California Field Seminar


by Amy Shmania, F09

Day One: Travel

They didn’t warn us about the minivans.  Before the trip we had talked about van cliques and co-pilots.  We had seen the schedule with all of the places that we were going to drive.  But we could not anticipate what the van caravan really meant until, standing outside the San Francisco Airport, we watched four minivans pull up to the curb in unison as Rachel’s walkie-talkie announced: “We’re pulling in.  Load ’em up.”  As we piled into the vans, put in the first mix CDs, and listened to Glenn announce over the radio that we were moving into the right lane, we realized we were part of our own little minivan mafia.  There was no turning back now.

That was a good thing, because I don’t think any one of us had any intention of turning back.  There were too many things to see and do—a schedule so packed that to follow it seemed an impossible feat.  Yet, in all the commotion of zooming from place to place along the coast, this adventure would have ample time for soaking up the views from rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean, for dance parties, for morning swims, for Ghirardelli ice cream, and for midnight walks across the sand dunes.

Day Two: Point Lobos

Look out from the cliff, down the slope at the kelp beds, at Whaler’s Cove, at gray and black and tan cliffs covered in vegetation, at Monterey.  Pick up a shell left over from a Native American’s dinner and watch a sea lion bark where whalers used to drag their catch.  Sit here and think, but not just what comes into your head.  Think about the rocks you sit on.  Think about the use of land and water.  Think about the people, and the plants, and the animals which have been here before you.  Ponder the sublime.

Day Four: The Crowley Tugboat

I don’t think that many minivans drive into the Oakland container yard.  I don’t actually suppose that many people whose work doesn’t involve container ships would ever consider visiting the commercial port or be invited to do so.  Looking through the van window as we drove in, I saw more machinery than I had ever seen in my life.  There were massive container ships and huge cranes made to load cargo, which loomed tall and white across the sky.  Even though I had driven past the container yards near New York City several times, I had never taken a moment to think about why all of the containers were there.  Now, here we were, watching ships get loaded with cargo from and for other countries, the east coast, our wardrobes, our backpacks, our kitchen sinks.

Never passive observers, our foray into the cargo world did not stop in the shipyard.  Our destination was a tugboat owned by the Crowley Maritime Corporation, which operates the most tugboats and barges of any company in the world.  The boat was red and white, with large black tires on the sides.  The main deck was wide and open both fore and aft.  In the middle arose the three story cabin area.  The first floor housed the kitchen (as big as Carr House’s), a dining area, storage, and a head, among other things.  The next floor, which was smaller, held a few sleeping rooms, a head and a small office.  The top floor was walled-in by windows and contained computers, compasses, controls, and steering wheels for getting the boat where it needed to go.

While watching a classmate steer the boat, I learned that the tugboat is propelled by two “eggbeaters” which, when held at different angles, move the boat in different directions and at different speeds.  I also took a trip to the engine room, which was massive.  Located below decks, it took up more space than the downstairs of our house.  We could see where the “eggbeaters” were housed, and look at the engines, the generators, and the fire safety system, all brightly painted and humming noisily.

Crowley Engine Room

Back on the deck I watched a container ship get loaded from the shore.  A man in the operator box of one of the giant white cranes would reach down with a magnetic claw, pull a container off of a truck, lift it up and carry it to a new resting place among hundreds of other containers on the container ship.  Each container was moved with precision from place to place, the transaction only taking a few minutes.

Containe Ship

For a couple of hours, we had free reign of a commercial tugboat, something very few people get to do.  We got to see in action how it’s possible that my t-shirt is from El Salvador and my computer power supply was made in Taiwan.  And they gave us hats.  Which were made in China.

Day Seven: Point Reyes Lighthouse

There are over three hundred steps to get down to the where the Point Reyes Lighthouse sits overlooking the ocean, but the view is worth the hike.  To the south, lost in the fog, are the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge.  To the north are Bodega Bay and giant hills covered with brown, yellow, and green, cows and scrubby plant life.  Directly below are tan cliffs, a few lost hats, seals, seabirds, and rocky stacks.  To the west are the Farallon Islands, ocean, and fog.

Point Reyes

Point Reyes is one of the foggiest and windiest places on the Pacific Coast.  It is isolated by the ocean and rocks and rolling hills.  It would be a lonely place to be a lighthouse keeper.  The wind on the descent to the lighthouse could be dangerous, deadly.  I wonder who would want to live there with no company but the ocean and the rocky cliffs.  Maybe the staggering beauty of the place and the purpose of saving ships from the rocks was enough.

Day Nine: Home

Walking back across the Seaport’s parking lot to Carr House, it feels good to be home, to see the leaves turning orange and red and to feel the crisp fall air.  In my pocket are rocks from a beach in Bodega Bay and in my bag are sand and dirt and salt and notes and diagrams of plate tectonics and clothes still damp with the Pacific Ocean.  It feels good to be back, carrying little bits of adventures among my socks.

To see videos from our California trip visit:

Constant Observers

Maybe the dock guys think we’re a little strange, but I’m willing to risk my reputation in order to spend a little quality time dangling my head over the side of the dock, looking.

It’s not that when I walk on top of things I completely ignore the surfaces beneath my feet.  I certainly look down at the sidewalk when I’m running to avoid tripping over weathered areas and to make sure I crunch every available dry leaf.  But wandering around with Jim makes me realize just how much I don’t notice.  How much time do you spend lying on your stomach or lifting up rocks or sticking your hand in rocky crevices just to see what’s there?

For Jim, I have a suspicion that the answer to that question would be, now really, how much time don’t you spend doing these things?  In Marine Ecology lab, we are constant observers.  On Thursday, we spent the afternoon observing fouling communities on some local docks.  The docks were deceivingly clean and sterile from the perspective of someone who does not look under things.  But Jim soon had us lying on our stomachs looking at the underside of the dock.

I’ll be honest: I was expecting some green slime, a few dark barnacles, maybe a fish or two.  I had no idea that under that regular dock in the estuary were bright orange sponges, patterned seasquirts, shrimp, little yellow anemones, baby barnacles, big barnacles, and bryozoans, all swaying together in the water.

Move down six inches on your belly, as the men who work on the dock glance at you out of their peripheral vision, and the whole underwater world changes.  There are all the same players, but now the anemone gang is rising up and the orange sponge is on vacation and the neighbors are noticing that the barnacle family is getting quite large.  If you watch for long enough, you can start to get an idea of the routine of the place.  The barnacle sweeps its cirri in time with the seasquirt’s wave, and the shrimp look on from the water, waiting for a tasty meal.

Maybe the dock guys think we’re a little strange, but I’m willing to risk my reputation in order to spend a little quality time dangling my head over the side of the dock, looking.

Trawler Trip

As many days do around here, yesterday dawned with “warm layers, a waterproof lab notebook, and rubber boots; foulies required.”

The truth of the matter: you have to be comfortable in your foulies.  In fact, it’s really best if, when you don them, you feel powerful and protected, like you can do anything.  After the five minute shower test and a stormy night aboard Cramer, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t cultivated some mutual trust, or at least felt a connection to the layer of grime that you added to your foulies, contributing to the layer of salt and dirt from students of semesters past.  But, if this feeling does not come naturally, it’s worth it to take some time to really appreciate the wonder of your yellow rubber overalls—they work better that way.

Williams-Mystic Foulies

As many days do around here, yesterday dawned with “warm layers, a waterproof lab notebook, and rubber boots; foulies required.”  The eighteen of us, along with several faculty and staff members, climbed into a bus, cameras in tow, ready for a day of fishing.  We headed north to Rhode Island where we spent the first part of the day on an educational fishing trawler and listening to a fisherman speak about fishing sectors.

Once on board the trawler, we watched as the crew members let the net out.  It was large and green, rolled around a spool that was controlled by a motor.  One of the crew showed us how to measure the size of the netting, an important method of regulating which types of fish get caught.  After a twenty minute tow, the crew began to bring the net back in.

As the net spun back around the spool, I watched starfish and crabs find a new home nestled in the green rope lattice.  Finally the cod end of the net came into view and was lowered onto the deck.  It was filled with bluefish, fluke, sea robins, several types of crabs, lobsters, squid, a couple of wooden traps, and various other ocean creatures.  We sorted the catch into buckets and threw the seaweed, shells and some of the crabs back into the ocean.  The lobsters were too small to keep, but not too small to be angry at their removal from their watery homes; one of them foamed at us as we examined its underside to see if it was male or female.  We looked at the blue crabs’ swimmer legs and the flat eyes of the fluke.  My favorite was the decorator crab, which picks up particularly nice bits of algae from the ocean and sticks them to itself, perhaps thinking, “Oh this piece of green algae would look so becoming next to my brown algae area.”  If only it had a mirror to see its handywork.

On returning to the dock, we watched with interest or disgust as a crew member showed us how to fillet each of the three types of fish we had brought in with us.  These skills would be useful later that evening, as our grandfathers could only explain so well what to do with the whole fishes staring at us from our refrigerator shelves.  We were enthusiastically informed by our Policy professor that Williams-Mystic tradition mandates a fish potluck the night after the trawler trip, so the evening found us hurrying to create different fish dishes.  Caroline and I pulled on our foulies to protect us from any stray fish particles and carried our fluke into the backyard to fillet it on Caroline’s desk chair.

Seven o’clock found Williams-Mystic students in the kitchen of Albion House, surrounding a table covered in six or seven varieties of fish entrees.  We were ready to eat the creatures that drive the characters in the novels we read, whose remaining populations mark the history of fisheries and are battled over in the world of policy, and which are integral to a healthy ecosystem in the ocean.  Sometimes it’s hard to escape class.

by Amy Shmania, F09

How to Fillet a Sea Robin