The Real dirt

I've held every kind of writing job except chicken catalogs and scandal sheets-- two gigs I may yet land. Even though I've covered stories as far flung as scuba diving and Chitimacha Indian basketry, my favorite beat is rural living. 

Growing up in rural Louisiana, self-sufficiency was a given, so the back-to-earth movement of the early 70s was just a short jaunt for me. My partner back then was Calvin Voisin who was born and raised in Bayou Sorrel, a strip of fishing community on the backside of the Atchafalaya levee. We built a houseboat and returned to the Atchafalaya Swamp of our ancestors. There was so little information about the things we were doing that I started writing as a way to help others who were also pursuing the good life.

my books and bayou chene

Gwen Roland


My peaceful lifestyle continued for nearly a decade. Then, while on a writing assignment, I fell in love with a handsome riverboat engineer somewhere between Baton Rouge and Boomer, West Virginia. Thus my beautiful swamp disappeared in the rearview mirror of a pick up truck and a tiny camper. As newly weds, Preston and I traveled the country pursuing any kind of life that struck our fancy any fine morning. Most of our major life changes started with one of us saying, "I wonder what it would be like to . . . . ."

My sense of curiosity has always outweighed my fear of failure, and this imbalance has led me into assorted jobs and personal pursuits for which I was not remotely qualified. Goats come to mind. So does a stint with a scuba magazine where I discovered there are two kinds of people who go underwater--some say "Wow!" and others say "If God intended me to be down here, I would have gills!" 

Just when I was getting tired of living out of duffel bags, I hit on a  job that engaged my curiosity long enough to call it a career. As communications specialist for the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, I translated research results into stories farmers could actually use. After nearly 20 years of writing about the most exciting ag research in the country, I retired in 2010.

I live with my still-handsome riverboat engineer in Pike County, Georgia, a rolling landscape in the foothills of the Pine Mountain range.  I raise much of our food with the help of horse manure, chickens, honeybees and earthworms. But no goats. Never again.

Since childhood I’ve brooded over the anecdotes about Bayou Chene as they were  handed down in my Louisiana family. Pronounced Shane, it is French for Oak Bayou. The old stories included one about the man who jumped astride his still just before it blew up; he wore a dress for weeks while his injuries healed. There was the grandmother whose rocking chair inched backward across the deck of the houseboat, dumping her and the baby into the bayou. A soldier who went AWOL and spent lonely decades in the woods, peering at his family from a distance but too afraid to let anyone know he was alive. A boy was sent to bail the boats after a rain and was never seen again. A can of coal oil and a can of gasoline switched with tragic results.

I mentioned some of them in my memoir Atchafalaya Houseboat, but these old stories continued to haunt me. They wanted faces, bated breath and voices of their own. They wanted heavy wet skirts pulling that grandmother back down into the current as she tried to climb up the houseboat’s hull. Wait a minute, houseboat hulls didn’t have ladders, how could she climb back up? And so ran the conversation in my head for years. I started researching to answer the questions for myself. The characters began taking more distinct shapes and voices until I had to write them down and devise a plot to hold them together. This was the book I had always wanted to read. I didn’t see anyone else around who might write it.  So I gave those unruly characters voices of their own and let them have their way in Postmark Bayou Chene.