Once considered one of the most important waterways in the American southeast and a vital link in a shortcut from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana's Bayou Manchac rests in virtual obscurity today. Few now notice the bayou—which runs for eighteen miles, forming the boundary between several south Louisiana parishes—or remember that everyone from French explorers and steamboat captains to modern-day loggers and fishermen have plied its waters and lived along its banks. Even fewer are aware that the bayou remains a place of striking, intense beauty in spots untouched by development and pollution. In Winding through Time, Mary Ann Sternberg interweaves the bayou's history with tales, anecdotes, and personal observations, creating an entertaining and educational introduction to this overlooked natural haven.
With the tenacity and skill of a historical detective, Sternberg uncovers Bayou Manchac's rich and colorful past. She reveals that the waterway that most know only by weathered highway signs on the parish line served, several times in its history, as an international border, forming part of the northern boundary of the "Isle of Orleans." She recalls the flourishing Native American cultures that occupied sites along the bayou as early as 250 b.c. and describes the many unsuccessful schemes over the years to make it navigable and thus provide a major commercial artery connecting the Mississippi River with Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain. Bayou Manchac survives still, she shows, as a somewhat frayed relic of our natural past valued mainly for its drainage capacity and abused by polluters.
More than simply an environmental history, however, Sternberg's Winding through Time offers her personal narrative of "discovering" Bayou Manchac a few years ago and her growing awareness of its untamed beauty, historical significance, and threatened well-being. She traveled the bayou, meeting some of the people who live along its banks and who shared many of their stories. Through her engaging prose and lively commentary, she succeeds in providing a life-history and, indeed, a personality, for this geographical feature.
Sternberg shines a long overdue spotlight on Bayou Manchac, questioning how such a valuable resource could have become so diminished. As she eloquently illustrates, the wandering tale of this little waterway, though unique, also strikes a cautionary note for other small historic American streams.
Mary Ann Sternberg, author of Along the River Road: Past and Present on Louisiana’s Historic Byway and Winding through Time: The Forgotten History and Present-Day Peril of Bayou Manchac, is a nonfiction writer with a deep appreciation for Louisiana’s history and culture. She lives in Baton Rouge and has an abiding delight in exploring the world.
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