Volunteer Labor

One of the guys at the camp is a member of the Cajun Navy – at least as far as the term “member” can be used with the group. If you haven’t heard, the Cajun Navy is an unofficial group of folks from south Louisiana who, at their own expense and on their own time, offer assistance in flood situations. To put it in a nutshell, they show up with their boats and rescue people.

While this has been going on for some time here around home (there are plenty of folks who fish, hunt, own boats, and flooding has happened for a long time), the Cajun Navy burst into public awareness last year during the flooding in Louisiana of 2016.

Cajun Navy in action

Cajun Navy in action

Now, the Cajun Navy is part of the rescue response to the flooding of Hurricane Harvey. Paul (one of the guys at the camp) was able to get to Vidor, Texas, and one simple word summed up what was going on: Catastrophe. Back at home, the rest of us are looking for ways to help.

I think that the president summed up the feelings of most Americans when he referred to the outpouring of help and support as a beautiful thing. From my point of view, there is nothing surprising there. Natural disaster = helping each other.

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Water everywhere.

A few days ago the Sacred Sisters (my prayer group) prayed for all affected, all who were helping, and asking for guidance – what can each of us do? I commented that my only surprise in this response is the surprise of the rest of the world – wow, look at everyone helping each other!

Well, of course! That’s what we do, isn’t it? Is it a reflection on the world that so many are surprised at the outpouring of help directed towards “complete strangers?”

Compassion. For Christians, it is being the hands of Christ. A non-Christian won’t use those words, but it’s still compassion and kindness.

We are all seeking ways to help. Sorting donated clothing for distribution to evacuees far from home. Cooking for evacuees and volunteers. Rounding up helpers. Collecting water and supplies for those who can go to affected areas. For every helper we see on the news, there are hundreds and thousands more working quietly behind the scenes, doing whatever they can.

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Sorting donations for evacuees in our area

The elderly lady making cole slaw in her kitchen. The overworked professional saying “what do they need?” and giving money. The school children collecting socks.

Maybe it’s because we know first hand the helplessness of floods. Maybe it’s because we know that there are thousands of large and small losses in each family, in each life. Perhaps we respond in part because we know the long, hard road that awaits the evacuees when they can get back home.

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Why we build our houses “up.” Hurricane Rita.

Then again, maybe it’s just because that’s what we do.

Perhaps the “surprise” and the “news” expressed by the media, and all across social media, aren’t so much surprise as backlash reactions to the hate-filled stories that have filled the mainstream news media outlets. No, that narrative is NOT what America is about. It’s NOT what the southern states are about. It’s NOT who we are.

THIS is who we are: People who give a damn. People who care about others, regardless of their skin color or faith. People who will get creative and not sit around to be told where and how to help, but who will find a need and address it, even if it’s taking the bass boat on the road or buying extra toothpaste and underwear to share with those who left home without anything – or something as unassuming as shredding cabbage for cole slaw or folding, sorting and stacking donated clothing.

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Clothes, food, toiletries, donations pouring in.

This Labor Day, there are many, many Americans who are giving of their time, funds and labor to help others. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the holiday.

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Wheeeeeee!!!

Joy doesn’t have to be complicated. Or cerebral.  Or…anything other than a feeling of “wheeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”

So rather than expound, I’ll do something simple, like sharing some photos of  a couple of joyful doggies, because we all need to smile about something silly. Isn’t that  supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?

Here’s some joy for you: Taking the dogs riding in the sugar cane fields on spring evenings.

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Life is full of simple joys.

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Dogs have wisdom…they enjoy – and appreciate – the simple things.  We can learn a lot from them….
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The beauty of y’all

In choir practice this morning, Leon (who hails from Mississippi) made a comment about the word y’all, and how we just seem to forget that “you” can also be plural.

It made me think about a training class I’d attended earlier in the week.  The trainer was from somewhere “up north,” and said she hadn’t ever gotten used to saying y’all, so she hoped we were OK with “you guys.”

Sigh. Well, ok, but just not from my lips. Y’all is a lovely and infinitely useful word. You see, I am a Southerner.  I know that on the 8th day, God created coffee, crawfish and grits (in that order). And God looked at Creation, and said:

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Now…a couple of very important (and oft-misunderstood) points about the word y’all:

1) Y’all is a contraction of the words “you” and “all.”  Therefore, the correct spelling is not ya’ll, but rather y’all.

2) Y’all is not singular. Ever.  See #1 above.

The word y’all is much more pleasant to the ears than the term “you guys.” The former is a soft, easy short “a” sound, and the word rolls off the tongue like velvet, no matter how quickly or slowly it is uttered.  You guys, on the other hand, invites nasal sounds and even, depending on the speaker, a possible dipthong on the word “guys.”

I remember my shock in grade school when we were learning about contractions, and how to spell them…and that y’all was not a “real word.”  Excuse me? And as noted above, it is only plural, in spite of how it may be used in the singular by those trying to “speak southern” (bless their hearts).

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Y’all is not only polite; it is genuinely inclusive.  While “you” can be plural, it may be confusing when used in a group.  For example: “You come for gumbo this evening, OK?” This is fine if you are speaking to an individual without anyone else around.  However, if the invitation is uttered to a group that way, you may wind up with only one person showing up (and the rest of the group being insulted).

Y’all come for gumbo,” however, makes it quite clear. If you want to reiterate that the invitation is indeed meant for the group (in case there may be any doubt, or someone might think the invitation was for the individual and their family), “y’all all come” is perfectly acceptable, in spite of its apparent redundancy.  Think of all y’all and y’all all as slightly similar to using a reflective pronoun.

Y’all all come, make sure you bring your mom ‘n ‘em.” (Or you could say “papa ‘n ‘em” or “Marie ‘n ‘em” or whatever.) This means brings everyone y’all were just talking about, or “bring your usual entourage.” (It also means you made a whole lot of gumbo.)

I would love to see a southern revision of the Book of Common Prayer:

The Lord be with y’allAnd also with you. Lift up y’all’s hearts…

Y’all welcomes everyone with a smile.  It is itself an invitation to slow down, to relax, to breathe.  The Shema begins with the words “Hear, O Israel!” In the New Testament, Jesus uses those words when He proclaims the greatest commandments.  I think he was basically saying “all y’all listen!” While that may sound odd, it’s easier to imagine than his saying “OK, you guys…”

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Peace be with y’all…with all y’all.

For an interesting geographic discussion of the use of y’all, visit
http://www.floatingsheep.org/2014/05/hey-yall-geographies-of-colloquialism.html

Lighting the fire

It’s the last few hours of 2016. It’s been a drizzly day, and I have a pot of blackeye peas on the stove for tomorrow. Fireworks, various pyrotechnics and fires in general have long been a family tradition around the turn of the year, and this year has been no exception in spite of the rain. Long before the “garden firepit” came onto the scene, we built fires in the backyard.

Each Christmas saw my brother and me heading to the hardware store or fireworks stand to carefully select penny skyrockets, roman candles, and other goodies. Firecrackers were best suited for blowing up crawfish castles (the small chimney of mud that remains above ground when crawfish set up housekeeping). We still enjoy fireworks, and in recent years have undertaken a bonfire tradition.

There’s something primal about a fire, this momentary return to the light as the days grow ever-so-slightly longer. We in south Louisiana don’t have to deal with long periods of darkness, but even so, we love our bonfires, campfires and fire pits. A friend made a fire kettle that is suspended from a tripod. Spent ashes fall through the hole, and fresh wood is added to the top. In the fall and winter, we often hang out around the fire in the evenings. I find myself soaking up the peacefulness – or engaging in discussion about anything from theology to politics to history or philosophy – you know, the fun, lightweight stuff.

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Cast iron firepit, site of many lively discussions.

Yesterday we had our end of the year bonfire. (Said bonfire can be any time we have enough wood, energy, and dry, cool weather around Christmas / New Year / Epiphany. If those things don’t converge, we don’t have a bonfire.) David (husband), Greg (brother) and Bubba (music partner/friend) outdid themselves in the planning and execution.

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Scrap wood used for shipping is bonfire fuel.

The plan was to start it burning at the top so that it would burn evenly and not collapse too soon.

Fireworks (bottle rockets) were strategically placed along the top, pointing in safe directions. Firecrackers were tucked inside. Of course, our bonfire site is in the open, well away from anything that could catch. Fortunately, south Louisiana isn’t the tinderbox situation that exists in some areas.

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My brother, always the ham.  I don’t blame him for being proud of this one, though. They added a “porch,” decorative top and bottle rockets prior to lighting.

Gumbo, potato salad, mulled wine, family and some friends made it a great way to celebrate the return of the light. I can’t help but think of how many families and communities since the dawn of time have celebrated the promise of renewed light with a fire. (Power tools only a recent invention, too!)

 

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Starting at the top of each section.

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Whoosh!! If 2016 was a good year, celebrate!

This past year was a good one for some, a bad one for others, and a mixed bag for most. Each year, regardless of how the year has been, we celebrate the return of the light at Christmas. We turn inward during the dark of the year. We can either join the fear of the dark, or celebrate the light.

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And if 2016 was a bad year, torch it!

The other day I was in a store, browsing some after-Christmas discounts, and a woman walked by and said “you see a lot of stuff left this year – that’s because no one has any money! People don’t have any money!” I recognized her frustration, and her fear. The repercussions of low oil prices have rippled through Louisiana and beyond, leaving thousands without jobs. For many, unemployment benefits have run out. Some are relocating against their will. Many are fearing this darkness, as well as the darkness elsewhere in the world. We turn to faith and the promise of Christmas.

And we light a fire, whether for warmth, light, or just fun. In doing so, we connect with ancestors of long ago and not-so-long ago as we watch the flames, knowing that light will always dawn again.

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Light awaits.

It is the season of light and miracles. We are still in the “12 days of Christmas” as we move towards Epiphany. This year, the first day of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Day. I pray on this New Year’s Eve that these ancient celebrations of light and miracles bring positive changes, peace and the ever-growing light of love to all.

Making Sugar (part 2)

In Part 1, we got the cane from the field, unloaded it at the mill, chopped up, and now… into the mill it goes.

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Cane is crushed before it even enters the mill.

The cane is pretty much pulverized along the way, and the juice extracted.  In another part of the cane mill complex, a core laboratory is analyzing samples from each load of cane to determine sucrose, moisture and other factors which indicate the sugar yield from each truckload.  The cane is pulverized through the mill – usually involving a series of rollers – and the juice is extracted.  The remaining pulp is called bagasse, and is usually incinerated to fuel the running of the mill.  There’s an awful lot of bagasse, though, and the sugar content means it will ferment quickly – there’s that stench a lot of people complain about.

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Ground cane being processed

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Ground cane being processed (more!)

The juice itself is like any other raw juice – a thin liquid, and frankly, not exactly clean.  It’s cleaned up with slaked lime, and the dirt settles out and is usually returned to the fields.  The juice heads off to evaporators so that it can be boiled down.

a-boiler

Bubble, bubble, boiling sweetness!

If by now you have the idea that a sugar cane factory is a large, hot place with a lot of very massive machinery…you’re right.  Most of the “smoke” people see billowing out of the plant is steam, and both air and water exhaust is monitored and must meet environmental regulations.

Making sugar is an art as well as a science.  It’s one thing to boil the juice down into syrup; it’s something else to coax it into crystalization. It’s a tricky process.

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Checking crystals

Once the magic of crystalization happens, the syrup heads to centrifuges where the crystals are separated from the liquid.  Voila! Raw sugar, which is dried and sent to a warehouse.

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Taking a quick sample from a centrifuge.

Louisiana is home to 11 sugar factories which produce raw sugar, which is sent to refineries that will produce refined sugar and similar products.  Because of the sugar content of the cane, it must be processed quickly after it is cut.  The raw sugar is usually stored in warehouses until it can be shipped to a refinery.

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Cane goes from the mill to a warehouse on a conveyor belt. It pours into a mountain of sugar.

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At the warehouse, the sugar is transferred to dump trucks, which take it to barges, which will take the raw sugar to a refinery.

I often wonder who figured out that the tall, thick cane held this amazing sweet stuff in it.  Since cane was introduced into Louisiana, I don’t think it was the same brave soul who looked at a crawfish and said “I wonder how that tastes?”

So when you sit down to enjoy something sweet this Christmas or Hanukkah, take a moment to think of all those who had a hand in your holiday baking. Chances are many of those folks are at work on Christmas day, because grinding doesn’t stop until all the cane is done. Think about all of those who’ve had a hand in your entire holiday meal, no matter how extravagant or simple, and say a prayer of thanksgiving.

Now I’m going to post this and bake some Christmas cookies with – yep, you guessed it – home-grown Louisiana raw sugar.

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Making Sugar

I live in the heart of sugar cane country.  I am literally surrounded by cane fields.  From my front porch, I have a view of oak trees and cane fields and in the summer, you can indeed hear it grow (the cane, that is).  Our  world has changed so much over the past decades that more and more people don’t quite realize exactly where their food comes from.  Well, I can tell you a bit about sugar.

Right now it’s harvest time in south Louisiana.  We actually have a relatively short growing season – cane is planted in the late summer of one year and harvested in the fall of the next.  Most sugar consumed (sugar, not corn syrup or other sweeteners) comes from sugar cane (about 20% comes from sugar beets), which is actually a grass.  A grass that can grow really, really tall.

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Sugar cane in mid-summer.  Tall, but still with some growing to do.

In some growing areas of the world where the cane has a longer season, it flowers.  Wow! Not in south Louisiana as the cane must be harvested before it freezes.  Harvest time, or “grinding,” starts around the beginning of September.

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Harvested cane in carts await unloading at M. A. Patout sugar mill in Patoutville, LA.

Cane is cut, loaded into carts or large (18-wheeler) trucks, and brought to the mill. In years past, the cane would be burned after cutting and before loading in order to remove the leaves. Fortunately, newer harvesting techniques results in “billet” cane which is chopped shorter during the harvesting process – eliminating most (but not all) of the need for burning the cane.  It may be a pretty sight, but it does put a lot of smoke and soot into the air.

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Burning fields at dusk between Lydia and Patoutville, LA

Anyone driving on a two lane highway in south or central Louisiana knows to “watch out for the cane trucks!” because they do tend to move more slowly than regular traffic. A pet peeve of mine is the folks who zoom around them recklessly or who complain about the trucks.  What, you’re late for work?  You should know better this time of year, and the person driving the truck is at work already.

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Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA

Sugar mills are where the cane is crushed, juice is extracted, then boiled down to yield sugar crystals (and molasses).  Sounds simple? Well…the idea is simple, but sugarmaking is as much of an art as it is a science.  But first things first.  Cut the cane, load it, haul it to the mill and unload it there.

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A truck filled with cane arrives at Cajun Sugar Co-op, New Iberia, LA

Methods of unloading cane are pretty impressive.

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At Cajun Sugar, the truck body is lifted to dump the cane.

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Sometimes the entire truck is lifted!

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At Sterling Sugars in Franklin, LA, it’s a similar process.

But wait…I’m getting out of order a bit.  When the trucks arrive at the mill, they are weighed (they are weighed again after the cane is dumped).  A “core sample” is taken at that time as well.  Think giant hypodermic needle and you get the concept.

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The core sampler at Cajun Sugar.

The sample goes directly to the core lab where it will be analyzed for sugar content.  Samples are tracked by barcode, and the load-specific barcode is generated when the sample gets to the core lab. That info is tracked in the mill’s database so that each farmer can be paid properly. Pretty neat, huh? (I remember my grandfather at the mill, counting his truck arrivals – a common thing back then.)

Once the core sample is taken, the trucks are unloaded and the cane is stacked up in a massive yard.  From there it is transported into the mill for grinding.

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Not quite a “big ol’ rock candy mountain,” but a mountain of sugar cane.

The cane is chopped more before going into the mill.

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Between the cane yard and the actual mill.

On the way into the mill, the cane will be on a conveyer belt and “make a pass” under some giant magnets.  A stray piece of metal can mess up the mill, and possibly harm a mill employee.

Generally speaking, the cane will be chopped, smushed, macerated, and more or less rendered into mush/goo/yucky looking stuff and the juice extracted. Hence the term “grinding!”

But how does the juice from this overgrown grass become sugar?  Ahh, that’s the next segment of this series, as I’m now going to have a cup of coffee sweetened with raw sugar.  Stay tuned!

Note – all photos © B. D. Lowry; all rights reserved.  Please contact me for use.

Stay grateful, my friends.

Here it is, Thanksgiving Eve, and I’d like to say that I’ve written an insightful, well-thought-out, finely-crafted post on gratitude.

However… an outdoor fire and a margarita called my name. I’m weak, human, and subject to temptation. Instead of writing, I sat around said fire with the margarita, family and friends, and a Sonic hamburger (and mosquitoes).

We’ve much to be grateful for in the simple things.  So instead of writing, I thought I’d just share some photos of just a few of the many everyday things I’m grateful for.

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An evening walk with my dog.

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The August flooding didn’t get bad at all here.

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Planting cane.

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This little guy by my office. Fortunately, he’s not far from home.

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Bird sanctuary at Avery Island, Louisiana.  Yep, I’m 15 minutes away from where they make Tabasco.

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Sugar cane, by home.

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Harvest time, hauling cane to the mill.

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This little fella by my kitchen door. He sings, too.

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A route in Pecan Island, Louisiana.

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Rain for the cane. (Sugar cane fields)

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Sunset seen from my front porch.

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The view on my morning walk to work.

Life is filled with challenges, trials, fearful things, obstacles and broken dreams.  There will always be an unsoothed ache, a hidden hurt, a lost chance.

Thankfully, there will also be more beauty, chances, hope and love in life, in plain sight, waiting for us to grab it, share it, celebrate it.  The choice of where to look is up to us, and I prefer to see the beauty and hope in the world.

Stay grateful, my friends.