The Evening Holler
I’m sitting in Crooked Bayou swamp on a cold still October morning. I love this time of year when the weather becomes cool and the sky is usually clear. As daybreak comes, a mile through the woods I hear a neighbor’s roosters crowing and in the opposite direction, I hear my brother-in-law’s loud voice scolding his dog. I’m always amazed at how sound carries so clearly and distinctly in the woods.
As it gets quiet again and I shift on my deer stand, a lone owl gives his eight-note song. Soon he is joined by another sentinel way across the swamp. These two barred owls converse back and forth in their unique eight-note call:
“Hoo hoo-hoo hoo, hoo hoo-hoo hoawww”
Always when I hear this owl, I recall old-timers describing his call as,
“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
Even when you know it’s an owl there’s something spooky about its eerie cry. Listening, I’m drawn back to my favorite story told about our community’s first settlers. I recall the story of “The Evening Holler” as told by my great grandparents, Frank and Dosia Iles. This unique call, a tradition going back to the pre-Civil War settling of the Dry Creek area, was a primitive means of communication among these early settlers.
The first white settlers in Dry Creek lived in the woods along the creeks and streams, surrounded by vast tracts of pine forests. This area of Southwestern Louisiana was a neutral strip claimed by both Spain and the United States. Initially, there was no law, and later on when there was, the nearest officer was in over seventy miles away in Opelousas. Indians, though friendly, stilled roamed the woods and bears and mountain lions were common in the swamps.
Because these pioneers were homesteading tracts of land, they seldom built homes right next to each other. By necessity, they learned to depend on each other, so they developed an ingenious method of checking on the welfare of neighbors.
Late in the evening at dusk, each man would stand in the yard or on the porch of his home. Just as the sun dropped behind the wooded horizon, the ritual would begin. Each man would begin hollering his own individual yell. Each of the pioneers had his own unique hollering style—easily recognized by his own pitch and voice. The closest neighbor would answer back and the next neighbor down the creek would then join him. As the evening holler passed down through the woods, each man was assured as to the well-being of his neighbor as he heard an answering yell.
In spite of the distance between home places, the hollering carried for long distances. Remember, this was a time before televisions, air conditioners, or vehicles. There were fewer artificial sounds to drown out the evening noises. If you have ever really been out in the woods, you’ll understand what we mean when we call it “an eerie silence.”
My ancestors told me of how if a man did not hear the call of his neighbor, he would holler several more times at different intervals. If these echo calls didn’t receive a reply, he’d go check on his neighbor. My great-grandmother told of seeing her father saddle up his horse to go check on a neighbor who hadn’t answered. Even though things were usually fine at the neighbors, he went each time to double check. It was simply a matter of being a good neighbor. These early settlers took care of each other. The “Evening Holler” was kind of an early version of today’s “Neighborhood Watch.”
Sometimes when I’m enjoying the quietness of a fall sunset, I’ll hear the owls begin calling to each other across the woods. Or in April, I’ll listen to the whip-poor-wills as they answer each other with their own version of the evening holler. It’s at times like this that I think about the evening holler and what it meant.
It reminds me of how our ancestors took care of each other. They truly considered a neighbor . . . a neighbor. In our modern busy crowded life, we seldom know our neighbors—much less check on their well-being. Even with all of our marvelous modern communication tools—from telephones to fax machines to e-mail, we usually know much less about our neighbors than our ancestors did.
Back home, sitting on the front porch thinking about these things and how much we’ve lost in “neighborliness,” my neighbor drives by in his truck. He honks as he sees me sitting on the porch and I see his truck is loaded down with firewood. All fall and into winter, he cuts firewood for the widows and needy of our community. He’s on his way with a load to give someone right now.
Then the thought hits me: maybe the evening holler is not as dead an art as I think it is.
Then I recall another neighbor who daily checks on an elderly woman who lives alone.
I think of my parents who have always picked up the mail for another homebound senior adult.
I then remember the times, when after a house fire in our community, people have banded together to supply needed items and help rebuild the home.
I recall the time-honored Southern tradition of supplying food to families who have had a death.
Thinking of each of these, and many more I could name, I realize how much good and caring there still is in people.
Yes, times have changed. We don’t live in as close contact with our neighbors as we should. As humans, we need to take ownership on the care of our neighbors. It is a decision that each of us can choose to do. It is a positive decision that many of my neighbors have chosen to make.
Taking time to look around, I still see the spirit of “The Evening Holler” alive and well in a small community I love called Dry Creek.
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