Evolutionary history is framed by losses and gains. The same goes for humans and our cultures. Ways of living emerged that were adapted to local ecosystems. Wild places, farms, grasslands, gardens: none were invariant. And whether hunter or farmer, we changed things, and in return our minds have been shaped by the land. Then came the Industrial Revolution. Oil gushed from wells, and it changed the world yet again. Consumer culture transformed the old equations about people and land. Now the environmental and social side-effects are so serious they threaten this finite planet. Conventional economic growth encourages a race to the top of consumption, even though millions of people have no prospect of escaping poverty or hunger. We still call this progress.

Yet reason and evidence have not compelled us to care enough for Nature. If we wish to convince people to manage the planet sustainably and consume in different ways, then we will have to embed 21st-century lifeways in a new texture of beliefs, emotions and experience. We will need moral teachings and wisdom about the environment and our duties as individuals.

There is some journeying to be done. Paths to be explored, and new ones made. Each year, the pine leans a little further. After night, the dawn comes. There is mud, but the birds are singing. The waves come and go, but the ocean is still there. For my recent book, The Edge of Extinction, I chose to start in the Pacific and migrate west across continents to explore how and why people still live close to Nature, land and sea. I sought clues for moderns about ways of living that will not condemn cultures and economies to extinction. I met and travelled with people defending Nature-based cultures, proud of their relationships with the land, and only willing to join with the modern world on their terms.

The Atchafalaya Basin, Louisiana

Mud-brown water sluices at the eroding bank, eddying around drowned willows still thick with trailing leaves, and races up a swollen bayou of old-growth cypress. Beneath a watchful osprey, an egret harshly cries, alabaster flashing into the dense forest. A heron stately sails on a raft of plant debris, yellow eyes intent. Deep in these swamps, the water levels are higher than anyone can recall for the time of year. The flat-bottomed skiff scuffed by a quarter-century of duty skids across the surface. There are smiles: for a while we’re free from the relentless persecution of mosquitoes. A sleek black moccasin glides from matted water hyacinth, and glares as it has to twist away.

The wild Atchafalaya Basin: 2,500 square miles of the largest contiguous bottomland forest in North America, a land of many thousand bayous, lakes, ponds, rivers, islands, levees and mounds. It’s a refuge for endangered peregrines, Florida panther, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and another 300 bird species. The 135-mile basin begins by the Mississippi and is constrained mostly on each flank by the 90-mile Eastern and Western levees. It’s a liminal land at the end of a funnel that channels water and silt from thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. What happens up there acutely affects what goes on down here, as it does out on the Gulf too. Louisiana was once the richest state of the South; after oil it became one of the poorest.

I drove across the iron bridge high over the Mississippi, and swung south into the swamps to stay in a houseboat moored on Henderson Lake. Gwen Roland, author of Atchafalaya Houseboat, had said, “You have to go.” She lived out on Bloody Bayou in a gimcrack houseboat for near a decade. That first evening, I sat in the porch wrapped in the sound of croaking frogs and sawing crickets, the occasional splashdown of fish or alligator. A wind whispered through the trees. Sometimes all we need is a place to sit and absorb into the world.

The moon was climbing through the black cypresses and washing ghostly silver onto the inky waterscape. Since Hurricane Katrina, there are few visitors, the restaurant no longer opening nightly. In the distance, geese gabbled, then a harsh caw, and a laugh. Inside the houseboat, moonlight streamed through the windows and across the floor, and there was no need for artificial light. I could live in a houseboat like this. The creaks and sighs, the rhythm of water, the response of the boat to walking. Then silence, which becomes a kind of presence rather than absence.

Yet almost all early visitors thought the swamps dark and dismal places, beyond civilising tendencies. In 1816, William Darby wrote of the “deep, dark and silent gloom of the inundated lands of the Atchafalaya”, and the “dead silence, the awful loneliness”. Searching for woodpeckers, Audubon called the swamps “gloomy … oozing …”, where the “sultry, pestiferous atmosphere […] nearly suffocates the intruder”.

These bottomland swamps are a challenge to the imposed order, an obstacle to progress and largely inhabited by unofficial peoples. Missing from the official histories of the South are the swampers, poor farmers, Acadian trappers and fishermen, Native Americans, free mulattoes, swamp Maroons and escaped slaves. Today the swampers’ annual cycles mix trapping, moss gathering, fishing for catfish and crawfish, seine netting, frogging, alligator hunting and gathering of wild honey. They occupy a strange place in the imagination: the last vestige of a threatened southern culture, but also shadowy, entangled lives alongside traiteurs and loup-garou spirits. Sometimes balls of fire roll through the wet woods, leaping from land to ride on the bow of boats.

Today the swamp is still more likely to be portrayed as menacing rather than a fragile wilderness. This land remains forbidding for most people. Luckily.

We left Ricky Carline’s camp in the clearing edged by Bloody Bayou, and flitted upstream, which used to be downstream, pointed out Calvin Voisin. There are many moods of water. Some bayous seemed to flout hydrological norms, with sleeping water, dead streams, reverse flows, every wilful behaviour. The boat skimmed from the enclosed bayou onto the shimmering Atchafalaya itself. On the far side a line of trees hugged the horizon. Ahead the lunging, turbulent river swirled with debris from the north, great logs lurking just beneath the surface, ready to send such a boat straight to the bottom.

A towering double barge pushed by a thudding tug blotted out the sun. We were in search of the ghost town of Bayou Chene, once a thriving settlement of 700 people. We moored to a willow, and pushed through dense undergrowth. This forest was tall with invasive cottonwoods. The chêne oaks had gone, long since destroyed by high water and silt. A few mature cypress and tupelo remain. Dense clouds of insects strike. In the thick forest, it was twilight in the middle of the day.

A blue and white china Virgin Mary stood cracked in the brambles that seem raised to swathe a place of young ghosts. Deep under our feet lay fields and pens, houses and paths, churches and shops entombed in silt. All once made up Bayou Chene, established in 1795, thriving in the 1800s, dead by the mid-20th century. C.C. Robin called Bayou Chene the bayou of the live oaks, a place “overhung with enormous trees, impenetrable by the rays of sun, interlaced with dense vines … an enchanting sight”. Ancestors of both Ricky and Calvin lived here, and Bayou Chene illustrates how easily our imprint can come and go.

Gwen’s grandmother was also born in Bayou Chene. People grew sugar cane, corn, potatoes, beans, raised fruit trees in orchards, kept cattle, hogs, turkeys, ducks and geese. We searched through the forest, but found no sign that agriculture was ever practised. The main industry was extracting old-growth cypresses. Two men in a pirogue would cut slots into either side of a tree, and drive in two boards. They moored the boat, climbed on the boards, and bent their backs with cross-saw until the giant fell. The log was then floated out. Large-scale logging, though, was virtually over by 1925, another economic pulse expected to go on forever, yet guttering out within a couple of generations.

Wild food at Bayou Chene was abundant: deer, doves, duck, snipe, woodcock, squirrel, racoon, opossum, rabbit, turtle, crawfish, alligator, oyster, shrimp, crab, and freshwater bass, bream, crappies (sac-a-lait perch) and catfish. The floods and then the Depression of the 1930s pushed Bayou Chene further to the edge, though still the school roll averaged 100 students. But then came another flood in 1937, and by the late 1940s homes, churches, shops and businesses had gone. The people had modified their lives to accommodate the amended water management: they raised floors of houses, built rafts for the cattle, raised their levees. Bayou Chene ended up under 12 feet of sand.

Luckily, for those who continued to live near the swamps, a new extractive industry had arrived. It was the miracle and curse of oil.

The hurricane clouds had dispersed. To the north, we passed through St Martin Parish, one of the poorest in the state, with white plantation homes and wooden verandas, lawns and specimen trees. This is a place deserving of serious dedication: it is home of one of America’s best living writers, James Lee Burke. We stopped for bowls of fish soup.

The evening sun now washed the cane fields and wooden houses, and we turned inside the swamp and drove north along the cracked road. The restaurant was almost empty. No live music, few customers, for a Friday night again not so good. The economy was still in freefall after the Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At a table with chequered tablecloth overlooking the darkened lake, we worked on a dish heaped with red-hot crawfish.

As we prepared to depart, I noticed the houseboats had been removed from the water and were now on pilings at the shore. All I could think of was the moonlight on the still lake, on the floor of the houseboat sharp shadows, singing frogs. Somewhere south, deep in the swamps we crossed a clanking bridge, and stretching backs and legs, walked into a bar in a shambling wooden building. There were no other lights in the swamp. Inside, local friends leaning against a bar were shouting over the music.

You could have it all, sang Johnny Cash, my empire of dirt. Neon blinking, eyes smarting, beer at the bar.

In the car park, I stood and listened to the frogs out on the bayou.

How might we dream a safe future?

The barbarians had come, welcomed inside the city walls. Inventors had decarbonised economies, allowing consumers to buy goods and services that only improved the planet.

No one talked of the economy any more. People called it the environment. Growth in gross domestic product meant people had on average more, but so did the planet. There had been a grand rapprochement between science and religions, whether formal institutions or animist spirituality. Diversity of cultures and beliefs had come to be valued; everyone was right, everyone was wrong.

Someone realised that giving made people happier than taking. Time spent helping others, people, animals, the planet became a valued currency, and no longer a distraction from consuming. Wealth was calculated not by how much we owned but by how much free time we had.

People had come to value things that used to have no monetary value. Sitting in Nature was known to benefit mental health, so it was encouraged. Growing food and flowers was satisfying for children and adults. Walks in the country or visits to the beach were no longer seen as escapes from another busy stressful life. They were life itself.

People paused. And stopped. Took ten breaths. And ten more.

Mind met land.

Each day: sun rose, and then sun set. Dreams arrive, then recede.

And so it ends.

The Edge of Extinction: Travels with Enduring People in Vanishing Lands is published by Cornell University Press.

Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex.