Apologies to my loyal following of readers, all seven of you, for the great delay in posting this. The second half of the semester certainly picks up! Since our return, my peers and I been have been busy hunched over the tables in the Collections Research Center analyzing primary sources for our history papers, tending science projects, calling experts for their insights as we write marine policy research papers and finishing the epic Moby Dick. But enough apologies and excuses…to the adventure!
We landed in New Orleans and made haste toward the French Quarter for a walking tour to learn about the history and literary legacy that saturates every door and corner. We were set free for lunch, which for most included beignets. After strolling through the pulsing city center, we boarded the Natchez, New Orleans’ last true steamboat, for a ride on the Mississippi. The Big Muddy was as big and muddy as advertised. Floating on the mighty river and being able to look down on the roofs of homes below the river level revealed the true need for levees.
We visited the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum, which integrates personal narratives from the storm alongside stirring images and information to help convey the profoundly devastating impacts of this disaster and its legacy in New Orleans and the nation. Understanding damage wrought by Katrina is essential moving forward to adequately prepare for future disasters to ensure a swift and just response.
From there, we rolled toward the Acme Oyster House. It was a rather loud affair and many of among us tried their hand slurping down oysters. We vegetarians relished in the salad, side options and large ice-cream sundaes.
The next day found us at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (lovingly known as LUMCON) in Cochodrie. After a short orientation, we donned our sacrificial clothing and launched kayaks and canoes into the marsh. As we floated near the docks, Marlo and Lizzie sensed something was amiss with their brand new kayak. After a chorus of admonishment to just keep going, it became clear that they indeed were headed for the silty bottom. Expertly, they maneuvered the sinking vessel toward the dock and scrambled to safety. Removing the waterlogged kayak revealed a large crack in the side. Our brave survivors stood on the dock pumping their fists shouting “Not today, Gulf, not today!” (Not sure if that last sentence is really how it went down…but please imagine something dramatic if you will).
After Marlo and Lizzie were assigned an intact kayak, we all set out for the salt marsh for a morning of science and squelching through the mud. This was truly a rubber boots on the ground operation. Mike led a brief snail counting activity. the core of our visit to the marsh was to take a sediment sample. Using a massive tube apparatus assembled from home depot parts, ahem I mean a very serious piece of equipment, we drilled into the sediment. Students showed muscle lowering and lifting the tube through thirty feet of sediment.
Back at LUMCOM, we cut open the core to read the layers. In engaging with the core, we discussed the geological role of the Mississippi. The Mississippi River has been delivering sediment to the Southern Gulf for thousands of years, spreading it in “lobes.” The location of delivery shifts slowly over time and the River delivers its sediment elsewhere. Devastating flood events like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 also inspired the hardening of the river, which means that it can no longer deliver its fertile sediment to the regions that once relied on that input. Louisiana is truly the epicenter for climate change, losing land a frightening rate due the compounding factors of land subsidence and sea level rise.
Following a delicious gumbo lunch, we traveled down the road to speak with an oyster business owner. As she spoke about the ins and outs of running a business, we saw several boats dock and unload tremendous piles of oysters.
We spent the evening twirling and twisting and getting dizzy at the Jolly Inn. We came away a little breathless from hours of dancing to the sounds of the Couche Couche band. I’ll let the blurred photos speak for themselves:
In spite of the night of dancing, we all managed to rise early the next morning to set out for our visit to Grand Isle. On the long drive, we looked over the submerged roads leading to Port Fourchon, an oil hub responsible for receiving a considerable percentage of the nation’s oil. Conversations about oil in Southern Louisiana carry a cruel irony. Many lives and local economies are intimately tied to oil drilling and the associated industries, yet the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to the rising seas that are gnawing at the Gulf Coast, submerging a football field of Louisiana’s land every hour. How to reconcile the importance of oil in the economy and the environmental impacts remains a difficult question that this field seminar encourages us to ruminate upon. As students of the ocean and future educators, scientists, artists, lawyers and citizens, we must know and understand where our energy comes from and the impacts that our consumption has on coastal communities.
After seeing the industrial, austere Port Fouchon, we traveled through low-lying marsh toward Grand Isle. Chris Hernandez, a town official and friend of the program, met us to give us an intimate orientation on this barrier island which is truly on the front lines of storms, rising sea level and oil spills. Since being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Grand Isle has rebuilt and rebounded. Mr. Hernandez presented a passionate plea that Grand Isle continue to receive federal and state funding to stave off the waves. It was a sobering moment to see the tangible and dramatic impacts of coastal erosion as we stood above a recently constructed beach access point that led into the sea,. Mr. Hernandez welcomed us into his home, more specifically his “Man Cave,” to meet his delightful family for a lunch celebration. Many of us walked away sincerely impressed by the resiliency of the community and touched by the generosity of our host. On the macro-scale, many us are conflicted by the future of developed barrier islands. Katy, our marine policy professor, encouraged us to think critically about the social and policy considerations in this case, and we have continued to ponder these important issues back in Mystic.
We could not leave Grand Isle without a visit to the beach to hear about the history and marine biology of the region, and, of course, the canonical literary work of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. To be in a place and read a work written a century before about that location is a unique opportunity. Of course, the faculty could not lecture without letting us explore the shore.
In the evening, it was a crawfish extravaganza:
We began our final morning with one of ZAM’s world famous Swamp Tours. Bayou’ve got to see this to believe it. We soon said later, alligator (yes, we saw several alligators!) to Zam’s and were on our way.
Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to hear from the environmental justice speaker planned for the afternoon because of inclement weather. Williams-Mystic Spring 16 has been eager to continue the conversation and engage with issues of environmental justice in Southern Louisiana. Field seminars offer an opportunity to engage with different perspectives and new environments, and it is inspiring to see my peers so invested in enhancing the experience suggestions about how to further integrate issues of issues of race, class and gender into the curriculum.
Our short visit to Louisiana was brimming with Mississippi River mud, crawfish, discussion about climate change and exposure to new ideas. I am writing this during “Climate Week” at the Mystic campus, so, of course, the Gulf Coast field seminar is weighing heavily on our minds.
We may be done with the field seminars, but please check in soon for updates about life here in Mystic.