An Interdisciplinary Dance Class

It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

By Zach Arfa (F’19). Zach is a senior at Oberlin College, where he’s studying dance and psychology. He grew up in Shelburne Falls MA, and is excited to find more interdisciplinary intersections between dance, psychology, and the environment after graduation.

picture shows a group of students and a professor crouching in marsh grass, focusing intensely

This semester, we have been doing a huge amount of learning about the world. It’s not hard for us to see now that “maritime studies” isn’t merely a discipline with facts for us to learn. It is a way to see and understand the world — including some of the most intense and scary changes the world is going through. 

This Thanksgiving, I flew out to Oberlin for the first half of our break. I went to see my friends there, but I was also invited to guest teach a dance class. I study a dance form called Contact Improvisation, a partnering form created at Oberlin College in 1972. It’s based on momentum and weight sharing. When you lean into a partner or partners, a shared center of gravity is created. The technique of the form is keeping and manipulating that point of contact throughout an improvised dance together. I absolutely love it. There are lifts and rolls and falls. It can be so fast and wild that you can’t look where you’re going, and so slow and intimate that an entire hour can go by with only your heads touching ever so lightly. I’ve been dancing this form for three years now, with fairly intensive classes every semester so far. I’ve taught beginner classes on campus, and facilitated more advanced practicing groups. A great friend of mine has been teaching a beginner class while I’ve been at Williams-Mystic, and so when I told her I was coming to campus for a few days, she asked me to guest teach an evening.

Through such immersion in interdisciplinary education this semester, it’s been impossible for me not to make connections to the disciplines I’m familiar with. I’ve been thinking of psychology and music, but connections to dance have been running through my head and my body. Through movement, we can teach embodied concepts. Think of an anatomy class where you don’t just learn what a bone/muscle/tendon is called, you also learned to feel it in your body and feel how it helps you move. Movement bypasses skepticism and abstraction. It is only concerned with the intimate. And intimacy in an educational setting is deep understanding. It brings a relevance and connection that most people don’t find in school. It’s why it’s important not just to learn the names of animals in the intertidal zone, but to actually go to the beach in Rhode Island and see, hold, and touch them. 

All semester, I’ve been inspired by what we’ve been learning and I’ve been creating scores. A score is a movement prompt. Choreography is concerned with how you move your body: an arm goes here, and then there at this point in the music. A score is a structure within which the exact movements are improvised. A score could be as simple as “take one minute, start high and end low.” It is just a structure that helps to focus an improvised dance. The scores I’ve been creating aren’t just about movement. They are about what we’ve been learning and experiencing this semester: climate change, natural disasters, environmental ecosystems. That is what I brought to this dance class at Oberlin. Four scores.

picture shows a grinning students holding a baby alligator
Zach holds a baby alligator during a swamp tour on Williams-Mystic’s Louisiana Field Seminar.

The first score was a variation on a very common score in Contact, the Earth Water Air Fire score. This score is normally a warm up, and a way to tap into different energy levels. You start on the ground, embodying the earth, feeling grounded and supported, moving and shifting so minutely, as the earth does. That transitions into water, flowing and spreading out. The speed may increase, and the resistance in your body is zero, like a gentle stream parting around the rocks. Then air, similarly low resistance but now standing, using more space in the room you’re in. Finally fire, fierce and hot. Strong, direct, movements. All the actual movements are improvised, but the score helps guide the energy through the warm-up. This score is quite common, and it inspired the first climate change score I created. 

I took that score, but I set it in Louisiana. Instead of the earth being supportive and grounding, what does it feel like in our bodies if it’s literally eroding out from underneath us, sinking away? And what if water, instead of being flexible and passive, is flooding and destroying homes and lives? The air is also gusting fiercely, throwing things around and is quite devastating. And then for fire, I brought it to the people we met in Louisiana. I thought of Mr. Chris saying that as long as there was one grain of sand on Grand Isle, he’d come back and rebuild and keep living there. The fire was the fierce love and commitment these people have for the land despite all the ways in which the elements can be hostile. These elements guided the improvisations, instead of the nurturing and peaceful versions.

The next score brought us to somewhere we love. Everyone was in pairs, and there was a supporter and a leader. The leader’s prompt was to imagine a place that they love, an outdoor place with living things. They then project that place they love onto the room, and guide their partner through it with their dance together. The leader can’t tell their partner where they are thinking of, but instead must convey what the place is and how they feel about it through the dance. The supporter does just that: supports their dance. Then they switch.

The third score was one that I created last year with a few friends of mine. It’s an animal embodiment wrestling score. I created it because I was watching a lot of Steve Irwin videos (he’s not just my absolute hero — I first started watching his videos because he’s an unbelievable mover) of him rescuing crocodiles by wrestling them. So in this score we bring out a bunch of mats, and we embody crocodiles or lions or any animal you want, and we wrestle. But instead of the goal being to pin your partner (as in normal wrestling) the goal is to keep them moving. I added prompts about connecting with the animals and really thinking about how they would move: not mechanically, but energetically. What does it feel like to become these animals?

picture shows students clambering on a rocky shore, posing and grinning in front of a pristine bay with evergreen forests and mountains in the background

This led us into the last score, a kind of environmental education score. I broke the class up into levels on the food chain in the Alaskan coastal ecosystem. One person was an orca, the apex predator. Two were sea otters, two were sea urchins and abalone and the rest were kelp, the foundational species of the ecosystem. As in the last score, we moved throughout the room as our animals. First, we simply embodied them — not mechanically (we didn’t flop like an orca would) but energetically, with the power and fearlessness that an apex predator would have. Then we had short dances with each other, between five and ten seconds, as our animals. The orca might be direct and forceful, where the shellfish might be slower but very purposeful, the otter would be quick and light, and the kelp wouldn’t move a lot through the room, but move a lot through their upper bodies. We put the ecosystem into the room, and felt the relationships between all these animals that share space. After that we ran out of time, so we stopped there. My idea had been to then go through the history of that ecosystem. What happens when the Russian hunters arrive and kill basically all the sea otters? The shellfish have no predators so their populations rise, so the dancers embodying otters would become shellfish. But then, they would eat all the kelp, their populations would crash, and then the kelp would rebound. And the orca would also go without the otters to eat. And so on. I’ll have to test that part out in a future class.

I left that class feeling like each score could be its own semester’s worth. The first score was an investigation of the changing climate and natural disasters, and a reckoning with the fear and grief that evokes. The second connected us to the world, and might inspire more love for it, and perhaps more of a drive to help it. The third helps connect with other animals, letting their movement really inspire and unlock the animal in us (for we are wild animals!). And the fourth was environmental education, an embodied way to teach people how the natural systems of the world work. There are so many scores that could do each of those things. I feel like I’ve just opened up a whole storm of possibilities for this work! I’m planning on leading a class and exploring it with a lot of intention next semester.

For me, this was just another lesson that the world is interdisciplinary. It’s not enough to only do things one way. An environmental education class or a normal dance class would not have been able to create what happened that evening. We must be able to translate concepts, and create hybrid models (of learning and of cars) if we want to make a difference in the world. This is exactly what we’ve been learning to do this semester. We are able to go and work with people in ways that I certainly didn’t think I could do before. I’m not bold enough to say that this class, or this approach, will “change the world”. But I’ve heard that big change, like the change we need around the environment, is like an overflowing bucket. It may only be a few drops of water that tip it over the edge, but they accumulate atop thousands and thousands of other drops. We can be those drops.

A Field Seminar in Photos, Part IV: Louisiana

Immersed in the incredible culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, doing hands-on science in the marshes and bayous, it was impossible to not fall in love with the place. The people of Louisiana are incredibly resilient and strong — qualities they need to battle the impossible odds of a changing world.

This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

We began our semester by exploring the wilderness of the Pacific Coast and sailing a tall ship on the Atlantic Coast. Our last field seminar as a class was to learn about America’s Gulf Coast: a place where complex history and culture meets the science and threats of the modern age.

Flying into Louisiana in the pouring rain, our first hours in the south were spent coming to terms with the most difficult aspect of American history: slavery. Walking through the historic Whitney Plantation museum, the unpleasant, stark reality of slavery was poignant. As we peered into slave cabins, or heard from interpreters, it became clear that the basis for the bustling maritime city of New Orleans – and the entire state of Louisiana – was built on the backs of enslaved people.

image, in black and white, shows students gathered, somber, around cells that once held enslaved people

(Above) Williams-Mystic students peer into cells at the Whitney Plantation that once held enslaved people.

Soon we found ourselves in Thibodaux touring the bayou with ZZ Loupe, who has known Williams Mystic since he was a child. We searched the bayou for alligators and egrets, as ZZ shared his deep knowledge of all the local creatures and environment with us. Whether it was the baby alligators in his pens he let us hold, the alligator snapping turtle he deftly handled, or the large boas he draped over us, ZZ had a personal connection to the animals and habitat of the bayou.

Image shows local tour guide ZZ Loupe gesturing at the helm of a pontoon boat in the bayou, while Williams-Mystic students look on

(Above) ZZ Loupe, swamp guide and former wrestler, gives Williams-Mystic a swamp tour.

We spent most of the field seminar living at LUMCON, an innovative scientific and educational facility located directly on the marsh. With the expertise of Steven Goodbred — a specialist in the sedimentary dynamics of deltas and wetlands — we learned about the way the landscape had been shaped over thousands of years, and we got the opportunity to observe and study the local ecology. 

An alligator perches on a log in a verdant bayou

(Above) Small American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) in the bayous of Thibodaux.

All around us the impact of sea-level rise on nature was clear, particularly was we talked to local people. We met with Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. She shared how erosion and flooding threaten her tribe’s way of life, as trees die from saltwater inundation and ancestral graves are washed away. In Grand Isle, a town on the state’s only inhabited barrier island, town supervisor Christopher Hernandez showed us how entire beaches have been washed away by wave action, as he demonstrated the pump system to cope with their dire situation. Carl Sevin, captain of LUMCON’s RV Acadiana, explained his fear that his way of life was disappearing, as he watches his town submerge and his subsistence lifestyle fade away. 

The stories of the people we talked to were incredibly powerful. Hearing the fear and urgency of local residents underscored how climate change has universal impacts. Whether it was oyster processors struggling to fill their quotas due to freshwater inundation of the Gulf, local residents with threatened homes and livelihoods, or the residents of New Orleans coping with constant flooding, everyone faced the realities of a changing world. Immersed in the incredible culture of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, doing hands-on science in the marshes and bayous, it was impossible to not fall in love with the place. The people of Louisiana are incredibly resilient and strong — qualities they need to battle the impossible odds of a changing world.

image shows a snowy egret soaring through a deep blue sky

(Above) Snowy Egret flies overhead at LUMCON. 

A Field Seminar in Photos, Part III: Gulf of Maine

Imagine corralling a group of college students into a confined space and taking away their cell phones. Seems like a recipe for disaster – and yet spending two weeks off the coast of Maine disconnected from the modern world was an incredible experience.

This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

Images shows students hauling on a rope aboard a sailing ship

(Above) Williams-Mystic students and Executive Director Tom Van Winkle haul up a lifeboat.

Imagine corralling a group of college students into a confined space and taking away their cell phones. Seems like a recipe for disaster – and yet spending two weeks off the coast of Maine disconnected from the modern world was an incredible experience.

We set out from Penobscot Bay in a mood of anxiety and excitement. The ship was an alien environment to most of us, and the anticipation was palpable. Within days, we began to haul on the lines and take turns at the wheel, feeling like sailors as the vessel became familiar. Soon I was able to climb high aloft in the rigging, and the view I beheld took my breath away.

Picture shows a student at the helm of a sailing ship near sundown

(Above) Tristan Biggs takes his first turn at the helm.

The vastness of the ocean before me was awe-inspiring; it was like nothing I had experienced before. A night beneath the starry sky had me gazing into eternity. The sunrises and sunsets were brilliant and colorful beyond description. Distracting us from our class sessions were dolphins leaping in our bow wake. They chittered as we looked out at night, glowing as they swam through bioluminescent plankton. Whales could be seen spouting far in the distance, and through the Gulf Stream a host of mahi-mahi and flying fish delighted our onlooking scientists.

Picture shows dolphins swimming just beneath the surface of crystal-clear waters

(Above) Atlantic white-sided dolphins swim below the bow of the SSV Corwith Cramer.

Even though our stay was short on the SSV Corwith Cramer, the crew of the S.E.A vessel were incredibly informative and nurturing. The stewards prepared food of extraordinary quality out of a closet-sized kitchen, which we enjoyed in the company of our shipmates. The captain and mates taught us navigation, seamanship, and nautical terminology, while the scientists helped us study plankton tows and oceanography in the lab at all hours. Peering into the world of the microscope, every weird and wonderful creature imaginable teemed in the waters of the North Atlantic. 

Despite the incredible diversity of the oceans around us, there were signs that things were changing. We found that the Gulf Steam current was slower than historical rates, while the amount of microplastics in the water was alarming. The small shelled organisms we marveled at beneath the microscope showed signs of acidifying oceans. The water temperatures were spiking despite the season, as our teachers explained that the Gulf of Maine basin is warming faster than most of the ocean. When we stopped at Martha’s Vineyard, we learned how much of the coast has disappeared, the scale of sea level rise was terrifying.

The creativity and freedom I felt – even as I was told my duties and ordered about the vessel – was inspiring. Writing poetry or playing guitar on the quarterdeck, every person aboard found touch with their imagination on the ship. As a final goodbye to our vessel and shipmates, we had the fortune to share our creative outlets and talents. A night of laughter and friendship was the perfect end to our journey together. The comradery you feel for your shipmates is indescribable.

Picture shows the ocean at sunset, the sky illuminated and brilliant and the gentle waves reflecting its light

(Above) A look at the night sky in the Gulf of Maine, shortly after the sun disappeared. 

A Field Seminar in Photos, Part II: Sitka, Alaska

Everywhere we looked in Sitka, people were in constant contact with the natural world. As we soon found out, they were also painfully aware of the ways that world was changing.

This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

We’re excited to announce that we will return to Alaska as part of the Fall 2020 semester! If you will be a sophomore, junior, or senior at a US college or university, apply now to join us. We meet 100% of financial need and welcome students of all majors. 

Students walk through a bright green clearing in a rugged evergreen forest

(Above) View across Kruzof Island, students hiking toward the volcano.

It was difficult to leave the awe-inspiring views of Glacier Bay behind us, but everyone was excited to have a few days left to explore Alaska. Now, we travelled south to Sitka, arriving to a beautiful, sunny day in the small downtown we were going to be staying in. 

Living a stone’s throw away from the world’s last temperate rainforest took some getting used to. Waking up every morning to the view of the endless hills of the Tongass National Forest — nestled in the Indian River Valley a short walk away from Crescent Harbor, where the salmon would jump in the morning light — was spectacular. Bald eagles nested in the trees around the park, and children played in a playground ten yards away from an active salmon run. Everywhere we looked, people were in constant contact with the natural world. As we soon found out, they were also painfully aware of the ways that world was changing.

Inside a museum, Williams-Mystic students cluster around a craftswoman seated at a table, with traditional crafts, including handmade dolls, spread out in front of her

(Above) A local Tlingit doll craftswoman shares her tribe’s traditional techniques at the Sheldon Jackson Museum.

We were afforded the opportunity to meet some incredibly interesting locals: people from all walks of life invested in the maritime culture of Sitka. An elder of the local Tlingit tribe discussed their history with the Russians and native lifestyle in the shadow of beautiful Haida totems in the forest, close to the historic Russian architecture of downtown Sitka and a collection of tribal artifacts from all across the Pacific Northwest. An artist and teacher from a local school regaled us with Tlingit myths and stories, while he taught us how to draw indigenous form line designs of their sacred animals: Bears, Ravens, and Eagles. 

The rich landscape of Alaska’s panhandle lends itself to widespread study of natural science and gave us a unique learning experience. We consulted with researchers studying all aspects of the local environment, including many ecologists interested in the dynamics of kelp forest habitats in various ways, such as the trophic impact of sea otters or the preservation of giant kelp. The Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC) across from our lodgings worked to breed pink salmon in a specialized hatchery. We got to talk with the workers as they processed eggs and sperm to repopulate the local salmon stocks.

Photo shows massive salmon leaping out of turbulent waters at the base of a dam

(Above) Pink Salmon attempt to jump into the SSSC hatchery, where they will produce the next generation of the local fish stock.

The importance of the science and history linked to the region became all too apparent when we started to take a closer look at the logistics of Sitka. An official from the port authority told us about the challenges of living on the island, balancing the local fishing fleet and recreational craft with cargo vessels to bring in food and supplies, as well as the need to allow cruise vessels through for tourism dollars. Local fishermen described the difficult life of longline fishing to us. We got to speak to alumna and longline fisherman Linda Behnken (F’82), the head of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, about the threats their industry faces. Everyone spoke about the changing world with which they were confronted: sea level rise slowly encroaching on their home as the warming climate changes their environment.

Sitka is a place where all these abstract concepts and disparate disciplines intertwine. The history of a longstanding colonial conflict and the heritage of Native peoples are juxtaposed with a thriving fishery and one of the most diverse environments in the world. This breathtaking biome of temperate rainforests and kelp forests contrasted against a bustling port town is a unique place to learn about the multi-faceted nature of the maritime world.

Photo shows a scrubby evergreen forest sprawled out at the base of mountains, its brilliant yellows and greens contrasting with the bright blue sky

(Above) View of Mount Edgecumbe from a distance, seen across Kruzof Island.

A Field Seminar in Photos, Part I: Glacier Bay National Park

I left Alaska with a sense of place that I had never gotten from a textbook or a classroom: an understanding and appreciation for the place where all these abstract ideas collide.

This photo essay is by Fall 2019 student Johann Heupel. Johann is a Marine Science and Maritime Studies student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and a long-time aficionado of the history of our relationship to the sea. Having grown up in Mystic Connecticut, Johann’s future interests lie somewhere in educating a new generation about the wonders of the sea and our fascination with it, sharing maritime culture through art, science, song, and story.

This post is part of a series of photo essays depicting the Fall 2019 semester. For the complete series, click here

We’re excited to announce that we will return to Alaska as part of the Fall 2020 semester! If you will be a sophomore, junior, or senior at a US college or university, apply now to join us. We meet 100% of financial need and welcome students of all majors. 

Photo shows snow-capped mountains towering over a pristine bay, with a rugged, evergreen forest on its shores

(Above) View from the Glacier National Park guide boat across the mountains.

A group of students from all across the country, we barely had three days to get to know each other. Now, we were waking up at 3 am to travel to Alaska. 

We spent the journey learning about each other, doing crosswords on the plane together or playing games in the airport, until we boarded three small six-seaters bound for Gustavus. 

The planes would take us to Glacier Bay National Park: just a short ride across mountain tops and forested valleys away, yet that plane ride was the most incredible experience of the trip. Suddenly confronted with the sheer majesty of the Alaskan wilderness – a seemingly pristine environment with the breathtaking beauty of a David Attenborough documentary – we felt out of place with the modern world. As we landed on the airstrip, it was clear my feelings of otherworldly euphoria were shared by many. No one could quite describe the experience.

Everyone was exhausted and exhilarated that night, looking out across the fjords from our woodland cabins. Local salmon and halibut served to us and a night beneath the northern lights completed the feeling of a camping trip at the Ritz: an experience of an unfamiliar and captivating wilderness from the lap of luxury.

 

Picture shows snow pouring off the side of a craggy glacier into the ocean

(Above) Image of the Johns Hopkins Glacier as it “calves”, splinters into icebergs.

By morning, we were boarding a Park Service vessel to explore the Bay, blown away by the sheer vastness of the landscape. In the distance, whales spouted like early morning mist whilst several hundred sea lions sunned themselves upon the rocks, and mountain goats looked down on us from the rocky ledges. As we approached the ice sheet, the low conversations of excited passengers heightened to a fervent chatter as we all beheld the ice – then lowered to a pensive silence as we listened to the glacier crack.

The realities of climate change for this beautiful landscape became inescapable. The icecaps around the glacier were melting rapidly as the streams of freshwater carved grooves in the mountainsides. As our professors looked out across the landscape, there was a mournful expression turned toward the ice sheet, as if they may never gaze again on this marvel of an un-polluted world. The crew scooped a piece of the glacier from over the side, and we were able to hold a piece of history that had survived for thousands of years in our hands. 

Picture shows a student holding a large chunk of glacial ice aboard a boat. Other students crowd around him, while rocky mountains and glaciers fill the background.

(Above) Williams Mystic students marvel as Artie Claudio holds a piece of the glacier.

The rest of our time in Glacier Bay seemed too short. I wished I could have spent more time among the trees and on the water, kayaking the fjords of the bay or hiking mountain paths. The last night we had under the stars was spent among fast-made friends, remarking on the wonders of the natural world and our dream that it may be preserved, as we contemplated the ways in which young people like us could spark action and change.

I had never dreamed of seeing the majestic wilderness of Alaska before I came to Williams-Mystic, a transformative program based around travelling across the country while discussing important issues through multiple disciplines. This longstanding experiment of experiential learning allowed me to think about climate change in the very place the issue was most pressing, surrounded by experts to cultivate our experience and an incredible landscape worth protecting. I left with a sense of place that I had never gotten from a textbook or a classroom: an understanding and appreciation for the place where all these abstract ideas collide.

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“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.

C4D934B3-2A38-42E2-AB3D-70B5CE587146-14457-000002AE14DCE0EE
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.