“Last hurricane,” he said, “the water was four feet deep around the house. That piling has paid for itself.” We clambered into a weathered skiff with a kind of broad shelf abaft the middle. Using a small version of oyster tongs called “nippers” to pole the boat, Mr. Llewellyn stood at the bow. Periodically he clicked the nippers and drew up a cluster of blackened oysters that he cast on the shelf for sorting. He clenched a cigar in his teeth. “Two years ago,” he said, “there wasn’t an oyster in this bayou. But I seeded it with old shells and beer cans and worn-out tires. All an oyster needs is something to cling to and it’ll grow just fine.”
“Is it a particular species?” I asked.
“Well, we call them mud oysters.”
“I know,” he sighed. “It’s not a very elegant name.”
As we drifted through the meandering waterway bracketed by harsh, high grass, Mr. lewellyn kept swinging up clumps of oysters. One huge oyster broke open and I sampled it. Plump but bland. “That size,” he said, “they’re only fit for frying. Besides, all the rain has probably taken away the salty taste. They’re delicate, you know. The salinity of the water, the temperature, even the tides affect the way they look and taste.”
Later, in Mr. Llewellyn’s dining room, we wolfed down fresh oysters with a fantasy of sauces, followed by fried oysters, grits, and coffee. “I lived away from here for 14 years,” Mr. Llewellyn said, “and the thing I missed most was the taste of those mud oysters.”
The next day with my friend Eddie Hicks of Irvington, I visited the lonely tip of Point aux Pins, Point of Pines. Gallberry and sassafras bushes lined the dirt road. “The gall-berries come out in winter,” Eddie said. “As they ferment, the robins eat them and get dead drunk. You can almost pick them off the branches. Well, you take those robins and fry the breasts in grease and mix them with rice and bake it all into a robin jambalaya, and you got the best eatin’ you’ll ever know.”
At Point aux Pins the water was the hue of clouded gunmetal, and a wind with the faint scent of iodine whipped through the coarse grass.
“My granddaddy used to come down here most every day and shoot himself a couple of ducks and catch a sack of oysters,” Eddie said. “Those waters out there used to be black with ducks. The limit on redheads was ten a day. Now the state’ll put you in jail if you shoot more than one. But I didn’t see a single redhead last season.”
We turned away from the marshy shore. To the west, on the horizon, loomed a vast refinery. Not far from it a paper mill spewed roiling smoke into the lowering sky. And once at dusk, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, I was walking along the white sands at Point Clear. Overhead, swallows darted; small waves lapped nervously on the beach. Suddenly, I saw him—a blue heron sprawled on the sand like a flawed and dirty sapphire. His graceful body still supple, no wound visible. Dead of what? Dead of filth.
Yes, industry is bringing jobs to Alabama. What’s more, today using a payday loan helps people who want to start their own business. But the machines sing a threnody for a way of life that, just maybe, was idyllic. While the moon is bright, Watch them jugs a fillin’ in the pale moonlight.