First, definitions. The OED’s is incomplete and less colorful and complicated than the reality. Bayous, it tells us, are “marshy off-shoots and overflowings of lakes and rivers.” Maybe in Louisiana. That’s close to my Northern, pre-Houston understanding. I thought bayous were big swamps inhabited by live oaks, Spanish moss, alligators and people speaking a patois of French. In Houston we have plenty of live oaks and a few alligators but that’s not why it’s known as the Bayou City. Here, we have Buffalo Bayou, a semi-domesticated river with a watershed of some 500 square miles. But we also have an elaborate, 2,500-mile-long system of ditches, paved and unpaved, that serve as storm sewers to keep a flat city from turning into a Louisiana-style bayou – except during hurricanes. That’s what Houstonians mean by bayous -- half-natural, half-man-made creations on which the city’s ongoing existence is dependent. On my way to work I drive over three paved bayous, each perhaps two-hundred feet wide and one-hundred feet deep. All of them overflowed during Harvey’s visit.
At the end of our cul-de-sac is a fence, and on the other side of the fence is a grass-covered ditch, about twenty feet deep and slightly longer in width. Normally, a modest stream flows through it. In summer, the water sometimes dries up entirely. I’ve seen turtles, frogs and small fish swimming in it. Naturally, people use it as a dump for grass clippings and other yard waste, but it doesn’t smell, the water is usually clear, and the plant life that grows in and around it is lush and deeply green – arrowhead (locals call it “bull tongue”), smartweed and water pennywort.
Earlier this week, our picturesque trickle turned into a brown torrent that briefly overflowed its banks. The water rose higher than the sewer at the end of the cul-de-sac, which several times turned into a murky swimming pool. Mercifully, the rain fell in cycles, allowing the road to drain and the water level to periodically lower in the bayou. A vigilant neighbor kept the opening to the sewer free of debris. Otherwise, our houses might have flooded. Ours is the only two-story house on cul-de-sac, and we had already taken the precaution of moving antiques and lower-shelf books to the second floor.
Friday morning, I took the dog for a walk along our bayou. It looked remarkably normal, except for one backwater near the culvert pipe that runs under Ella Boulevard, a four-lane road. There, bobbing in the stream like a visual pun of dubious taste, was a remarkable number of empty plastic water bottles. There was also a plastic sign, the sort that’s stuck in the ground at street corners: “PAT BUYS HOUSES,” with a telephone number below. Litter isn’t pretty. I’m not aestheticizing human thoughtlessness, but the scene had its own unlikely beauty, with a hint of satire. Guy Davenport translates a fragment from Herakleitos in Herakleitos and Diogenes (Grey Fox Press, 1981) like this: “The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves.”