The Telling Tide: Inception to Completion of the Louisiana Sea Grant Coastal Change Oral Histories Project

Rainey Refuge where Timmy Vincent, interviewed by Darcy Wilkins, is caretaker.  Photo by Karen Westphal

Rainey Refuge where Timmy Vincent, interviewed by Darcy Wilkins, is caretaker. Photo by Karen Westphal

By Darcy Wilkins

Hi! My name is Darcy Wilkins and I am a Research Associate at Louisiana Sea Grant. As part of a collaboration between Louisiana Sea Grant and  the LSU Williams Center for Oral History, I’m in charge of running Sea Grant’s Coastal Change Oral Histories Project with high school students in four schools in coastal Louisiana.  For a little over two years now, my partner — Jennifer Abraham Cramer of the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History–and I have been guiding students in the best practices for conducting oral history with elders in their own communities on the subjects of coastal erosion, sea level rise, subsidence, and climate change.  The participating schools are: Holy Cross School in Orleans Parish, South Cameron High in Cameron Parish, Thibodaux High School in Lafourche Parish, and West St. Mary High School in St. Mary Parish.

I started doing this right out of college with a bachelor’s in anthropology and a minor in art. I say “right after” but of course in today’s economy that’s slang for “eight months after.”  However, needless to say, I am very grateful that this opportunity fell into my haven’t-moved-from-the-couch-all-day, have-I-been-wearing-these-same-yoga-pants-all-week?, look!-it’s-like-I-have-a-cheeto-dust-apron-on!, lap.

Throughout my job at Louisiana Sea Grant I have worked on multiple projects. I created a short claymation delta movie, and a shorter oral-history-in-the-classroom blooper reel. I attended the Oral History Association conference in 2012 and was interviewed for this T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History podcast, and in October of this year, I created several dolphin and whale eyeball and brain models and ran an exhibit for Louisiana Sea Grant’s Ocean Commotion. (Fun fact: As research for that last project, I attended a dolphin necropsy and then made the worst decision of my life so far by going out to a sushi dinner only hours after.) I also wrote this Wetlands Primer for Kids, and in more recent events, just returned from the Southwest Oral History Association conference in Tempe, Arizona, where I made many wonderful connections and learned an abundance of information about other oral history projects and ways to improve my own.

Of course, the main part of my job has been the oral history project of which I am in charge, under the supervision of my outstanding boss, Dianne Lindstedt. I’ll quote myself here, because I’m lazy, to tell you about the motivations of the project: “Louisiana’s coast is washing away, and as the land goes, so must the people. Coastal Louisiana has always been a unique conglomeration of peoples characterized by their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and the fundamental role in their everyday lives of the land beneath their feet and the water lapping against their hulls. But these waters are hungry, and as people retreat from unremitting voracity, incomparable cultures are being swallowed up with the land.” Basically, we want to get as many snapshots of the cultures that exist in this area as we can before they are gone, and we want the youths of these places to be the ones to do it. Our central hope is that this project will inspire adolescents to do everything they can in the future to save the places of their origin.

timmy_Vincent

Timmy Vincent, interviewed for the Coastal Changes Oral History Project

So, a little bit about what I’ve done in the project so far: most of my time has been spent trying to coordinate with teachers, which was definitely a much greater challenge than I expected. They have a lot on their plates and their plates are flying-saucer-sized. However, in addition to providing equipment, training, and someone for the children to idolize, I also conducted my own interview and created a film to show my students what they are capable of doing solely using the equipment I provided. It’s the second video on this page.  In the end, we received nineteen interviews from our four schools, ten of those accompanied by video footage. The interviews range from fascinating to poignant to tear-jerking, as interviews do. In one interview, for example, two Wildlife and Fisheries agents lament the detrimental changes in their home and “office” that they have experienced over the last several years.

Gibson: To kind of switch gears, do you guys feel like you have an emotional connection to the land that you’ve lived on? The land that you now work to protect?

Bourgeois: Mm Hm.

LaViolette: Definitely.

Gibson: So, how does it feel when you see this land eroding away that you’ve seen your entire life? You’ve hunted there, you’ve fished there, and now you protect it, and there’s nothing you can really do to keep it from eroding.

Bourgeois: It’s not a good feeling.

LaViolette: Yeah.

Bourgeois: I mean, the reason why I took the job [pritide?] most of us, we wanna be able to protect it. Even though we enjoy hunting and fishing, but we’d like to have, you know, our kids our grand kids, or whoever—because I mean my family since they came here from France and Nova Scotia, that’s all they’ve done is hunted, fish, you know, commercially… But you wanna have it passed on to have something for them to experience the same, you know, fun and happiness that we had, but what—you’re seeing all the land erode, you know, it might disappear anyway. I mean they’ll have more fishing but trappin’: you don’t see people trapping much anymore, you know, duck hunting’s getting worse and worse, but…

LaViolette: Yeah and the land—not only has it eroded but it’s actually changed. I guess it’s the saltwater intrusion or whatever, but a lot of places you used to see certain kind of grasses and things like that, and if there’s still grass there, now it’s turned to saltwater grass instead of fresh water or brackish water grasses. So, it was a lot different to look at visually, you know, the appealing and stuff, and it does have an emotional effect on you,  just to see what used to be a pretty large oak ridge—like going down Bayou Loutre—used to be a large oak ridge with big live oak trees, whatever kind of oaks they were, now they’re all fallen into the water and things like that, it’s just, you see—as you see it you realize that it’s disappearing.

Bourgeois: Plenty of plantations out there and everything which is now just disappearing.

LaViolette: Yeah, and it won’t be there for much longer, it seems like. You know.

Bourgeois and LaViolette’s interview is housed in the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History at LSU Libraries Special Collections. Bourgeois, Chris, interview by Mark Gibson, audio recording, 2013, 4700.2356. Louisiana Sea Grant Coastal Change Oral Histories Project, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

In another, a lifelong resident of Cameron Parish breaks down while discussing the breakdown of his family unit after Hurricane Rita.

Roger Baccigalopi: We don’t live as a family no more.  Me and my wife is in one and then my son is one camper and then my daughter lives in the other camper.  They’re like grown up at fifteen years old.  They gotta do for themselves most of the time.  When they want something, I don’t have it.  The government was supposed to provide for us . . . And Road Home was supposed to give us money and they keep saying they’re gonna give it, gonna to give it.  And when we reply, it’s like we wasn’t living here.  I’ve lived here all my life. I know people that didn’t live here, they got $120,000.  $130,000.  And got new homes.  But I still have nothing from Road Home.  We’ve tried six, seven times.  When [Hurricane] Ike come up, [inaudible] said we was going to get money.  But whenever this money come around, they didn’t give us the money that—the way you would have had to get the money, it would’ve cost me more than the amount of money that they was gonna give me.  So I couldn’t build nothing.  So we’re living in campers.  And it’s very difficult down here.  And we will be moving from Cameron as soon as my daughter’s out of school, because we can’t afford to live here no more.  Our government, our local government has hurt us by not helping us.

Baccigalopi’s interview is housed in the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History at LSU Libraries Special Collections. Baccigalopi, Roger, interview by Logan Broussard, audio recording, 2012, 4700.2360. Louisiana Sea Grant Coastal Change Oral Histories Project, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Supplementary to the audio recordings, all of the students were supposed to produce secondary projects inspired by their interviews (paintings, poems, original music compositions, photographs, etc.). But oral history takes more time than most people would imagine, and the secondary projects are few and far between. Nevertheless, I am elated to have the data that was produced and know that these teachers and students let me invade their classrooms on several occasions, telling them a whole list of things they needed to do, and then leering at them expectantly like a dog waiting for someone to throw the ball.

In addition, since the beginning of the year I have been splitting half of my time at the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History, located in the Hill Memorial Library on Louisiana State University’s campus. There I have been processing my project data and learning all about metadata processing and online public accessibility, which has been essential to my professional development. Partnering with the Center has truly opened my eyes to all of the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of oral history, and the work that goes into preserving these testimonies for future generations. The support and guidance of the T. Harry Williams Center through Jennifer Abraham Cramer is really what transformed my project from a nebulous pipe dream into a reality; they are one of the main reasons I was able to put Louisiana Sea Grant’s theory into practice and they have been diligently aiding me when I need it, every step and misstep along the way. All of the interviews should be available to public within the next few months.

Thus, overall my involvement with this project has been a wonderful and invaluable experience. However, unfortunately for me, my position is only temporary. Now that the data processing is completed, I am starting work on a short documentary that will illustrate the process of conducting oral histories in the classroom and showcase our interviewee testimonials about Louisiana’s rapidly changing and disappearing coast. Once that is finished, my appointment will be concluded. However, if there is funding left and my documentary doesn’t look like it was made by a toddler who accidentally turned on Mommy’s camera, I would like to show the film at conferences and set it up for viewing in each of the four communities from whence the interview footage came.

So, I guess you could say my future is up in the air right now. I’m at a juncture that coincidentally reflects the testimonies and findings in this project of the current state of Louisiana’s coast and our world as a whole, at the hands of climate change, sea level rise, and erosion. It looks like all of us either need to learn how to juggle, or let what we’re in charge of fall to the ground. The difference between the two is that life so far has mostly just given me balls, whereas the world community as a whole is working with running chainsaws that are on fire while standing in quicksand. Either we can continue wildly attempting what we falsely believe to be juggling and very rapidly sink, or we can put out the fires, turn off the chainsaws, and get ourselves out of the muck and into clown school before the high tide comes in.

Rainey Refuge where Timmy Vincent, interviewed by Darcy Wilkins, is caretaker.  Photo by Karen Westphal

Rainey Refuge where Timmy Vincent, interviewed by Darcy Wilkins, is caretaker. Photo by Karen Westphal

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