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Voice of the Wetlands Festival 2008, Part 1: Mr Bill and the Gulf Restoration Network

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We are in Houma, Louisiana, Terrebonne Parish

I just travelled to the fifth annual Voice of the Wetlands Festival in Houma, Louisiana on October 10 thru 12, and let me tell you, it was quite an experience. The purpose of this annual festival is two-fold, to put on one Hell of a Southern/Cajun music festival, and to raise awareness of the plight of the wetlands in the five Gulf Coast states, focusing particularly on Louisiana. At a certain point the two goals merge, because music and art, as Tab Benoit points out, speak truth to the heart, and the truth of this festival is that the wetlands must be restored, or we will all pay dearly for their loss as millions of people are slowly displaced and precious resources, landmarks and cultures disappear. We have already experienced the first shocks with Katrina and Rita in 2005, and most recently with Gustav and Ike, and there are many more hurricanes to come. Meanwhile, Nature's own defense against hurricanes, the wetlands, are disappearing at a frightening rate. This trend must be reversed, and rapidly.


Houma itself lies in Terrebonne Parish, which, along with Lafourche Parish, suffered considerable flooding and other storm damage from Hurricane Gustav and Ike back in September, so much so that Tab Benoit, president of Voice of the Wetlands, said that they weren't sure they could even put the festival on until the last minute. Two local levees had actually given way, sending Gulf waters roaring into coastal towns, so it was questionable whether Terrebonne would recover in time to make the festival even feasible.

Two local levees were breached in southern Louisiana during Hurricane Ike.
(A photo sent to me from lower Lafourche Parish during Hurricane Ike, shot by Tab Benoit's manager.)

Flying to New Orleans early on Friday the 10th with my wife, and after returning for several hours to the Lower Ninth Ward as well as other areas of the Big Easy for an update on conditions (which I will write about later), we drove through the backwater side of New Orleans, moving southwest, on down toward Houma. As we reached Terrebonne Parish I began to see large piles of debris that had been gathered up and stacked near houses and businesses situated just off the highways I was driving along, a sober reminder of what had just happened a few weeks earlier. Finally, after a few wrong turns and retracing a few roads, we reached my hotel right after dusk.

After tossing our stuff in our room and then my checking my email on the hotel lobby computer, we headed out for the festival before it got too late. After following the hotel clerk's directions a little too literally and then barging into a family restaurant full of customers and a Cajun band to ask for new ones, I was soon able to find the venerable Southdown Plantation, venue for the Voice of the Wetlands Festival.

Southdown Plantation

Fortunately, it was still early enough to be able to catch the last few hours of the opening afternoon/evening activities. A band was just ending its set when we walked onto the grounds, so we wandered over to the large, semi-enclosed public section of the plantation estate, where they had set up, among a multitude of other things, a small stage, several rows of chairs, a big white screen and a sound system. Tab Benoit was in the middle of a short speech on the wetlands, and as we settled in, he finished up and introduced the next speaker, who turned out to be, to my surprise and delight, none other than Walter Williams, creator of that famous pop culture icon, Saturday Night Live's Mr. Bill. Walt actually lives in New Orleans, where he has shared all the terrors and blessings of the last several years, and he does far more than create tragic-masochistic Play-Doh icons, for he is a heavy-duty wetlands activist, stand-up comedian, voluminous film producer, screenplay writer and much, much more.  Walt, I might add, is also an occasional contributor to OpEdNews.com.

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Tab Benoit and Walter Williams - a slow shutter speed distorted this shot.


Tonight he was lecturing and showing videos about the loss of the wetlands, and what we can do to stop it. And while he was talking, Tab was moving merrily through the audience, handing out one of Walt's latest DVDs, called "Restoring Our Coast – Who Pays". Nice documentary, by the way, with 1) a section on individuals struggling to come to grips with the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, called "Hard Road Home"; 2) a crack-up humor section where none other than Mr. Bill himself and his faithful dog Spot give us a bevy of public service announcements on and excursions into the wetlands; 3) a lively, very informative section called "New Orleans – the Natural History"; plus 4) a five-minute quick version on saving the wetlands. You, the reader, can actually see all this simply by going to http://www.mrbill.com/. Go ahead and educate yourself, and have some laughs doing so, at the expense of Mr. Bill.


Oh Noo! Mr. Bill


Click here to visit the wetlands with Mr. Bill.


After Walt was through, I wandered over to the food line and bought some fine Cajun cooking, and then crossed the lawn to the well-lit in multi-colors music stage where my wife had already joined the audience. The last set of the night was just starting and the Mike Zito Band was up at bat to start things off. Zito, who has a classic, raspy Blues voice, put on one fine performance. He travelled all the way from Texas, by the way, to do this gig. Meanwhile, the band kept transforming as more and more guitarists kept walking onto the stage, greats like C.C. Adcock, John Lisi, Ronnie Fruge, Joe Stark and Tab Benoit. What the evening was now evolving into was the 5th Annual Guitar Showdown, and what a showdown it was, sending the audience, which was now crowding around the stage, into more and more rapture and abandon as each guitarist tried to one-up the previous one with his own solo, keeping everyone clapping, shouting or dancing right on up until the last note of the evening. Then we went back to the hotel and crashed.

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Guitar Showdown: eight guitar players on stage

The next day, Saturday, we got back to Southdown right after the festival reopened at Noon, and spent a good while shuffling between the music stage and the wetlands education area that encompassed, besides last night's stage, various information tables and displays. (I would digress, occasionally, to the awesome Cajun food lines or the beer stand.) Info tables included a nuts and bolts ecological exhibit run by environmental sciences students from Nicholls State University, a campaign table for Senator Mary Landrieu (politicians from both parties were invited), who has been a strong advocate for wetlands restoration, and of particular interest to me, an info table run by the Gulf Restoration Network (http://healthygulf.org/). I hadn't heard of them before, and was quite impressed with what they're all about. I started talking to one of the representatives, Collin Thomas, about the wetlands, and he sounded authoritative enough that I asked him to do an interview for OpEdNews. Here is what he had to say:


Collin Thomas, spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network

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