“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.

Luis Urrea (S’15) on Interdisciplinary Learning and his Williams-Mystic Semester

“I was definitely surprised by how effective a hands-on experience was at teaching me as opposed to a solely classroom-based course. Only in practice do you realize how much this approach actually works.”

A headshot of Luis Urrea (S'15)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. 

In the fall of 1977, Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum embarked on a journey to bring ocean and coastal studies and interdisciplinary education together in one place in order to build leaders for generations to come.

For Williams College student Luis Urrea (S’15), Williams-Mystic challenged him and completed his vision for his undergraduate experience — even though he had to drive through a blizzard to reach Mystic.

“I found out about Williams-Mystic through the geosciences program at Williams College,” Luis said. “Williams-Mystic is one of my favorite, if not my favorite, semester of my entire college experience. It was extremely rewarding, interdisciplinary, and consistently satisfied my itch to travel to parts unknown of the U.S.”

Luis’ experience in the program was made richer by the Gulf Coast Field Seminar.

“My favorite field seminar was the one that took place in Louisiana. Apart from delicious food, we had a wonderful opportunity to really connect with community members and establish relationships with many people who had firsthand experiences of what it meant to live in the coast and be affected by natural/manmade disasters,” Luis said.

When asked what his favorite memory of Williams-Mystic was, he wasn’t able to choose just one.

“Meeting my housemates, blizzard(s), meeting my significant other, all of the field seminars but especially our voyage aboard the Corwith Cramer, looking at the stars while on lookout duty, eating alligator, visiting the Spiral Needle, coring the bayou in Louisiana, watching the Super Bowl, being in Puerto Rico, going for a run in Seattle, and so many, many other memories,” Luis said.

Luis, like many alumni, was surprised by the benefits of learning in an interdisciplinary setting.

“I was definitely surprised by how effective a hands-on experience was at teaching me as opposed to a solely classroom-based course, Luis said. “It’s one of those ideas that sound good, but only in practice do you realize how much they actually work.”

Luis is now a seventh- grade science teacher at Juan de Dios Salinas Middle School in Mission, TX, about 40 minutes north of the Mexican border. He tries to have his lessons include a hands-on approach while also tying in several other disciplines.

Williams-Mystic made Luis much more aware of how we are damaging the coasts of our nation.

“I am also much more aware of the different organizations that are fighting to protect those same coasts,” Luis said.

As for his future, there are so many things Luis wants to accomplish.

“I am happy with the impact I’ve made as a teacher, but I don’t think that I will stay in the classroom forever,” Luis said. “I will likely teach one more year, then write a biography on my parents, and afterwards attend law school. However, I would also like to someday have my own business, become an international translator, and travel the world.”


Want to discover how Williams-Mystic fit into the lives of other alumni? Explore our alumni stories here.

 

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.”