Category Archives: Stephen Porter

Inside the Piette Program: A Video Documentary

It took a while to finally get this together, but here at last is a short documentary about the Piette Program that I put together using all that video footage I shot back in June. Unfortunately, a computer crash did cause me to lose some footage, including interviews with both Cammie and James. I apologize guys. You both shared some wonderful thoughts with me. I’m sorry they are now lost to history.

There is also lots of great, additional footage I shot that I didn’t get to use, including the footage of the last group meeting we had during our final night in the gite at the foot of the Pyrenees.  I would have loved to include it all, but at about 43 minutes, the video is probably already longer than most people will be able to sit through. Nevertheless, if you manage to make it through to the end, the video hopefully will provide a clear explanation of the origins and purpose of the Piette Program, as well as a fun look at the experiences of the inaugural group of students and faculty who were fortunate enough to share this adventure together.


A journey back in time

MagazineArticleSo one of my jobs upon returning from the trip was to write an article about the experience for Andover, the alumni magazine. That magazine just came out, and I thought it would be worthwhile to share the article here. Writing an article of any kind is always a challenging undertaking because you can never say everything you want to. There simply isn’t enough space. That was certainly the case with this article. There are so many memories and experiences I would have liked to include, but it just wasn’t impossible. But hopefully the article does a reasonable job of providing a taste of what the trip was like and some of the things we learned along the way. Enjoy.

Reliving the adventure

While the students have been busy (hopefully) working on their Piette projects this summer since returning from France, I’ve been hard at work writing an article about the trip for the next issue of the Andover magazine. I also took some time to create this fun (hopefully) video that attempts to capture the spirit and adventure of the trip. At 8 minutes, this extended version of the video may be too long for the casual viewer, but it should bring back some nice memories for members of our little group. A shorter version of the video can be found on the PA Vimeo website.

Piette 2014 Slideshow (Extended Version) from Phillips Academy on Vimeo.

Post-trip reflections

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.10.26 AM  It’s been almost a week now since our small group returned from France, and I find myself still processing all that we saw and did. I’ve reviewed the SmugMug photo gallery several times, reread the blog posts, and repeated my story about the trip to family, friends and coworkers who are all eager to know “what it was like” or “what was your favorite part.”

There is no short answer to that first question. The experience was so rich and full that there simply is no way to summarize it. Saying it was “great” is the easy response, but if someone really wants to know what it was like, they’ll need 15-20 minutes to spare to hear the details. As for the second question, “what was your favorite part,” that is virtually impossible to answer. The trip was filled with wonderful moments, each special for its own reasons. Trying to identify a favorite thing would be like trying to select your favorite brush stroke in a Monet painting.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.22.15 AMThe grandeur of Versailles, the works of art in the Lourve, the emotional impact of the Normandy beaches, the remnants of the artificial WWII harbor at Arromanches,  the beauty of Monet’s garden, the architecture in Paris and Sarlat, the sense of history conveyed by the various medieval castles and chateaux, the models of Leonard da Vinci’s inventions, the 1000-year-old Bayeux tapestry, the awe-inspiring cave drawings and artifacts left by prehistoric man, the wooly mammoth bones, the cave bear nests, the participation in an actual archaeological dig, the gorgeous countryside that flew by the windows of our bus, the views of the snow-capped Pyrenees, the long dinners, the wonderful food, the sense of camaraderie that developed among all those who participated in the trip. The list of favorite things goes on and on.

If pressed, however, the one thing I would list as being the most important thing I got out of the trip is my greater understanding of and appreciation for prehistoric man. Admittedly, it is the topic on which I was the most ignorant prior to going on the trip.  I certainly had no idea that southern France played such an important role in the history of prehistoric man. But over the course of the two weeks,  that ignorance was replaced by a new understanding of the amazing capabilities of prehistoric man, their relationship to ourselves, and the reasons why the geography of southern France provided such an hospitable location for prehistoric civilizations.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.11.13 AMDuring the trip, we visited two different prehistory museums, went inside four caves once occupied by prehistoric man, worked on an active “open air” archeological site that is contributing new information to our understanding of life in the Upper Paleolithic era, and visited the ruins of a medieval castle, Commarque, that is built upon a cliff that also houses caves in which Paleolithic people once lived.

We typically think of prehistoric man as brutish “cavemen”, Cro-Magnons, who grunted and hunted and were barely distinguishable from the rest of the animal kingdom.  But I was slowly disabused of that notion as we had the opportunity to view the tools and clothing and artwork they created. Intricate, delicate, detailed and beautiful. The artifacts left behind by these people who lived 10,000-30,000 years ago make it clear they were not some inferior version of ourselves. They were us. They were humans who were simply figuring everything out from scratch. How to survive, how to eat, how to think, how to invent, how to create, how to cooperate, how to communicate.  They are as much apart of our history as the Greeks or the Romans or the Renaissance men of the middle ages. We benefit from their achievements and stand on their shoulders just as we stand on the shoulders of all the civilizations that preceded us.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.11.44 AMAs a species, homo sapiens have been around for less than 200,000 years,  barely the blink of an eye in relation to the age of the earth. Other species, including other humanoid species, have lived far longer than we have. In realistic terms, we are just getting started as a species, and only time will tell if we will live as long as those species that have preceded us.

These are facts that I vaguely knew before I took the trip. But thanks to this trip, my understanding of these facts is not only much deeper and more enduring, but I have the proper context in which to place them. Reading about history in a book is all well and good, but traveling to the places where history took place and engaging with it using all your senses allows you to connect with that history in a way that would otherwise be impossible. It brings history alive, makes it intimately human, and raises questions in your mind that you otherwise would have never thought to ask yourself. For me, and I hope for the students, this truly was a trip of a lifetime. And for that I offer my deepest thanks to Dr. Claire Gallou, who conceived and organized the trip and put together an itinerary that was spectacular,  fun and educational.

The Piette photo gallery

ImageThis is not so much a post as an announcement. For the past seven days, the students and adults on this trip have graciously been allowing me to hover about them like a gnat, photographing and videotaping their every move. It’s all part of a plan to create a record of the trip that will help describe what it’s all about to future potential participants. After the trip is over, I’ll be writing a story about the trip for the Andover magazine and putting together a oouple of videos. But I am also putting together a photo gallery, and that is already well underway. I’ll be posting more photos to it almost every day, so it will be a work in progress until the trip is over. But if you’d like to start viewing the photos now, you will find them in The Piette Program gallery of the PA SmugMug site. If you see something you like, you can just right-click on it to download it.

Beauty and sadness in Normandy

We just finished up our second day in Normandy, and tomorrow we depart for the Loire Valley. Our experiences here could not have been more different from our experiences in Paris, though I think we all continue to be dazzled by France’s beauty.

ImageI think a number of people in our group were particularly taken with our stop at the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny. It’s clear that many of the students knew more about Monet than I did, but for me it was a surprise to learn that he was as equally skilled at gardening as he was at painting. The gardens he kept were stunningly beautiful, and to walk through them is as close as one can come to physically entering into one of his paintings. His gardens are rich and lush, and they dazzle the eye with their masterful manipulation of light and color. To take a walk through Monet’s gardens is to better understand his genius as an artist.

ImageAs much as I enjoyed our visit to Giverny, I was even more moved by today’s visit to the cemetery at Omaha Beach. More than 9,000 American soldiers from WWII are buried here, many of whom lost their lives during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 or in the fighting that followed over the course of the next several weeks. Since my own father fought in the European Theater, this visit was especially meaningful for me. He didn’t join the war until after D-Day, but just being there really brought home the sacrifice that all the young men–boys really–of that generation made during that war. Looking out over the choppy sea, you can almost feel the ghostly presence of the nearly 200,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches on that grey, stormy day, straight into the teeth of German machine gun fire. And the field of white crosses, while beautiful, evokes an incredible sense of sadness and respect not only for those who died but for those who survived what had to be a nightmarish day of horror.

AfteImager Omaha Beach, we visited the small town of Arromanches where we went to the Musee Du Debarquement. Here I learned far more than I ever knew about the incredible engineering feats undertaken to ensure the success of the D-Day invasion–most notably the creation of an artificial port that allowed supplies and reinforcements to be brought ashore immediately following the capture of the beach. This was a task that had to be completed in a matter of days while under heavy fire, and the fact that the Allies were able to pull it off is an amazing testament to the ingenuity and cooperation of the generals, admirals, engineers and political leaders of America, Britain and Canada. It was so heartwarming to see how much the people of this region of France appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of all involved, even to this day. In fact, I would hazard to say the people here know far more about the details of the D-Day invasion than the average Amercian.

ImageOur final stop in Normandy was the picturesque town of Bayeux, where we viewed the Tapestry of Bayeux–another incredibly important historical artifact that I’d never heard of. This was a last minute addition to our itinerary–thanks to Dr. Wheeler–and what a fantastic addition it was. This tapestry is over 200 feet long and was created in 1070 to commemorate William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066. What makes the tapestry special, besides its size and its age, is that it consists of more than 50 scenes that depict the full story of this conquest. Unlike most pieces of medieval and even ancient art that depict a specific event, this tapestry conveys a whole narrative. At the time it was created, it was a perfect way to share that narrative with a population that was largely illiterate. That the tapestry has survived more than 900 years is practically a miracle. Getting a chance to view it up close was a special treat for all of us.


Au revoir, Paris

Tomorrow morning we pack our bags and leave Paris behind and head for Normandy. It’s hard to believe we’ve only been in France for four days. Each day has been so full that it feels we must have been here a week already. Yet our trip is really only just getting started. Today we visited the Louvre in the morning, and after a picnic lunch on the lawn of the Jardin des Tuileries, we split into two groups and tackled Sainte-Chapelle and Musee d’Orsay. For dinner, the  group went to a restaurant on the Champs-Elysses near the Arc de Triompe. I have to admit I had to skip the dinner, though, in order to try and catch up on organizing all the photos and videos I’ve been collecting.

Paris is such a beautiful city that it’s hard not to photograph almost everything you see. I have already taken so many photos that I don’t know quite what I will do with them all. Hopefully in the next day or two I’ll get a chance to post a bunch of them to the Phillips Academy SmugMug account, but for now I’ll just share this collection of group photos we’ve taken at various stops during our travels. See if you can spot the one where we got photobombed by a couple of playful locals. Enjoy!

First stop: Notre Dame

ND12Our top priority upon arriving in Paris was to keep moving. No naps allowed. It was, we were told, the best way to combat jet lag. So immediately after checking into our hotel, we set off to our first destination, Notre Dame. Our guide, Peter, gave us a quick lesson on how to use the Metro, and then we hopped on for the ride over to Ile de la Cite, where Notre Dame is located. This is the historic center of Paris, and before going into the massive cathedral, we visited the underground Archaeological Crypt, where you can view the remains of ancient Paris upon which Notre Dame was built. Here we could see the remains of ancient Roman and medieval structures, and we could play with these impressive, interactive 3D models that showed how this area of Paris once looked. There was also a cool 3D model that showed Notre Dame during the different stages of its construction–a construction project that lasted nearly 200 years.

Back above ground, Peter shared more facts about the cathedral, and as we were standing in line to enter the cathedral itself, a troupe of performance artists covered completely in what appeared to be rust-colored clay, approached the cathedral entrance. It was a pretty dramatic sight, and no one really knew what they were doing. We thought at first they were protestors, but eventually learned it was some kind of artistic tribute to the Earth. It was cool, though.

After wandering through the cathedral and admiring the vastness of its interior, we strolled down to Pont Neuf, a bridge over the Seine, from where we were  able to get a good view of Paris to the West and East. After that, we walked over to the Latin Quarter to have our first real meal in Paris at Chez Clement. It would have been great to spend more time wandering aimlessly through the Latin Quarter, but by the time dinner was over, most of us were ready for bed. So instead, we took a rambling 45-minute walk back to the hotel, where I, for one, immediately collapsed into a deep sleep. Of course, it’s now 4 in the morning and I’m wide awake, but hopefully the worst of the jet lag is behind me and I’ll be able to tackle today’s adventures with a bit more energy. I can’t wait to get started.


The mysteries of early man

DSC_3171Students have already begun preparing for their trip to France by participating in pre-trip workshops. Hard to believe we leave in just two weeks! Last week’s workshop was presented by Professor Sebastien Lacombe, co-director of the Peyre Blanque Project. The Peyre Blanque is an open air Paleolithic excavation site in the south of France where we will get a chance to do some hands-on field work.

Prof. Lacombe explained how the artifacts they are uncovering at Peyre Blanque are challenging traditional assumptions about how man lived 15,000 years ago. They suggest, he says, that “stone-age” man was much more sophisticated than previously thought, and were not limited to simply living within caves. They also suggest that the notion of a “Neolithic revolution” is flawed. These open air Paleolithic sites are providing signs that many of the characteristics associated with the Neolithic age, such as the rise of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the use of baked clay, were present well before the dawn of the Neolithic age.

After listening to Prof. Lacombe describe the work of an archaeologist, it occurred to me that it is not unlike the work of a police detective, who must piece together the story of what happened by studying the fragments of evidence left behind at a crime scene. For an archaeologist, the challenge is to piece together the story of how a particular people lived, what they were like, and what they believed by combing through the artifacts of their lives that have been left behind.  Why is this kind of information important? “So that we can better understand where we come from,who we are, and how we developed.”

Following the formal presentation, we had the chance to handle some of the artifacts that Lacombe brought with him in order to familiarize ourselves with the kinds of things we’ll be looking for when we participate in the excavation.  It was pretty amazing to realize these were tools crafted by men who lived thousands of years before the rise of the earliest Roman, Greek or Egyptian civilizations–which themselves seem so incredibly ancient.