it. I’ll wear dirty clothes.”

I’d help tag and track fish – then we’d fly in these small planes and chase around all night long in boats tracking the fish with radio telemetry. I was a green Wisconsin boy coming down here out of school, and this place — and the people I met here — took me in.

I’ve been thinking about those days and those people a lot lately as I’ve been getting ready for my book to come out. I’ve been signing books and thanking people for everything they gave me — the gift of the Atchafalaya. Like this place, they molded me and taught me things.

Green kid from up North, they taught me how to get back to the dock. They didn’t let me die. (Part of that was probably luck, but still). They taught me how to find my way. Now, I’ve worked here for 20 years. And as I supervise grad students and post docs doing fieldwork, I realize how much they must have been worrying about me. Thinking, I hope that kid doesn’t kill himself.

It was probably a near-run thing a couple of times. The Atchafalya is a powerful river. But all these years later, I’m still part of a tight group of coastal wetlands ecologists in Louisiana — some of my buddies now are friends I made that first season in the Delta and up on river.

I’ve been to and worked in many interesting places. Some are incredibly special to me, like the Sand Hills of Nebraska, but the Atchafalaya is where I have so many connections. My wife, my family, my friends. The Atchafalaya itself is one of my oldest friends in Louisiana and I never get tired of it.

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy.

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