For the past few mornings, and for the next few (until mid-December, that is) I’ll been engaging in a fairly constant routine—rare in the Williams-Mystic program. The third and final Williams-Mystic field seminar is approaching: Four days on the bayou in Louisiana, interrupting this routine in its formative stages. For these coming four days, I won’t have to slide across frost-covered docks or wheedle the outboard motor into starting, like I’ll have to for the rest of the semester. At 7:45 I put on waders, watch cap, gloves, and go down to the water.
As far as my Swarthmore schedule goes, 7:45 is not so early, as the Sharples staff and the early breakfast crowd can attest to. But being on the water, so soon after being asleep, is something akin to standing watch on a sailing ship—before I’m coherent, I’m casting off the docklines and jumping into a moving motorboat.
The idea of studying seagull drop sites on the Mystic Seaport Museum’s waterfront, perhaps to investigate their prey species, or the correlation of tides to feeding times, or something had seemed like a good one. Fellow student Dennis Donovan and I had engaged in scientific collaboration before, during the California field seminar: the intact juvenile cormorant corpse that we had found was used to awaken a sleeping professor from his nap before being shipped home and stuffed, to be sent to the British Museum.
“All right,” said Jim, our Marine Ecology professor, after hearing our proposed experiment. “You’ll want to be out there bright and early, so the museum staff don’t clear out your samples when they clean in the morning.”
Recently, after pumping gallons of water out of the bilge of the J & D, our motorized skiff, I picked up regurgitated carrots.
“Well,” I said to Dennis, who had been at the helm, “looks like some clams and—”
“Whoa,” he said.
“Is it some kind of anemone?”
Only after I’d put them in the bag did Dennis point out that the circular arrangement of the orange cylinders was coincidental, and that they were, in fact, not dredged up from the bottom of the Mystic Estuary by a herring gull.
Every morning, I gain more and more practice in the art of giving the boat a running start from the frost-encrusted dock, and jumping in as she turns out towards the estuary. Every morning, I look at the New England coastline, and the tall ships, and the gulls over the water, and I say “I wish I’d brought my camera.” Every morning, we find crushed crab exoskeletons, clam shells, and, if we’re lucky, ribbed mussels. We bag them, and take them up the lab.
Sitting on the prow of the boat, legs out over the water, prepared to jump out onto the next dock, I found myself wondering how I was going to live without the water. This is not a sentiment I had felt at the beginning of the semester. In response to the perennial vacation inquiry, “beach or mountains,” I, as a backpacker, needed no pause to reflect. These mornings, this reflective pause might become a necessity.