DOWN in the dank, musky cellar of America, southern Louisiana's swamplands, an exiled people have dwelt in near-isolation for almost 150 years. Along bayous dotted with moss-covered cypress, willow, and oak trees, their houses stand on stilts, sunk in murky waters, teeming with wildlife menacing to most men. The Acadians, French immigrants who settled originally in what is now Nova Scotia, were forced to leave their homeland, Acadia, in 1755 for refusing to swear allegiance to the Crown and Church of England.
After having been turned away at several ports, many of them found their refuge in Louisiana. Today some of their descendants, often called Cajuns, still live much the same way, happily cloistered by vast marshlands.
In Henderson, a tiny fishing village in the Atchafalaya River basin, Terry Collette and his family make their living primarily through fishing for crayfish, or, as Louisianans call them, crawfish.
These small crustaceans are found in the deepest recesses of the basin, where thick vines, tree roots, and waterlilies make passage difficult.
In a pointy-nosed boat, Mr. Collette cuts a path that he will use again and again, in order to set 3- and 4-foot-long baited traps of wire mesh.
The traps must be checked and emptied daily, lest the crayfish die through lack of oxygen or food. Usually, crayfish season is from October to May.
``During the season, I do nothing but fish, eat, and sleep,'' says Collette. ``Sometimes I can't even sleep. I get to thinking about the next day's fishing: how I should set the traps, where I'll put them.''
According to Cajun legend, crayfish were lobsters back in Acadia that followed the Cajuns into exile. The hardships of the journey caused the lobsters to shrivel up into crayfish.
Once a sustenance food eaten only by the poor, crayfish have exploded into an international industry. Individual commercial fishermen now compete with crayfish hatcheries, which span across some 500,000 acres of Louisiana.
``There is more pressure now for fishermen to go after smaller crawfish. But when the small ones flood the market, prices are driven way down. Crawfish peelers, paid by the pound, get frustrated and quit,'' says Collette.
``I'm proud to say that I was taught by the best. We only catch large crawfish, and this year I had days when I hauled in more than 40 sacks - 40 to 50 pounds per sack. We know all the tricks.''
Collette and his wife, Katrina, also of Cajun birth, worked side by side on the boat after they were married.
Now Mrs. Collette has to look after their two young sons. Yet she still makes crayfish nets and tends to the bills for the family and business.
``Cajun marriages tend to be close,'' she comments. ``It's usually the wife who knows where the family stands financially. I don't know about city marriages - but here we work together, and make all the major decisions together.''
Collette and his four brothers, also fishermen, learned their trade from their father, Linton Collette. The father grew up in a house on stilts in the Atchafalaya Bay and began to fish at age 10.
When crayfish season ends, Linton Collette sets catfish traps in the basin, which stretches across some 125 miles. He steers his small boat through a labyrinth of submerged trees, past islands overrun with lush plant life.
Here and there he stops to raise sunken nets, set miles apart, that for the untrained eye are impossible to spot.
``I just memorize the trees and the stumps,'' the elder Collette says with a smile. ``No, I never lose one.''
But now catfish hatcheries have sprung up in the area, creating competition. Much of the hatchery fish are shipped out of state, mainly to California. As these fish are force fed, they tend to be fatter and oilier. ``The locals won't eat them,'' Linton Collette says. ``They like the wild fish.'' He cleans and dresses his catfish and sells them to local restaurants.
``Commercial fishermen just can't continue to compete with the hatcheries,'' his son explains. ``My father is one of the best, but he is also one of the few left who can make a living solely through fishing.''
Yet Cajun people, having long since learned to draw life from the lonely swamplands, tend to be resourceful. After crayfish season, Terry Collette turns to other endeavors.
In his backyard shop, he builds and repairs crayfish and shrimp boats and works on outboard motors, all of which skills he taught himself.
Once again, his wife plays an integral role in the business. She buys the supplies and seeks out the best prices.
``I hate it when the men in these shops smirk at the sight of a woman,'' she says. ``I know exactly what I want, and I'm learning as much about the business as Terry is.''
In fact, Mrs. Collette comes from a strong stock of Cajun fishermen and women. When her father, Avie Lasseigne, was a teen-ager, he supported his mother and seven brothers and sisters through fishing. Later when he married, he and his wife fished together, leaving the children with their grandmother.
As for Terry and Katrina Collette's children, it's too early to tell which direction they will take. Kasey, a tall, stocky eight-year-old, and his brother Dust, 4, an infectious giggler, are busy at play. All the neighborhood kids seem to converge in their yard, where barking dogs and winding three-wheeler engines create a constant racket.
``I expect they will become fishermen,'' says their mother. ``Most children either stay here to fish or go on to vocational school.''
In many ways, the Collette family and their relatives are typically Cajun. As Cajuns tend to be clannish, all five brothers live within walking distance of their parents' home. There they gather to exchange stories about the week's fishing - the water levels and currents, types of bait used, and the catch. For these people, there is no office to leave behind at the day's end. Work, family, food, tradition - all intertwine.
Large family get-togethers usually include a crayfish boil and foot-stomping country Cajun music. These days fais-dodos, traditional Cajun dances, are attended once a year at the annual Breaux Bridge crayfish festival.
Cajun French, a lively dialect peppered with English, Indian, and Spanish words, is spoken mostly by the older members of the family, many of whom have never learned English.
Like so many Cajuns, the Collettes have grown complacent about passing the language of their ancestors on to their children. The children retain only a passive understanding of it.
Once maligned for their supposed ignorance and simplicity, Cajuns have finally gained positive recognition for their spicy foods, spirited music, and their joie de vivre.
Paradoxically, the attention works both for and against the Collette family. While prices for their fish rise, growing competition threatens to wipe them out. Yet these Cajuns, in their good-natured way, appreciate the new respect shown their culture.
``I'm glad people are beginning to understand us,'' says Mrs. Collette. ``We are a simple people, it's true. Of course, we are intelligent - we just choose simple ways.''