Amanda Keith is not the first writer to be bewitched by the beauty of the coastal islands of Louisiana, or intrigued by the interplay of culture, memory, and the natural environment. For her I.S. senior research project, she delved into the work of two such writers: Kate Chopin, whose novel The Awakening is set on Grand Isle and Lafcadio Hearn, author of Chita: A Memory of Last Island. She also set out to gather her own stories from the residents of Isle de Jean Charles.
“As an English major and environmental studies minor,” Keith wrote on the website she created as part of her project, “I knew I wanted to focus on American literature and how environmental issues affect the way we interpret an author’s message and his/her characters…Throughout my I.S., I [also] realized more and more how literature and stories influence the ways in which we view a place and a culture.”
Keith first discovered the islands on a visit to New Orleans last year, during a side trip to a nature preserve south of the city. In August she returned to the Gulf Coast and Grand Isle, the setting for Chopin’s novel. It was during that trip that she first heard about Isle de Jean Charles, a small coastal island originally settled in the early 1800s. With funding from the college’s Henry J. Copeland Fund for Independent Study, she returned during winter break to meet the island’s residents and record some of their stories.
Once a thriving farming and fishing community of several hundred, today Isle de Jean Charles is home to just 70 people, most of whom leave each day — on a road built in the 1950s to connect it with the mainland — to work. Hurricanes and storms have steadily eroded the island itself, but in conducting her interviews with the people of Isle de Jean Charles, Keith found that the oral tradition by which the culture and history of the island had long been transmitted seems to be eroding just as remorselessly.
“They are losing their way of life,” Keith says, “but they’re also losing their stories about the history and origins of the community.”
Keith’s own story is a work in progress. She wants to be involved in some way in public advocacy on environmental issues. This summer she will work as a naturalist in the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota.
“It’s right at the headwaters of the Mississippi,” she observes, “so I’m going from one end of the river to the other.”
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