Memories of Life on an 'Atchafalaya Houseboat' In the 1970s, Gwen Roland decided to live off the land — and water — in the Louisiana swamp. She and her partner lived on a houseboat they built themselves; they had no electricity and no running water. Roland chronicles those years in her book Atchafalaya Houseboat.
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Memories of Life on an 'Atchafalaya Houseboat'

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Memories of Life on an 'Atchafalaya Houseboat'

Memories of Life on an 'Atchafalaya Houseboat'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Thirty some years ago Gwen Carpenter Roland was about to start work on her Ph.D. But she tossed that life aside and went to live off the land and water in the Atchafalaya River Basin Swamp in South Central Louisiana. She and her then partner, Calvin Voisin, had a dream to live on a houseboat in the swamp away from just about everyone and everything. And it didn't' take long to find the barge they would build their house on a monster barge.

Ms. GWEN ROLAND (Author of Atchafalaya Houseboat): 106 feet long and 26 feet wide. It was very big. Big enough to build a nice big house with lots of windows.

BLOCK: So armed with the book, How to Build Your Home in the Woods, and a box of crayons to draw their plans, they got to work. When Roland writes about the six years they spent in the swamp in her book, Atchafalaya Houseboat, the house had no electricity, no running water and they loved it.

Ms. ROLAND: It was very solid. Yes it was. The porch was 20 feet by 20 feet wide and so was the kitchen. The rooms were large and airy because of all the windows. We had just enough wood to hold up the roof, the rest was windows.

BLOCK: You describe backbreaking work it seems. You're doing everything for yourselves. Do you remember how tired you must have been?

Ms. ROLAND: Yes. One of the things that I did was laundry. Calvin and I would do this together. Haul buckets of water to a large oval tub and then I would take an old food grater and grate up Octagon Soap and put my clothes in there, and I would play the harmonica and stomp on them to get them clean. And I did this in order to save my arms, because so much of my work involved working with my arms, and it gave me an opportunity to practice my harmonica, which always needed work.

BLOCK: The harmonica must have kept you sane.

Ms. ROLAND: I don't know. It never did get any better. Calvin used to say it sounded like a truckload of ginny hens and I think it still does.

BLOCK: You write about a time in the summer, it's July, and it's incredibly hot. And you describe swimming out to a sandbar for your morning bath. And I wonder if you could read this section. It's from a chapter you call Summer Swamp.

Ms. ROLAND: "We consider the sandbar our office since we show up there each morning about the same time people in civilization head out for work. Stretched full length upon the damp floor of the executive suite, we firm up the plans for the rest of the day. Some chores call the shots themselves. If the blackberry wine is ready for bottling, or the elderberries are ready for picking, we have no choice. Tomatoes that were too green for making ketchup yesterday will be overripe tomorrow and so must be cooked today. If no such no crucial matters are pending we may decide to put the quilting frame in a shady spot for some leisurely patching of our old quilts. Or perhaps a slab of dry cypress will be clamped into the vise under the cottonwoods for some paddle making. Plans made, meeting adjourned, we swim back home."

BLOCK: When you read that, I feel that heat and I feel that lethargy that you must have been going through.

Ms. ROLAND: That kind of detail, I'm glad you brought that up because I couldn't have written that today. Thirty years, it really dulls the memory. And the only reason these stories could be put in this book is because I wrote them as newspaper columns and magazine articles back when they were fresh. I think quiet is something I miss a lot about the swamp. Hearing nothing but bird sounds and the brush of water past a log. The occasional pop of a fish splashing down into the water. It was a very quite life.

BLOCK: Was it lonely?

Ms. ROLAND: No. I had animals, I had beautiful nature. I had a very pleasant partner and I never desired to see anybody. I never said, I'm lonely. I wish we had some company. We did have quite a bit of company, artists and musicians, writers, historians, anthropologists. It was amazing, the traffic that flowed through our little houseboat as people discovered we were there.

BLOCK: One of the ways that that people discovered you were there was through the photographs of C.C. Lockwood. And I'm looking at his photo of you on the cover of your book. It's either sunrise or sunset and I'm assuming it's sunrise. You're standing right next to the houseboat in a white bathrobe, holding a hairbrush. You're hair is maybe wet from a swim. And you look luminous. You are glowing in this picture.

Ms. ROLAND: I'm sure it's an early morning in the autumn because of the fog. And I must have just washed my hair. I don't think I was swimming because I have socks on. This is the way I'm reconstructing my youth is by looking at C.C.'s old photographs.

BLOCK: When you look at this picture, do you remember that young woman? Does she seem like a, like a stranger to you in some way I wonder?

Ms. ROLAND: At first she did. In putting the book together I had to examine that young woman a lot. And what I came up with was that it's been a pleasant surprise to discover that even as we turn grayer and grow rounder, those young people that we were remain firmly at our core. And I think there were times in my life that I tried to deny she ever existed. I certainly forgot about her a lot in the, the years of just making a living. And the things I liked best about her are still with me and I plan to nourish those things. Her curiosity. That's what brought her there to begin with. Just wanting to learn more stuff.

BLOCK: I heard you getting emotional as you talked there, and I wonder if it's hard to remember that time, or if it's hard to think of how much time has passed maybe, or how much has been left behind?

Ms. ROLAND: You can only do life once and so you can only take every one of these rabbit trails just one time. And you never know what would have happened had you stayed, had you never gone. Everyone has those kinds of junctures in their life. I suppose what I noticed most about these old photographs is I don't seem to be smiling much. And I can't really remember if I, if I was that solemn a person. Today I consider myself a lot merrier than that young woman was.

BLOCK: Maybe you were just too tired.

Ms. ROLAND: Might have been. If I could tell her anything from this vantage point it would be use sunscreen.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Gwen Roland's book is titled, Atchafalaya Houseboat, My Years in the Louisiana Swamp. She ultimately left the houseboat after she fell in love with a riverboat engineer to whom she's still married. Calvin Voisin lives on land now, but still on the bayou in Louisiana. You can find C.C. Lockwood's photos from their years in the swamp and read an excerpt from the book at our website,

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