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Our First Night at Sea

September 10, 2014

Good morning from the SSV Tole Mour!  Getting used to everything moving isn’t easy – even standing still takes effort – but we are all getting our sea legs and enjoying sailing the beautiful Channel Islands.    We’ve seen sea lions, flying fish, dolphins, pelicans, cormorants, and some fantastic floating seaweeds.

Students have now stood watch through their first full night at sea.  As part of watch, they are setting and striking sails under the direction of the captain and mates, steering, completing boat checks, standing lookout, plotting our position on the chart, and making scientific measurements.  Today we will complete our first oceanographic Super Station, and with any luck we will bring back a sediment sample from the seafloor and measure the properties of the water column to better understand the geological, physical, and chemical controls on life in these waters.

Fair Winds,

Lisa Gilbert, Associate Professor of Geosciences & Marine Science

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Andrew and Hannah sampling the surface waters

C-Watch

C watch striking headsails on the bowsprit as the sun rose over the ocean.

The Fall 2014 Offshore Field Seminar Begins!

September 9, 2014

It’s been a busy time in Mystic! We welcomed the wonderful members of our Fall 2014 class on August 25th and time has since gone by (too) quickly! Prof. Lisa Gilbert wrote to us as F14 members completed their cross-country flight to California and began their preparations for this year’s offshore field seminar:

September 8, 2014

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Anchored off Catalina Island

Good evening from the Channel Islands! After a very early departure from Mystic, CT this morning, the Williams-Mystic Fall 2014 traveled across the country to California, arriving in time for lunch aboard the Sailing School Vessel Tole Mour. We got underway at about 3:15pm, past buoy #2, which was riding a little low from the weight of several sea lions.   Pelicans and cormorants flew by, and once we got beyond the channel, we saw a line of dolphins playing in the waves. What a start to our Field Seminar!

From the moment the students stepped on deck, they officially became crew members on the ship and were busy most of the day with safety orientations and learning to set and strike sails.

Students have been organized into three different watches: A, B, and C Watch. Each watch is led by a mate, two deckhands, and an engineer. Students are sleeping now, but starting tomorrow, they will be standing watch on a schedule taking turns through the day and night.

We’re looking forward to good sailing in the Southern Califonia Bight.

Fair Winds,

Lisa Gilbert, Associate Professor of Geosciences & Marine Science

Hannah.Tole Mour

Hannah is happy to be aboard the SSV Tole Mour and is ready to set sail!

The Power of One

May 20, 2014

Image“You know, I’ve never been down along here. When you have a job here, family, you’re just shuttling back and forth. There’s no time to look around.”

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.

 

Fair Winds,

Alex

The Importance of Being Present

April 30, 2014

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“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.

Fair Winds,
Alex

Mystic Moments: Family & Friends Day

April 15, 2014

Aloft_FF Day

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.

Fair Winds,

Alex

Life on the Dynamic Edge: The Mississippi Delta Field Seminar

March 31, 2014

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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.

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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.

Fair Winds,

Alex

The Mighty Conquerors of Moot Court

March 24, 2014

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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!

 

Fair Winds,

Alex

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