Blocks of beautiful parkways wind along the river, and historical buildings and monuments shine in the light breaking through the dense cloud cover. Apparently, Baton Rouge weekend night-life is much more entertaining; but considering we went there during the week, I think we saw a total of six people walking around the streets at any one time.
This aside, the Big Raggedy and its surrounding suburbs were informed by our reading of All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. The story follows the journey of Willie Talos (or Willie Stark in some versions of the book), a self-proclaimed "hick" with a knack for reaching the hearts of the poor whites and who ascended to the highest political position of the state with ambitious and unconventional means. His story mirrors that of the real mayor of Louisiana during the 1930's, Huey Long, who remains a fond landmark in the state's history as the mayor who revitalized the state's infrastructure and whom the people adored.
As an example of Huey Long's remarkable industry, he built the new State Capitol building in only 14 months; to this day, the building remains one of the largest and most beautiful in all the state, towering over the various downtown buildings with concrete and marble wonder.
All The King's Men added a personal, human touch to the study of Huey Long's politics during the time of his political reign, a perspective no history textbook could have provided. As a result, I explored the Capitol, Huey Long's monumental grave, and the beautifully manicured gardens and saw them not just as decoration but as a statement of power made by one man in his home state.
The practice of stirring up the poor white communities of middle America in the novel is hauntingly familiar, where the political vigor of Willie Stark and Huey Long rivals that of the candidates for the recent United States election. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders stirred up similar constituencies as Huey Long during their campaigns, coming from outside of the political arena and rocking the foundation of American politics. While these are all different men with different political goals in mind, the similarities in how they stir up a crowd during a rally and play on the pathos of the people to get their support is staggering.
However responsive the political leaders may seem on issues concerning the development of infrastructure and revitalization of jobs, the problem of environmental degradation in Louisiana's bayous still takes a backseat. On our way to Baton Rouge, we stopped in a small town in the Atchafalaya Basin and took a boat tour through the swamps nearby. Our tour guide, a Spanish immigrant who had been living and working for the preservation of the basin for nineteen years, talked to us about the history of logging in the region and how the ecosystems have suffered from human intervention.
One of the most striking things he talked about was the longevity of the swamp. He described the swamp as it used to be before Louisiana was settled in 1718; they were hives of primordial mystery, brimming with the cacophonous drone of birds in the massive cypresses that towered over the earth for thousands of years. When it was found that cypresses could endure the subtropical climate, the early settlers began to log the swamps and build their houses from the impenetrable, un-rottable cypress wood. This transformed the swamps' ecosystems forever, with new cypresses growing much thinner and smaller in size and bushes and vines invading the ground so fewer trees could grow.
Today, the environmentalists of the Atchafalaya Basin are working to protect the swamps from future logging ventures, fighting against corporations who want to construct oil pipelines. Their small victories in court over the years have led them to partner with a British company to protect the swamplands with the hopes of finally establishing a state or federal mandate to protect the swamps from future human invasion. Although the journey has been tough and many companies still fight for development, the importance of the Atchafalaya Basin to the ecosystem of Louisiana has not fallen on deaf ears.
The political climate of Louisiana has proven to be as thick and hot as the air we breathe here. Investigation of the methods behind political innovation and the battles still being fought have informed my experience in the Capitol city, allowing me to peek behind the veil of governmental development and to understand how Louisiana has become the modern state it is today.