Life on the Dynamic Edge: The Mississippi Delta Field Seminar


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.

Fair Winds,


The Mighty Conquerors of Moot Court


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,


“I have never felt so awake, incredulous, or in touch with myself”: Part III of the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar

Oregon Sand Dunes

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.

Fair winds,


Moving Down the Coastline: Part II of the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar

Multnomah Falls

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!

“Sight of Sand and Sea and Sky” — Pacific Northwest Field Seminar, Part I

A bird’s-eye view of the Port of Seattle, taken from atop the Space Needle.

Perhaps only Ursula K. LeGuin, the current author of examination in our literature class, can define my emotions upon reflecting on our experiences in the Pacific Northwest: “I felt truly awed by the presence of majesty” (Searoad, 179). This majesty could be found everywhere, from the physical vastness of the land and sculpted sand dunes to the thick vibrant trees of pine and waves carrying masses of water to crash again and again against the dark faces of unyielding rock cliffs.

Characterized by space and wilderness, I’ve never been in a place so self-conscious. The mountains are as aware of their steady hold in the landscape as the inhabitants are of the delicate state of their salmon populations. How refreshing to see this harmony, where man is not apart but a part of nature. This sense of insignificance unified our group of seventeen as we traveled from Seattle to Coos Bay in Oregon in what my classmate Hannah so aptly dubbed the “Sampler Seminar”.

I have yet to absorb all of the lessons from this trip that I’m sure will hit me at some unforeseen point in the future. As I sit here, though, I think back on the memories that have impressed themselves the most in my mind. Our flight to the Pacific coast seems so long ago. From a 3:45 am departure, we flew for six hours and then plopped ourselves in the four minivans that would be subject to all sorts of physical abuse during the rest of our road trip. We took off straight for the Space Needle and ascended to catch our first glimpse of Seattle.

Amidst the cloudy skies that became a permanent part of the landscape throughout the rest of our exploration, we looked out upon skyscrapers that loomed below us. The mountains were barely discernable through the fog on the horizon, and Puget Sound was covered in sailboats and ferries in spite of the forty-degree chill.

After our descent, we were greeted by a professor from a local college who gave us a brief overview of the geological forces that shape the landscape in the Pacific Northwest. She was the first among many knowledgeable and influential people that we met along this coastline, as alums, friends of the program, and old faces anticipating our visit surfaced at every stop.

The rest of our time in Seattle was a whirlwind: we met with environmental planners from the Port of Seattle and learned about restoration of the industrialized marshland, took our own personal tour of Puget Sound from the water on a Crowley tugboat, shrieked with delight to see the iced fish flying around Pike’s Place every time a brave soul placed an order, and carefully designed a Williams-Mystic logo with our own tropically-flavored Bubble-Yum on a wall already decorated with layers upon layers of gum. After only two days of whetting our appetites to Seattle’s unique culture, we were whisked down the coast, the tall buildings transforming to conifers through the van windows almost immediately outside the city lines.

Fair Winds,


Check back soon for Part II of Spring ’14 blogger Alex M’s reflection on the Pacific Northwest field seminar!