Atelier de la Nature
● Published by Robert Frey
A Nature Reserve Designed To InspireBy Shanna P. Dickens
Brandon Ballengée’s studio is scattered with his artwork, collections of antique images of now extinct animals. On the bookshelf is a well-loved copy of Darwin’s “On The Origin of the Species.” There is a drum kit, shelves lined with jars of listless amphibians suspended in formaldehyde and a mounted boar’s head with a pair of safety goggles adorning its eyes. The studio is, in a way, an artistic rendering of the property it sits upon – Atelier de la Nature, an Arnaudville area nature reserve and education center.
Ballengée and his wife, Aurore, who is originally from France, moved to the area two years ago from Brooklyn, New York. In 2014, Ballengée had a showing of his artwork at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, and he and his wife fell completely in love with the area. They returned to Brooklyn, packed their bags and bought one-way tickets to rural South Louisiana…where their long-time dreams started to become realities.
“I’ve wanted to have a nature reserve since I was a kid,” expresses Ballengée, who is a biologist by trade and works in the fish lab at LSU. “Atelier de la Nature is a holistic and immersive experience. We want to combine aspects of nature, art, science and food. We try to do programming that is dual language. We want people to see, in one location, how our food comes to be. My wife does culinary programming that is more on the side of nutrition and education.”
The Ballengées themselves are entirely immersed in Atelier de la Nature – they live there. Pepper, tomato and pomegranate plants shroud their home. They keep a lush and towering garden of active pollinator plants near the gardens. Various coups and pens house chickens, roosters and ducks. But behind the house blooms eight acres of potential.
“There are plants and ecosystems here, in South Louisiana, that aren’t found anywhere else in the world,” Ballengée explains as he walks the stretch of land leading to the coulee in the back. “Louisiana has so many different cultures and that is really reflected in the nature. The Gulf of Mexico, the Atchafalaya, all of these wonderful resources that are just right here. The birds you see here are so spectacular and diverse. This property floods naturally, so we are going to put in some wood duck habitats. We’re going to add some wetlands up front that will be more like fish ponds.”
Six-year-old Victor Ballengée, with his bouncing mound of blond curls, bounds around the property right by his father’s side. Even though it is literally his own backyard, his excitement lets you know that every visit must be an adventure. A path winds through native prairie plants – goldenrod, tickseed, Cajun Prairie and almost 1,300 recently planted little trees. Bees swarm around the stacks of boxes that they call home. There are empty beds that will soon hold what is referred to as a “three sisters garden,” corn, squash and beans; each plant provides essentials used by the other. Stacks of wood serve as habitats for reptiles, amphibians and birds, but as they decompose they will give nutrients to the soil.
As Ballengée discusses the wondrous wildlife, he stops to take in a large deer track. Soon after Victor chimes in, “Whoa! Papa, look at this track. What do you think it is?” before his father can examine the track his son announces, “I think it’s a Rougarou track!” And from then on, Victor makes note of every track left behind by that pesky Rougarou. Victor’s vivid imagination and 16-month-old Lily Ballangée’s fearless nature are testaments to the benefits of young children connecting to nature, which is one of the main goals of Atelier de la Nature. One way they accomplish this is through their various festivals and events.
Last year, Atelier de la Nature hosted three festivals and events. The biggest being the Halloween Art and Nature Festival. The free event will return this year on Saturday, October 27 and will include, local music, performances, live animals, art exhibits and live art, food, bat box making, workshops, a pumpkin patch, a haunted hayride, an upcycled costume contest and much more. As Ballengée says, “It’s going to be bigger and spookier than ever.” Last year they also presented Prairie Planting Day. Kids in attendance designed catapults and then used them to launch prairie seed bombs into the field. They planted nearly 700 trees, learned how to make gumbo from scratch and foraged for onion grass to make French potato salad. Atelier de la Nature also celebrated Fete de la Nature, a French inspired version of Earth Day, where everyone enjoyed local music and art, created a mural and crafted bluebird boxes from recycled materials.
When they aren’t hosting events, various youth groups, like the Scouts, take advantage of the nature reserve. The Ballengées encourage everyone to contact them to schedule a time to stop by or to plan potential workshops or events. Atelier de la Nature is a place where the community can come to grow, learn, get their hands dirty and recharge their energy. An invaluable asset, especially for the youngest members of the community.
“The goal is that in our own little way we want to help the world and be a service to our community – especially the kids,” Ballengée stresses. “We want to see kids get more connected to nature. I want a place where the community can come and really get engaged with what’s going on around them. We want kids to be able to come here and just play, see animals, get muddy, do the things that I think are so beneficial to them growing up.”
You can follow along with them and get their contact information on their Facebook page. But remember, when you visit…watch out for the Rougarous.