“We Know What We Experience:” People, place, and climate change in southern Louisiana

Our trip to Louisiana showed me how climate adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency look different everywhere. In southern Louisiana, community itself is a form of resilience. Traveling there showed me the face behind climate change; there is no better textbook than a storyteller sitting in front of you.

by Hayden Gillooly

Hayden Gillooly is one of our student bloggers for Spring 2019. She is a sophomore at Williams College, studying Spanish and Geosciences with a concentration in Maritime Studies. She is from North, Adams, MA. 

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A sunset over the marsh at LUMCON (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium), a marine lab where we stayed for most of the Louisiana Field Seminar.

One sunny day, I was walking through the Seaport with my friend and science partner, Phoebe. We were on our way to deploy equipment for our science project: a series of ropes with plastic attached at various depths, to see how depth affects the diversity and biomass of sessile fouling marine organisms. Wagon in tow, filled with buoys, zip ties, and our ‘deployment chains,’ we weaved our way through the Seaport, and noticed that there was a sign in front of the Mystic Chapel that said there would be a chantey singing performance at 1:30. It was 1:27. Perfect! Sessile marine organisms could wait.

We parked our science wagon and went inside, only to find that the church was empty. A museum-goer entered, and we struck up a conversation. We ended up talking about our research projects, and the visitor knew something about all of our topics. He had read the same books we had read, and even knew the cases we had studied in Marine Policy! We exchanged emails, and I promised I would follow up to interview him for my Marine Policy project, which looks at sustainable fishing through a sociological lens. It was such a serendipitous encounter; Phoebe and I walked away feeling energized and excited.

I emailed him last week, and he responded, putting me in touch with another gentleman as well. That gentleman said, “We save what we love. We love what we know. We know what we experience” (a mixture of his ideas along with that of Jacques Cousteau and others). It made me think about Mystic immediately. Here, we are learning to love the planet through learning and experiencing it. How glorious.

Specifically, it made me think about our trip to Louisiana earlier this month. For years, I have learned about global warming, but nothing felt so relevant and necessary as learning about it in Louisiana and speaking with people directly impacted by climate change and sea level rise. No textbook can bring a story and concept to life like experiences can. We only know what we experience.

In Louisiana, driving in our rented minivans vans over a bridge, we could see wetlands disappearing. The bridge itself did not exist just five years prior; the road it replaced was already underwater. We saw ‘ghost trees,’ which are dead trees that have been killed by saltwater as sea level rises. They look eerie and haunting, scattered along roads and highways: A reminder that the sea did not used to come this far.

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Cajun dancing at the Jolly Inn in Houma, La.!

While traveling through Louisiana, I was amazed by the kindness of everyone we encountered. They welcomed us with open arms, eager to talk to us and answer our questions. Williams-Mystic has built such special relationships with people there. After visiting semester after semester, the program has found a family in these people. It was magical to watch our professors’ faces light up when they saw these old friends. At Cajun dancing one night, the dancers pulled us into their routine with tenderness and joy; before we knew it, we were doing line dances with huge smiles across our faces. The sound of the washboard, band, and laughter filled the dance hall.

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Mr. Chris Hernandez, town supervisor of Grand Isle, La., shows the group his DIY flood control measures.

While learning about sea level rise in the classroom, I always wondered (albeit naively), why, if someone had the means to, they would not just move. After this trip, I learned that the answer is not so simple; it is full of intricacies, complexities, and does not really have one answer at all. As we spent time with our hosts in Louisiana, I felt my understanding shift. Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, talked to us about how sea level rise is inundating and flooding the burial grounds of her tribe’s ancestors. Mr. Carl Sevin, a vessels technician at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), talked to us about how his job, like so many others, is dependent upon this place. While his wife is a biology teacher and can find employment elsewhere, his livelihood is dependent upon the land of Louisiana.

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Brian Callam of the Louisiana WLF Oyster Research Lab discusses oyster aquaculture. The bags in the background contain algae used to feed the oysters. 

At an oyster hatchery, we learned that 47% of US oysters are from Louisiana, and that oyster reefs can protect coasts from erosion and storm surge. A threat that is facing this industry is that the Gulf of Mexico has been identified as highly vulnerable to ocean acidification. Sediment buildup can also be a threat to these crucial oysters reefs, along with attempts to build out the coast by importing sediment. As Brian Callam at the Louisiana WLF Oyster Research Lab said, “When you build up land mass where it was open water, then people who were exploiting that water are displaced. Real people are affected, and their everyday lives, by these changes.”

In the town of Grand Isle, on Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, we spoke with Mr. Chris Hernandez, the town supervisor and right-hand man to Mayor David Camardelle. Living in western Massachusetts, far away from the coast, it is hard for me to imagine preparing for hurricanes and having my home flooded by rising waters. Conversations with Mr. Chris in his ‘man cave’ were humbling and gave me chills. “When you think you’re prepared for a hurricane, you’re not. You’re never prepared enough.” At Mr. Chris’ house, we also spoke with Captain Floyd Lasseigne; he said that with marshland disappearing, there are fewer places for shrimp to lay their eggs, resulting in declining stocks.

The way that Mayor David talked about Grand Isle reaffirmed that it truly is people who make a place and build a community. “Our homes are gone, but we have our lives.” He described saving a homeless man from drowning in a flooded street during Hurricane Katrina; that man still calls him every few months to thank him. Mr. Chris said that if anything, people must help each other. Even when they have nothing, they help.

On the last night of each field seminar, we do an exercise called ‘around the room,’ where each of us takes a turn reflecting on the trip. I always find these conversations to be eye-opening. Everyone’s comments made me think about the trip through another lens, deepening my appreciation for the experience. My classmate and friend, Angus Warren, said something in his reflection that stuck with many of us. He said, “Is what I am doing good for others?” I followed up with Angus about his comment. He replied, “I am filled with anxiety that my chosen discipline [Classics] serves nothing and no one apart from myself. I have the same reaction to working on sailing ships: sure, I would love to spend the rest of my days floating around the world, but what good am I doing? Being down in Louisiana, amongst people for whom Latin is nothing more than a long-dead language, has hammered home my dread that I’ve isolated myself from large segments of the very same ‘humanity’ I purport to study.”

We furthered our conversation over coffee with my friend and housemate Kylie Wiegel. We questioned what it meant to live a meaningful life and to make a difference in the world. We concluded that if we cannot change the whole world, perhaps we should focus on perpetuating a ‘locus of passion.’ That is, delving into our passions, and sharing them with the people around us so that a cycle of passion is fostered. I find that at Williams-Mystic, in-class discussions often lead to philosophical chats after class and during meals; the topics we are studying feel so relevant and necessary to engage with.

Our trip to Louisiana showed me how climate adaptation, mitigation, and resiliency look different everywhere. In southern Louisiana, community itself is a form of resilience. Traveling there showed me the face behind climate change; there is no better textbook than a storyteller sitting in front of you.

I left the trip feeling changed by the experience, wanting to further study global warming and environmental sciences. Angus’ question rang through my head on repeat: “Is what I am doing good for others?” A week after returning from the trip, I decided to add a Geosciences major with a concentration in Maritime Studies to my Spanish major. My Geosciences professor at Williams, José Constantine, always described climate change by saying “That’s your brothers and sisters out there.” I nodded in agreement in class, but did not feel this line until this trip. How can we stare climate change in the face for what it is? This is more than merely a scientific or political issue: it is an inherently human issue.

Being your true self: Devon Parfait’s (F’18) Williams-Mystic Story

“Williams-Mystic has taught me how to be a better academic and about the value of real connections. It is so exciting to see so many intelligent and young minds care about so many different issues.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Devon Parfait (F’18) first encountered Williams-Mystic at a geosciences conference in fall 2017. Little did he realize the type of educational experience that would await him less than a year later.

At the conference, Devon met two geoscientists connected to the program: Ronadh Cox, a professor of geology and mineralogy at Williams College, and Lisa Gilbert (S’96), Williams-Mystic’s oceanography professor.

Devon was at the conference in his capacity as the future chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw Indians in Southern Louisiana. Ronadh Cox connected Williams-Mystic with Tribal Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar in 2014. Now, every time the program travels to Louisiana, Williams-Mystic students meet with Chief Shirell and other community leaders to discuss the effects of climate change on her community.

For Devon, taking on the role of chief is a major responsibility. He believes that his experience at Williams-Mystic will help equip him to assume the role.

Williams-Mystic also changed Devon’s perception of the world and of himself. Sailing on the SSV Corwith Cramer was a catalyst for this change in his life.

“I was able to be my true self,” Devon said. “I had a feeling of pure joy and happiness that I never could have gotten anywhere else.”

Devon said being disconnected from the world outside while on the ship made him feel as though he was truly living in the moment.

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Devon also enjoyed traveling to the West and Gulf Coasts.

“All of the field seminars were absolutely incredible, and I felt so safe and comfortable traveling with Williams-Mystic,” Devon said. “Being in the vans was fun and I was impressed by the ways the staff and faculty did their jobs.”

In the Pacific Northwest, Devon did not feel the need to worry about food and traveling; he felt like he could enjoy the experience with his classmates. Devon has a vivid memory of being on Agate Beach, Oregon with Lisa Gilbert and talking to her about school and how she decided to pursue her Ph.D.

The Gulf Coast Field Seminar, meanwhile, was a trip home for Devon.

“It was really cool to be in Louisiana with Williams-Mystic and it was really nice for my classmates and professors to have me as their personal connection,” Devon said. “They were then connected to me and Louisiana. It was a great way for them to see who I really was and where I came from.”

For his classmates and faculty, Devon said, the field seminar was an opportunity to see Louisiana through his eyes. For Devon, meanwhile, the field seminar was an opportunity to see his home through the lens of Williams-Mystic.

“It was incredible to be [from] where I was from and see all the negative impacts on the environment and how that affects the community,” Devon said. “It was valuable and there were things that I learned about my community and state I would not have known otherwise.”

Travel is a large component of the Williams-Mystic experience, but so is research. Williams-Mystic makes it possible for students to utilize their curiosity to complete research projects that matter to them.

In Devon’s maritime history class, he researched the changing role of doctors from the 1700s through the modern era and looked at how these changes affected medical practices at sea.

In his literature class, Devon chose to focus his Moby-Dick research paper on cannibalism, savagery, and sharks.

“The whole book is meant to change the readers’ perceptions and has so many different hidden meanings throughout,” Devon said. “I wrote about how these perceptions change the way in which we view who were the real savages during this time.”

Devon credits Williams-Mystic with creating the supportive environment that helped him write and organize his paper.

“For the Moby-Dick paper, I definitely tried to organize it too much at the beginning,” Devon said. “Random quotes and summaries of the chapters filled the boards in Carlton [the James T. Carlton Marine Science Center].”

Many of the summaries and quotes did not make it into his final paper. However, he learned more from this in-depth research than he would have had he not tackled the novel in this way.

The same can be said for Devon’s Oceanographic Processes project. The opportunity to take this class was one of the main reasons he wanted to attend Williams-Mystic. Devon chose to research coastal erosion at the Barn Island salt marshes and in the Mystic River Estuary. In fact, his research was one of the first Williams-Mystic student projects to compare the two locations. He studied mussels and Spartina, a common marsh grass, while also looking at biodiversity and erosion.

Finally, in marine policy, Devon delved into ways that the California State Lands Commission might incorporate the perspectives and needs of traditionally marginalized communities into the way the commission manages public lands in the San Francisco Bay area.

“The goal was to help create policy recommendations that would allow lessees to better define the environmental justice communities they work with using a combination of tools that are available,” Devon said.

Aside from the research projects, participating in nineteenth-century maritime skills classes is another component of Williams-Mystic’s educational model. Devon chose to take shipsmithing — a nineteenth-century style blacksmithing class.

“Shipsmithing gives you the opportunity to have something tangible to bring home from each lesson,” Devon said. “You can go in and relax and work and have a good time.”

All told, Devon credits Williams-Mystic for challenging him in ways he never could have imagined — and changing his life for the better.

“I would never exchange this experience for anything else in the world,” Devon said. “It has taught me how to be a better academic and about the value of real connections. It is so exciting to see so many intelligent and young minds care about so many different issues.”

Connections and Community: Alissa Ryan’s (F’17) Williams-Mystic Experience

“I knew nothing about boats or sailing or the maritime community before coming to Williams-Mystic. I really didn’t think I’d be of any use to the ship’s crew on the Offshore Field Seminar, but I found myself knowing the lines, helping pull up the anchor, and steering the ship comfortably.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Alissa aboard the US Brig Niagara, looking up with a life preserver hanging off the ship behind her.
Alissa Ryan (F’17) during the Offshore Field Seminar aboard the US Brig Niagara.

Imagine this: a little girl who hated the outdoors so much that her parents had to bribe her to go outside grows up and chooses to study environmental science, become a camp counselor, and love the outdoors. For New York University student and F’17 alumna Alissa Ryan, this is the journey that led her to Williams-Mystic.

Alissa was in the process of clearing out her old email when she came across a message from Executive Director Tom Van Winkle advertising Williams-Mystic. The program spoke to her because of its size.

“My school is really big (25,000 undergrads!) and right in New York City, so I wanted to have a small, personal experience for a semester where I could develop a community — and I absolutely got that, along with some hands-on learning relevant to my major that I never could have gotten through my own university’s programs,” Alissa said.

Williams-Mystic taught Alissa the importance of making personal connections and collaborating with others.

“At a big city school, there is very little community and people keep to themselves in big, 300-person lectures. It’s easy to fall into that and keep that mindset even in smaller settings where you have the opportunity to be more involved,” Alissa said. “Williams-Mystic reminded me to talk to my classmates and get to know my professors and be all around more present, which has helped me a lot back at my home college.”

Alissa especially enjoyed a field seminar full of personal connections: the Gulf Coast Field Seminar.

“It felt so meaningful and I learned a lot from talking to individuals there. I’ve been learning about climate change for years in the courses for my major, but seeing its effects in real life, right in front of my eyes, and talking to people about how it’s changed their lives is something I could never get from a classroom and really helped me understand why I’m studying these things in the first place,” Alissa said.

Community living was Alissa’s favorite part of her Williams-Mystic experience.

“I really loved Mallory House. We cooked together, watched movies and TV together, and had SO many mug cookies together,” Alissa said. “The other houses were just across the street, too, so I could cross the street to go see my friends over in the other houses.”

Alissa was surprised at how much she was able to learn as different challenges presented themselves.

“I knew nothing about boats or sailing or the maritime community before coming to Williams-Mystic, and I left knowing so much more,” Alissa said. “I really didn’t think I’d be of any use to the ship’s crew on the Offshore Field Seminar, but I found myself knowing the lines, helping pull up the anchor, and steering the ship comfortably.”

Part of being a Williams-Mystic student is working with others to solve problems or defend positions. Alissa’s participation in Moot Court with her classmates embodied this principle.

“We were all stressed and sleep deprived, a little convinced that we wouldn’t be able to make it come together,” Alissa said. “We kept working and figured it all out and it came together for both teams. It perfectly demonstrated to me how well we had all learned to work together to get things done.”

Alissa hopes to work in the field of environmental science someday and believes that environmental education may be a good fit for her.

“I love nature and the environment and I just want to make some sort of positive change, leaving it better in some way,” Alissa said.

Alissa’s Williams-Mystic experience can be summed up in one word: Gratitude.

“I have met lifelong friends through Williams-Mystic who I could never meet anywhere else. My classmates, professors, and everyone else I’ve met at W-M amaze me with their passion for what they do and their drive to make change,” Alissa said. “The people I’ve met through Williams-Mystic continue to inspire me and motivate me to do my best at what I love.”

Going Down The Bayou: S’18 Takeaways From The Louisiana Field Seminar

“You may never get to go back to this area and have the same opportunities that are provided to you on this trip.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Key parts of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program are the three field seminars that occur during the first half of each semester. In the fall, a class might sail off the coast of Maine, then travel to Northern California. In the spring, they might circumnavigate Puerto Rico before exploring the Pacific Northwest.

Though our West Coast and Offshore Field Seminars vary by semester, Williams-Mystic classes have had one field seminar in common for the past 14 years: Louisiana. Semester after semester, students meet people that the Williams-Mystic faculty and staff have developed close relationships with. Each class experiences firsthand what climate change is doing to our nation’s coasts and the people who live on them.

A few weeks ago, S’18 traveled to Louisiana. A number of students were deeply affected by the people we meet and the places we saw.

For University of Connecticut senior Meghan Patulak, traveling to Louisiana gave her the opportunity to see with her own eyes how climate change is affecting coastal communities.

Going into the field seminar, Meghan expected to be very emotional, moved by the stories of the local coastal community members. She felt like being able to see what the communities were dealing with, including sea level rise and environmental injustice, would impact her greatly.

“It’s one thing to study and imagine what climate change is like, but to actually see with my own two eyes how it’s affecting our people and the natural land… it was truly heartbreaking,” Meghan said. “However, while sorting through these emotions and imagining what I could do to help mitigate the horror of what is occurring, I felt an even stronger passion began to flare in my soul. I knew after hearing these people’s stories that I was going to spend the rest of my life fighting for them and fighting to preserve and cultivate the beauty of this earth.”

College of New Rochelle junior Wenting Shu expected to encounter vibrant Creole and Cajun cultures.

I also expected to learn about the rich history of architecture and food of the area,” Wenting said. “I didn’t expect to interact with the Mayor of Grand Isle nor see the amount of devastation left behind in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I also did not expect to see the daughter of the deceased owner of the Jolly Inn Houma, La., which was more emotional than anything I expected.”

Each time a Williams-Mystic class is in Louisiana, they head to The Jolly Inn to experience Cajun dancing. Meghan said the night of Cajun dancing sticks out vividly in her memory because of how much fun it was, but also because of what happened afterwards.

“We had just departed the dance hall and my van decided to turn up the radio and belt out a few songs. At some point along the way home the professors pulled all the vans into a local Sonic to treat us to some ice cream. As this was happening, Whitney Houston’s “I Just Want To Dance With Somebody” came blaring out of the aux and my entire van began to sing along with the lyrics at the top of our lungs,” Meghan said. “The entire block probably heard us singing. The reason this sticks out so much to me is how happy, free and full of bliss I felt. It was one of those moments where the negativity of the world went away for a bit and everyone was living in the present moment with one another.”

Meghan said it felt like the past and future dissipated and the only thing that mattered was soaking up every last moment of that memory.

For Wenting, the memory of Louisiana that sticks out was arriving at the Mississippi River levee on the first day.

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S’18 sits on a Mississippi River levee in Kenner, La. as oceanographer Rachel Scudder describes the geology of the area.

“I was also deeply affected by hearing the local residents talk about the loss of their homes and their jobs due to hurricanes and sea level rise,” Wenting said. “The more the residents talked and described their losses, the more overwhelming the feelings became. To see so much resilience and strength in these people was heartbreaking but also made me more driven to help rebuild their community.”

As she approaches graduation, Meghan believes this trip to Louisiana could not have come at a better time.

“I have always had an intense passion for saving the environment and protecting all those that live within it,” Meghan said. “I was able to understand that I’m on the right track in life as I transition into my next life chapter post-graduation. It’s exciting to find what sets your soul on fire. I felt that I had purpose for once and know the work I have put in over the years isn’t going to waste.”

Wenting was left in awe by how history, ecology, and policy all intertwined in Louisiana.

“It made me think critically and it motivated me to want to work with residents and scientists to help lessen the damage of future natural disasters on the communities in southern Louisiana.”  

Meghan gave some advice to future Williams-Mystic students about how to approach this field seminar.

“Talk to everyone you are able to meet, hang with your professors, go night fishing even if you’re tired, swim in the Gulf Coast, eat that weird gator sausage, dance your heart out at the Cajun dance hall, lend a helping hand… just experience everything you possibly can,” Meghan said. “You may never get to go back to this area and have the same opportunities that are provided to you on this trip.”

If a future Williams-Mystic student is reading this, Wenting also has this to say to you:

“Every student takes away something from this interactive learning experience, and it is going to impact you for the rest of your life.”

Hands-on Learning, Interdisciplinary Connections, and Lifelong Impacts: Two Spring ’17 Students Reflect on Their Williams-Mystic Experience

“I always thought that becoming a researcher was the only way I could make an impact. Williams-Mystic showed me that you can find meaningful ways to engage your interests wherever you go.”

By Meredith Carroll, Assistant Director of Admissions and Director of Social Media

When Paul Butera, a sophomore studying geology at the University of Puget Sound, arrived at Williams-Mystic in January 2017, he “didn’t really have a plan” for life after college. His classmate Emma McCauley, by contrast, was certain she would continue on to graduate school after completing her marine biology degree at Stony Brook University the following fall. At different stages in their education, Paul and Emma nevertheless share a love for the ocean. Paul spent the summer of 2016 working at a salmon fishery in Alaska; Emma has years of experience volunteering with Oceana and the New York Aquarium. By S’17’s thirteenth week at Williams-Mystic, when they sat down for an interview with Science Teaching Assistant Hannah Whalen and Assistant Director of Admissions Meredith Carroll, Paul and Emma agreed that their experiences here had altered their views on the ocean, on conservation and on how to carry their passion for both forward into their lives after Williams-Mystic.

What experiences did you have before you got here that made you invested in protecting the ocean?

Paul: In Alaska, you can see that the oceans are warming: that it’s 14 degrees warmer where you’re fishing, and you’re getting fewer fish. Seeing that in the real world and then coming here and reading about it has been fascinating.

Emma: I’ve always tried to advocate for the ocean. But the event that made it concrete for me was Hurricane Sandy. I lived close to places that got utterly destroyed. Knowing that climate change caused this storm and that things like this will likely happen more frequently in the future reminded me how important environmental work and study are in the real world.

How has Williams-Mystic changed the way you think about your major? Has it changed your worldview?

Emma: Williams-Mystic has shifted my perspective away from just looking at the ocean as a scientific system to be studied. It’s made me realize that to be an effective steward of the ocean, you can’t push aside the people who need it to survive.

Paul: I’ve realized that the interdisciplinary parts of the ocean are what make it special. An example from the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar: I go to school right there. Yet I had to go to the East Coast and come back in order to appreciate all that happens there. I also really liked the Louisiana Field Seminar. I’d never been to the South, and it was a completely new experience for me. I found it similar to Alaska because oil and fisheries drive both place’s economies. Yet there were drastically different views of how those things should be managed. It’s a different society based off the same things, which was really interesting for me.

Emma: I definitely think my worldview has changed. I’m lucky to have come from an environmentally conscious place, and my love of the ocean has made my views [on environmental issues] very black and white. My college education has reinforced that. But this program [teaches you] that these problems aren’t black and white. It makes you think about the social justice issues involved. Being a steward of the ocean doesn’t mean you can’t also be a voice for people who need it.  The most challenging thing about Williams-Mystic has been understanding that your beliefs may not always be right and challenging yourself to look at all the information out there before you come to a conclusion.

How have your classmates’ perspectives and backgrounds changed your experience here?

Emma: We learn from each other. One of the greatest things about Williams-Mystic is that I’m a marine biology major, but that doesn’t mean I’m better suited for even the science class than anyone else. All the different perspectives make it the interdisciplinary program it is.

Paul: I’m going to steal something Nickie Mitch (Bowdoin ‘18) said during the Pacific Northwest trip when we went to Powell’s Books. I was expecting everyone to go to similar sections of the store but we all spread out. Everyone has a different passion, but we’re all tied together by our fascination with the ocean.

What will you take back to your home campus?

Paul: I think what I’ll take away is the interdisciplinary part of [Williams-Mystic]. If someone brings something up, I’m able to identify how it ties into the ocean, or this issue, or that policy. I may not be an expert, but I look forward to being a resource and an advocate for studying the ocean.

Emma:  I’ll also be more willing to step outside my comfort zone. Before I started this program, I was worried about getting seasick. I didn’t foresee myself performing chanteys for museum visitors. I didn’t think I would feel comfortable doing either of those things. But I’m doing them now and it’s not a big deal anymore.

What about Williams-Mystic do you think will stick with you 10 years from now?

Paul: Definitely the field seminars. Moving around, having a full-body experience and learning about it at the same time is incredible, and really ingrains whatever you’re learning about.

Emma: I’ve learned that there are more doors open than you may realize. I always thought I would go right to grad school and become a researcher, because it was the only way I thought I could make an impact. Williams-Mystic showed me that’s not true. It made me see that you can find meaningful ways to engage whatever interests you have wherever you go.

12 of Williams-Mystic’s Most Unique Experiences

Post by Katrina Orthmann, Williams-Mystic Class of Fall 2017 (University of Minnesota ’19)

Photography by Jesse Edwards and Haley Kardek (Williams-Mystic F’17)

 

Students wave while furling a sail aboard a tall ship.

 

  1. Climbing aloft on a tall ship.

Our 10-day Offshore Field Seminar was incredible – like something out of a pirate movie, but with less violence. One of the coolest experiences was climbing aloft to the top of the mast. The adrenaline of being a hundred feet in the air and the simultaneous serenity of looking out across the crinkled surface of the open water is a feeling like no other.

Students dance the cajun two-step in a Louisiana dance hall.
Fall 2017 shows off their dance skills at the Jolly Inn.
  1. Spending a night waltzing at a Cajun dance hall.

We spent one evening in Houma, Louisiana at the Jolly Inn, a traditional Cajun dance hall. Our history professor, Glenn, is a fantastic dancer and taught us the Cajun two-step and a basic waltz step. I’ve never considered myself a very good dancer—at age three I took a dance class that consisted of me lying on the floor while the other tutu-clad girls danced around me—but that night was one of my favorite experiences.

 

Students and an instructor work in a shipsmith's forge.

 

  1. Learning to shipsmith.

Some of my classmates took shipsmithing as their maritime skill for the semester, which is insanely cool—or rather incredibly hot, since you’re working in a forge. My friend Alissa told me that wielding the hammer is difficult, but that it’s satisfying to graduate to a bigger hammer. The instructor, Bill, reportedly knows when you’re ready. “It’s time,” he’ll say, and your arm will ache, but you’ll come away with metal hooks, bottle openers, and bicep muscles galore.

  1. Kayaking down the Mystic River to look for fiddler crabs for your science project.

So many awesome science projects were done this semester, one of which was a survey of fiddler crabs in the area. They haven’t been found in the area until recently, so the study was very interesting. Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to kayak down the river on a beautiful day? Just make sure to bring your foul weather gear… the mud in the Mystic River is no joke!

  1. Learning to sail a small boat by yourself.

I came into the program intending to learn how to sail, so I chose the basic watercraft skills class as my maritime skill. The weather this semester was perfect for sailing; being out on the water on a crisp fall afternoon, with a light breeze blowing and the sun warming your face, is amazing. I even finished the semester with an award: the first (and only) person in the class to capsize! I’d like to re-emphasize that the mud in the Mystic River is no joke.

  1. Seeing the program director dressed up as Moby Dick, the infamous white whale, on the morning your paper is due.

I vividly remember standing in the kitchen around 8:30 in the morning, making coffee, enjoying the peaceful silence and getting ready to turn in my Moby-Dick paper, and suddenly there was a loud pounding on the door. A blur of white moved past the window as I flung the door open, and I saw this giant… whale-type… thing… sprinting across the yard. It was Tom Van Winkle himself (our Executive Director) dressed as the white whale!

  1. Helping reconstruct the Mayflower II in the shipyard.

My roommate, Monica, worked in the shipyard for her student job, and she got to help reconstruct the Mayflower II, a replica of the 17th-century ship Mayflower. What a cool thing, to have helped restore a tall ship!

  1. Singing sea chanteys aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship.

Another maritime skill some of my classmates took was Chantey-Singing. My friend Kyra and I were both in sailing, but we stopped by chanteys to sing a few times, sometimes aboard the Charles W. Morgan. We learned some great chanteys, which led to the creation of a chantey playlist on Spotify and more than a few chantey karaoke sessions.

  1. Listening to a lecture backed by the sound of waves in California.

One of the best things about the field seminars was that we got to have lectures in places we learned about. While in California, we learned about John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row at the actual Cannery Row and about shipping in the San Francisco Bay while we sat overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. We discussed the ecology of the intertidal at Point Lobos as we watched the waves crash into rocky cliffs below ; we talked about the marine policy at Pescadero Beach while the sun set in the background.

  1. Learning traditional sailor skills in Squad.

Another maritime skill class some of my classmates did was Demonstration Squad, which actually involved multiple skills. They did everything from rowing a whaleboat to climbing aloft on tall ships to skinning a cod (which they then made into a stew for dinner that night). They also performed a rescue drill called Breeches Buoy, so called because of the pair of breeches used as a “buoy” to rescue people from shipwrecks. It was so fun to watch, and looked even more fun to perform!

  1. Sifting through primary documents for your history research paper.

The Collections Research Center at the Seaport contains millions of primary documents from sailors and ships throughout maritime history, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. In the process of doing research for our history projects, we’ve come across some firsthand accounts of life at sea and of historical events. It’s so cool to have all this and more at our fingertips.

  1. Spending the semester surrounded by a small group of amazing classmates and professors, immersed in this incredible program.

Williams-Mystic is truly one-of-a-kind. I stumbled across the program by coincidence and was on the fence about applying—I didn’t know if it was realistic or if it would be worth it. But if you’re reading this and trying to decide whether or not to apply, my advice to you is that it is so, so worth it. The people I’ve met here have become some of my best friends and all of the faculty and staff are so kind, caring, and passionate about what they do. I’ve learned so much about the maritime world and about myself. I’ve gotten so much out of this experience and I would encourage everyone to participate in a program this special.

 

Reflections on Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater. Yet for residents, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

By Muriel Leung, S’17 (University of Pennsylvania ’19)  

LUMCON, Cocodrie

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Sunset on the salt marshes surrounding LUMCON. Photo by Muriel Leung.

Stilt houses grew taller and taller, more stilt than house, as we sped down Highway 56 through the delicate web of the Mississippi River Delta toward the water. In Cocodrie, flooding is part of the way of life.

A tower-topped complex rose from the bayou like a fortress: LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, our home base for two nights. There, we were treated to a crawfish boil: crawfish, sausage, baked potatoes, corn, and mushrooms, which we ate to the point of nausea. We danced the two-step and waltz to Craig’s fiddle—small tastes of Louisiana.

After sunset, we went to the river to fish. Like mythical creatures, the alligators lurked in our imaginations but out of sight. Walking back, a Porsche sleeping in the driveway reminded us that we were visitors who could, at the end of the day, drive away from the bayou’s problems.       

Grand Isle

Mayor David Camardelle and Town Supervisor Chris Hernandez
Grand Isle Beach
The shores of Grand Isle, where flooding and storms have already eroded sand bags and other protective measures installed last fall. Photo by Muriel Leung.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil poisoned marine life and suffocated Grand Isle’s shore with tar. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the island less than a month apart.

Families come to the Mayor Camardelle asking, “Where will we go now?” and he tells them, “You’ve got yourself and you’ve got your family,” but cannot answer. The mayor cried as he talked to us and our Chris Hernandez threw an arm around his shoulder.

On the shore’s sands, they drew designs for rock jetties to protect the islands. Environmental activists from distant places—perhaps people like us—protest these jetties, which would upset local bird populations. The mayor asked us, “Is it worth it to save a small population of birds if a whole community is lost?”

Dulac

Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
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Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar describes how floods and storms are imperiling her community’s lands–and how an arduous tribal recognition process has complicated their efforts to prepare for a changing climate. 

She spoke of their twenty years fighting for federal tribal recognition, and another expected twenty years more: gathering detailed documentation of their tribal history and tradition, like cataloguing the grains of sand on a beach. Before the internet took off and sometimes even now, they have to travel as far as Texas to gather information. There is no guarantee of success.

“We keep fighting because we have no choice.”

Chief Shirell was young for a chief, thirty-something, with long black hair down to her waist and paralegal training. Her ancestors had chosen her, she said, to bridge the divide between generations. She’d already identified her heir when he was twelve. He was studying engineering. “We want them to go off and get educated. But ultimately he has to come back home.”

She took us to her people’s graveyard. Graves, uprooted by hurricanes and storms, stood completely above ground like they were waiting for us to recover them. The graveyard was packed too tightly for dignity. The chief leaned against her father’s grave and touched his picture.

They planned to create more cemetery space to honor their dead, but if the ocean submerged the site, then they would mark it with a floating memorial. That way, families would be able to ride out in boats to visit. “We’re not giving up. But we have a backup plan in case things don’t work out.”

As we left, we drove through a gated community called Southern Comfort that sat on land once belonging to the tribe. Bulkheads, which the tribe’s people lacked, protected the shiny, untouched mansions and pleasure boats that could easily be packed up and jetted away from this eroding, fragile, and vibrant place that will almost certainly one day be underwater.     

Thoughts from Mystic

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater.  Bulkheads and levees will not stop the rising sea level or the hurricanes that come more and more insistently. Everyone: the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the Cocodrie Cajuns, the summer-vacationers—everyone except perhaps Port Fourchon pitting oil money against nature—will one day have to leave.

Yet imagine Chief Shirell or Mayor Camardelle telling their people the fight is lost, and that they must pack up and move. For them, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

We must do something for the diverse people of Southern Louisiana so closely tied to the land. We cannot lie that the bayou will be there forever or that one more rock jetty will be the answer. But we must protect what remains for as long as we can in as sustainable a way we can, while educating the region’s next generation and allowing them to make their own decisions about their futures.


Muriel Leung, a physics major attending University of Pennsylvania, attended Williams-Mystic in Spring 2017. In addition to conducting climate research, Muriel enjoys creative writing; she edits and contributes to IMPACT, a student magazine at Penn that focuses on social justice-inspired topics.