It’s about 2 pm on Friday afternoon, and I’m stealthily eavesdropping on the strolling family in front of me as I head to Bartleby’s, my backpack heavy of finals material. Maybe it’s because I just finished my last Williams-Mystic class and I’m already feeling sentimental, or maybe it’s because of the sheer beauty of the scene along the river, the sun and blue sky reflected in the capillary waves, the white church in the distance standing in stark contrast to the green of the trees in full bloom…but I’m surprisingly struck by this innocent passing comment that wasn’t even made for my ears. I feel a twinge of sadness evoked by the realization that I am incredibly fortunate to have experienced the past 17 weeks. My perspective has been irrevocably changed, my wanderlust awakened, and my and sense of place altered forever.
In this instant I realize that perhaps the most difficulty I face in transitioning back to reality is in both trying to properly express what I have learned without sounding like a cliché, and also in recognizing that not everybody will understand. Is it really possible to depict a night watch on the bowsprit, the sound of waves penetrating the silent darkness, or the discovery of hidden pair of eyes staring directly into yours as you explore the tide pools of the Pacific, or the emotion of the people trying to endure the elements in a disappearing bayou? How can I explain how both humbling and empowering it is to be such a small part of the greater world? The answer is clear: I simply can’t. I can’t give this experience to anyone else. My words carry little weight in comparison to the depth of emotion and understanding I have gained over the past semester.
In spite of my evolution, my self-exploration, and the various lessons I have learned—academically and otherwise—a large part of this education has been the realization of my insignificance. However, as we finished Marine Policy for the last time today, Professor Katy Hall reminded me of something that would be all to easy to lose: the power of one. As we leave Mystic, we are newly empowered with knowledge about our changing world that few others possess. Individually we are small. As a group, we are 17. But we are 17 of the thousands who have chosen to make the ocean the focus of our universal understanding through the Mystic program. Perhaps more importantly, we are among the billions of people who inhabit this earth. Our choices matter.
So, as I write for the last time, I implore my classmates, my peers, and my friends – go out and make a difference. You have the power.
“Hey! What are you doing here? How is Mystic?”
I’m contently curled up in a corner table in Tunnel City at Williams College. We had a joint Oceanography-Marine Policy class on Tuesday in honor of Earth Day, and I’m taking advantage of our three-day weekend to see the friends I left behind for the semester. In the past few days, I’ve noticed a theme in the general reaction to my arrival: strange looks become those of recognition before I am extensively interrogated about my experience at Mystic. I can’t help but feel a smile playing at the corner of my lips whenever I try to respond in an appropriate amount of time – I could talk for hours about life in the coastal community, our amazing trips, our roles in mitigating climate change, the topics of my research papers, and my friends in the program, but I’ve learned to condense a suitable amount of information into a roughly five-minute spiel.
Still, I find myself struggling with the insufficiency of my words: how can I describe the essence of the Williams-Mystic Program, when every minute detail seems to have such significance? Almost every conversation ends with the enthusiastic suggestion: “Please visit me! You have to see it for yourself” or, for the lucky few still eligible, “You should seriously consider the Program!”
It only took a few days of separation from Mystic to make me realize the greatest impact Williams-Mystic has had on my life. It has taught me to feel present, to truly appreciate every component of myself, to indulge in my passions and share them, and to surround myself with people who allow me to do so. Quotidian stresses have lost their importance; my definition of self-worth no longer relies on my grades, on my athleticism, on my image. In exploring the sheer vastness of the sea, I have somehow found my way into a community of people who encourage me to also delve into the depths of myself by focusing my attention on the values that I hold important.
As I gain greater perspective of the world around us and focus on my sense of place here in Mystic, I am much more accepting of myself, a peace that frequently eludes me when I choose to ignore the bigger picture. Ironically, it takes a three-hour drive and a hundred and fifty miles of separation to create such self-reflection. Still, it’s reassuring to think that in three weeks I will be able to carry my presence with me as I depart from the very place that allowed me to find it.
It is 2:30 pm, and I am sitting outside of Mallory House, forced to don a pair of sunglasses that I haven’t used since we were onboard the Corwith Cramer as I read Steinbeck’s The Log of the Sea of Cortez. The sun’s rays warm my legs, back, and face as I am periodically distracted by the shouts of children in the Seaport across the street. Molly and Rebecca sit next to me, hoping to add some color to skin that has been covered for far too long.
We are taking a well-deserved break from our positions as ambassadors of Mystic, which we adopted this weekend for “Family and Friends Day.” It was an incredible day of demonstrating the essence of the Program to those who had so long sought to understand our lives this semester. We sailed, we sang, we blacksmithed, we climbed aloft; we walked around the Seaport, ate ice cream sundaes outside of Drawbridge Ice Cream Shop, and spent the afternoon drinking iced tea at Bartleby’s Coffee Shop. My grandmother interrogated Glenn Gordinier about his views on Native American history and the French-Pequot War (which took place right over the bridge), while my grandpa swapped stories with Rich King at lunch over second and third helpings of homemade desserts. As I saw my friends with their families, significant others, and miscellaneous visitors, I felt as if these moments held greater significance. Personally, as soon as I pulled off I-95 on Friday afternoon—grandparents in tow—to see the sun sparkling in the estuary, it was as if I were seeing Mystic through new eyes once again.
As we have finally settled into a routine over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that my experience in this program can be defined as a series of what I call “Mystic Moments.” While the field seminars serve to expand our sense of place by offering insight into new cultures and experiences, there is something to be said of the learning that occurs right here…the value of the intimate knowledge of this amazing area that only time and curiosity can provide. They come in many forms, often barely recognized or taken for granted, and yet when I reflect, I can only think of how unique these moments have become. I have spent hours driving around the town with Jess (our scientific instruments in tow), shouting “Plankton!” in response to the inquiring locals who see our nets and laughing under my breath as they walk away unenthused. I have attended Literature class in the gazebo on the Seaport Green, poorly attempting to imitate a Rachel Carson-style of writing while really daydreaming in the morning sun. I have had to stop my boat in the middle of the Mystic River as I received a call from the senator who co-authored the bill that is the focus of my Policy paper.
For the average Mystic student, these unreal experiences are simply part of life, but they are a part of life that I am just realizing, with five weeks left, that I will only possess for so long. I am grateful to have had this weekend to reflect, to understand, and to share. Occasionally, it takes a grandfather to exclaim, “Look at that ship!” to make you realize just how lucky you truly are.
We’ve done it! Our third and final field seminar is complete, and like Kate Chopin, who aptly characterized the very region we visited in her novel The Awakening, we have also been truly “awakened” by the experience in southern Louisiana. In contrast to Puerto Rico and the Pacific Northwest, this trip focused on the people of the area, perhaps because they provide the most accurate understanding of how difficult it is to be certain of our role with respect to nature on a coastline that is so rapidly changing. As Professor Ronadh Cox put it in our first lecture series upon arrival, down here the edge where land meets sea is “soft and squishy” rather than the hardened stone faces of the cliffs we regarded with awe in the Pacific Northwest.
More stationary than usual, we settled in for our short four-day stay at the Louisiana University Marine Consortium (LUMCON), a rectangular building perched on concrete pillars and the center for coastal and estuarine studies. With LUMCON as our base, we traveled into the bayou with a spirited Cajun tour guide to see the alligators and red-eared sliders sunning themselves in the vegetation on the banks (yes, we did see sun – if only for the day). We listened to our professors give mini-lectures on the historic use and current state of the Mississippi River as we ate lunch on the levee that prevents the river from draining into the sinking land where people have made their homes. We kayaked out into the marsh to watch bemusedly as Sheick sunk into the thick mud up to his knees while helping Dr. Sam Bentley from LSU (and a Williams-Mystic alumnus!) collect a core sample.
Perhaps the most memorable moments were those that allowed us to immerse ourselves in the culture for which this region is so well-known. One evening we trekked to Houma, where we visited the Jolly Inn for some Cajun dancing. Glenn Gordinier spun us around the room with as much ease as our denim-adorned hosts who had been dancing for thirty years; my classmates Julia and Hannah immediately took it upon themselves to accompany the music of the fiddle and the banjo with washboards struck with whisks as they danced.
On another occasion we spent the day with Mr. Chris Hernandez on Grand Isle – the site of Chopin’s novel. With a booming voice and contagious laugh, Mr. Chris took us on a tour of the narrow strip of land that is the disappearing barrier protecting New Orleans from the wrath of the sea. He graciously invited us to his home, offering stories of Hurricane Katrina and his experiences with the BP oil spill that struck the Gulf with so much force. We even had a visit from the mayor of Grand Isle, whose emotional reminder of the importance of human life in an area consistently battered with dangerous storms left few dry eyes in the audience.
Back at LUMCON on our last evening, we listened to Mr. Carl Sevin describe the effects of living on land that is being slowly but steadily overtaken by water. His words resonated with us as we left Cocodrie to head to the Big Easy: “I’m a grown man, but I will cry if I see my house destroyed.”
Our final morning brought us to the French Quarter in New Orleans in the torrential downpour of a thunderstorm and our lunch onboard the steamship Natchez ended the trip on a positive note. however, we were all greatly affected by everything that we had seen and heard. As we drove over raised highways throughout these four days, we could see the roads below us being covered by the spreading expanses of water in the endless marshes, roads that past Mystic programs had traveled as little as four years ago. We learned of the complicated relationship between the oil industry at Port Fourchon, which has a huge monopoly on the economy of southern Louisiana, and the people who have become wholly dependent on it despite the adverse effects to both nature and lifestyle. Most importantly, the uncertainty of the future of the area proved a theme in every discussion.
Personally, it was difficult for me to imagine that the next time I visit, I will undoubtedly be able to witness the changes that have occurred as a result of the dynamic environment…the land completely gone in many areas, the levees built higher, the cypress trees sinking just a little bit more. I am incredibly grateful for the awareness I gained of the very special culture that has become a fixture in this place—the music, the food, the language, and, most of all, the resilience of the people that all mesh to render Louisiana incredibly unique.
It has been roughly two weeks since I’ve last written, and what contrasting weeks those have been! The first was certainly relaxed, a time of falling back into the Mystic routine after a few days off to recover and readjust our bodies to east coast time and schedules that don’t quite require us to wake up at 6 am. Several of us took the break to either return home or retreat to our own little niches throughout Mystic—from the MSC to the library to Bartleby’s Coffee Shop—to work on our Literature essay or piece together our contact list for our Marine Policy research papers. This latter assignment resulted in a true “Williams-Mystic moment” for me at the end of the week when I found myself speaking to Dr. Chris Lowe, a renowned shark expert who also happened to be featured on Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” in 2011—where else would I have had this incredible opportunity?
Of course, over the weekend we also had to prepare for another, slightly more daunting Mystic experience: Moot Court. Moot Court, similar to a mock trial, is considered almost a rite of passage, and as Katy Hall handed out our dense trial packets on Friday before we left for the weekend, we knew that its notoriety was well deserved. The packet outlined the case of private landowners versus the town of Wells, Maine: a real-life issue that brings to light the question of coastal ownership and public trust of the ocean as a natural resource.
After being divided into two teams, we were scheduled to meet for evening sessions throughout the following week with Katy Hall and Brian Wagner, a fellow lawyer who accompanied us to the Pacific Northwest. Each member of our teams took the lead on a particular argument relating to law, policy, or our court system, and by Friday we entered the courtroom armed with as much knowledge on these aspects as we could possibly retain. Katy Hall invited Williams-Mystic alum and Maine attorney Derek Langhauser to preside over the case, and three hours later, we had survived!
As the closing argument for the landowners (who coincidentally also won the case), I could only sit there through the rest of the trial and admire the confidence with which my fellow classmates on both sides answered the judge’s questions. Our understanding of the case had grown exponentially since our first meeting, and it was incredible to see just how far we had come.
Now as I sit here, plopped on our insanely comfortable living room couch in Albion House and watching men in kilts walk by in preparation for Mystic’s renowned St. Patrick’s Day parade, I am beginning to think about our final field seminar. We leave for Louisiana on Tuesday morning (fortunately we’ve become used to the midnight wake-up call by the third time around), and though it feels as if we literally just returned from the Pacific Northwest, I think we are all excited to see what the southern coast has to offer.
I am a little incredulous that we are already preparing for this last trip. Time has flown by since our arrival at Mystic, and it only seems to go faster on these seminars. Still, I look forward to seeing the way the culture and the environment interact on a coastline that is rapidly changing, and it will be interesting to compare New Orleans to the other places we have visited. I also hear that lots of dancing and good food will be involved…only a few more days until we find out!
“I have never felt so awake, incredulous, or in touch with myself”: Part III of the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar
Retreating to the vans after our visit to the salmon hatchery, we peeled off layers of wet jeans and useless wool socks, letting the cars bear the brunt of the damp weather as we continued our travel south through hills and shoreline. By this point the rain had become a torrential downpour, though this didn’t stop us from visiting the community of Cannon Beach. If anything, we were forced to make the conscious decision to let loose and fly through the elements as we stepped out onto the wide stretch of sand, the waves rogue and white-capped to our right as we gazed upon the giant dark mass of Haystack Rock standing there completely immune to the water from sky and sea alike. We ran, we jumped; we fell over each other (and ourselves!) as we skipped between the incoming waves. We were seventeen college-aged children, accompanied by professors and staff that weren’t acting all that much older. It was the primal experience of nature at its finest.
This is not to say that anyone complained, however, when having arrived happily exhausted at Newport that night. We were awakened the next morning by the sun’s rays passing through our hotel windows and began our next day at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. We were greeted around every corner by the colors of sea life placed prominently on display, as well as the enthusiastic staff (“You must be the Mystic program – we look forward to your visit every year!”). My roommate Jess managed to find her way behind the scenes after a casual discussion with a member of husbandry, while Tenzin and I continued our tradition of fudge sampling at the gift shop.
Following lunch, we departed from the Aquarium and transitioned from glass to rock walls at the Sea Lion Caves. Our descent took us down from the top of the roadside cliff to a giant hollow inside of a cliff, where sea lions suction themselves to rocks and are subjected to the wrath of the occasional cumbrous wave. Once we returned to the surface of the earth, we enjoyed scenic views of freshwater lakes and the glacial carvings of the rocks on the horizon en route to our next destination, which was certainly one of the most memorable on our trip.
After passing several small towns advertising the sand dunes that run along 45% of the coastline in this state, we finally pulled over to explore them for ourselves. As Tenzin described it, “I’m beginning to understand what early explorers meant when they said they couldn’t put their discoveries into words.” Indeed, there was no form of language that could describe the sight that greeted us.
The dunes, much like the rest of this place, were vast—the size of small mountains. At the base, the world seems made up of sand, like a desert. At the top, you arrive with sinking shoes and burning legs to see mile after mile of forest fading into mountains on one side, and expanses of sand bordered by the distant glimmering Pacific on the other. Small copses of tree islands dot the terrain carved into geometric shapes by the wind that assaulted our face and penetrated our clothing and our mouths.
What’s more, the afternoon rain had halted and the sun tried its best to shine through the shield of clouds. We returned to the vans, shaking our sandy heads with awe. Our magnificent day ended as we reached our final destination in Coos Bay, where we arrived at the small complex of wood-shingled buildings known as the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.
OIMB is nestled in between a sloping wall of forested cliff and the bay itself, decorated with docks containing trawlers, purse-seiners, gill-netters, and research vessel. We were stationed there for two days of steady sunlight and slightly warmer temperatures. During that time we visited tidal pools, where we were met with OIMB graduate students who showed us how to leap between the algae-covered rocks as we touched anemones, starfish, chitons, and hermit crabs. We then sought out a different source of marine diversity in the South Slough estuarine reserve, where habitat restoration of destroyed tidelands has been the focus since the 1970s. We strolled leisurely through the flat green grass of the marsh, experiencing for ourselves the benefits of man’s environmental approach to nature, before returning to OIMB for a poetry slam and Glenn Gordinier’s infamous tango session.
On our last day, we were given free time before our return to Portland to spend the night. I awoke early to run, only to be distracted by the splashing of a sea lion at the end of the dock as I stretched in the bright pink hue of the morning sunrise. After breakfast, Victoria, Jess, Nellie, Veronica, Zak, and Molly took advantage of these precious free hours to return to the place where the elements collide. On the Sunset Bay Trail we were immediately greeted with the vast expanse of the Pacific, the cliffs upon which we stood offering a generous view of the rocks of Simpson’s reef (hosting a colony of talkative sea lions) on the left side and the sheer, layered face of a cliff hiding the treasures around the corner to our right. At each bend we found a view worthy of a painting: sandy rocks molded into dune-like shapes, harbor seals standing out white against their dark brown perches as they performed various yoga poses, a lighthouse obscuring the view of the blue shades of mountain in the distance.
An entry in my journal reads: “I have never felt so awake, incredulous, or in touch with myself, as I sit here at the edge of the world.” I have also never felt so grateful for the perspective I gained from this trip. Like onboard the Corwith Cramer, not only did I form special relationships with my classmates based on this one shared experience, but I also was reminded of the seemingly supernatural power that nature has to soothe both body and restless mind.
To feel so small in this world of the Pacific Northwest was refreshing, a sentiment I hope to carry with me as I progress through the rest of the semester and beyond.
For most travelers, there is an “Aha!” moment, that instant at which one realizes they have found what they have been seeking, whether consciously or subconsciously. While I cannot pin mine to an exact time or place, I will say that our adventures in Oregon especially exemplified everything I had hoped to find in the Pacific Northwest. We had entered the land of giants, where small signs of humanity attempted to integrate themselves into the landscape.
Our visit to Point Defiance as we drove south through Washington was a turning point in our journey, marking the moment when we were truly confronted with the beauty of our natural environment—made only more magnificent by the contrast of the industry that we had left behind. The sun symbolically emerged for the first time since our arrival on the West Coast, warming our backs and the round gray rocks that lined the crystal-clear water. The trees were almost neon-colored, their vibrant green attracting Nellie, Tenzin, and Kwasi to the steep stretch of forest that rose behind us.
As we sat there, listening to Rich King read an excerpt from our course readers, we were exposed to the chilly freshness of the air tinged with pine and salt that would follow us for the rest of the trip. After a few short hours, we unhappily trudged to the vans, the image of the mountains topped with houses and water hosting tankers fading in our minds as we crossed the border to Oregon.
At Bonneville Dam we learned of the controversy surrounding hydropower and the symbolic salmon of the region. I’ve never seen such verdure as I did at the base of Multnomah Falls, the algae and moss on the trees contrasting the white spray of the second-tallest waterfall in the United States. The path to the top was blocked by the destruction of the bridge by a falling rock the week before—one of the many reminders of nature’s obvious power.
As a maritime studies program, all roads—or, in this case, Highway 101—eventually lead to the sea. After the Falls, we made our way down through the hills and fog to Astoria, a smaller-scale civilization with dilapidated, element-abused buildings on the left and newer complexes lining the Columbia River. We spent the evening learning about the treacherous Columbia River Bar (located at the mouth of this mighty river) and the souls who guide commercial vessels safely over it multiple times a day. Then it was onboard once again as we revisited the experience of sleeping on the lightship Columbia, a formerly stationed “floating lighthouse” on the Bar (by the time it hosted us, it was docked safely at the pier).
The following day could be characterized by one word: soaking. Apparently rain doesn’t fall in drops in the Pacific Northwest: it comes down in sheets. The morning found us back across the bridge for a brief visit to Washington, where we attempted to see the Bar itself (though it was much less intimidating hidden in fog and pelting rain) before visiting a salmon hatchery in Astoria where we stood in our foul-weather gear as friendly fishermen taught us about the life cycles of salmon. Overall, the salmon were a large focus of our studies while on the West Coast, as they represent a failing resource that was once vital to both the native populations and white newcomers hoping to profit from the untouched land. It was refreshing, however, to understand just how proactive humans can be when faced with such an issue; there was no “hush-hush,” no cover-up, no pretending that life could proceed as normal without a crucial part of the ecosystem. Those we met, from the waiters serving locally-caught fillets at Pike’s Place Market to the fish counters at the Bonneville Dam to the elderly volunteers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, reminded us time and time again of how magnified the controversy surrounding the salmon fishery has become. It is being discussed, examined, and as a result, potentially even solved.
Read the final installment of Spring ’14 blogger Alex M’s reflection on the Pacific Northwest field seminar this coming Monday!