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.