By Elizabeth Rush
Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2018
312 pages. $26 (hardback)
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is Elizabeth Rush’s searching look at how our warming climate is transforming places, people, plants, and animals — not in the far future, but right now.
She travels to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts to check in on shifting shorelines, wetlands, and floodplains. (But not, I was sorry to see, to the freshwater Great Lakes, even though they have the most miles of coastline in the contiguous Untied States.) She talks with people who carry wisdom in many forms. She broods. And what she has made, finally, is a book that not only documents the concrete shape of change, but also the loss and difficult choices that come with it, the inequalities that it exposes, and the ambivalent relationship humans have with our power and our vulnerability.
It is also a literary story. Rush looks for truth not only from the natural world but also from other books and other storytellers. She is ambitiously lyrical, kneading language hard in order to entice us into sharing her wonder. There were moments that caught my breath. “The Isle de Jean Charles,” she writes of a Louisiana island where she spends a lot of time, “is where North America’s immense solidity ends, the frayed fingers of fine tidal lace splaying seaward.”
Each page is steeped in the love the author feels not so much for a particular place, per se, though she is moved to notice all she can as a way of paying tribute. Rather, her love is for the dynamism of living things. It is contagious. And it reminded me of Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction novel Parable of the Sower, published in 1993 and set in the Los Angeles of 2024. In the wake of global warming’s devastation (ahem), the protagonist becomes a prophet of a nascent religion where the central tenet is this: “All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”
That idea seems to speak to the central ethic of Rising. On one hand, Rush is recording change. She gathers hard facts: New York, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have all lost more than half their coastal wetlands to development in the past two hundred-some years. In New York City, about 90 percent of the wetlands have been essentially paved over.
But for all the reporting and research, for all the interspersed oral histories and photographs, Rising seems to look inward more than outward. I felt conflicted by this. The first-person narrative is introspective to a fault. I wish the author trusted the reader to be as bewitched by the facts as she is, seen directly, rather than making herself an intermediary character whose retraced moment-by-moment thoughts and recreated conversations take up a lot of space. But on the other hand, I think of Butler’s formulation about how change connects what is inside and outside ourselves. And I think of Rush’s bold point that we humans must do a great deal of internal work to deal with the consequences of climate change that are already reality for many — to retreat, forever, from places we love and treasured ways of doing things. In this way, the inward tilt seems appropriate; the author is trying to model what that complex emotional process might look like.
For her, it begins with paying attention. (She cites Simone Weil as her epigraph: Attention is prayer.) Rush’s focus on names is almost biblical. As Adam in the creation story participates in the making of the world by naming “every living creature” that God forms, so does Rush honor the divine specificity of life by singing out the names of all that comes before her, be it spoonbills or spotted owls or tupelo trees, or be it the names of the supermarkets and motels in the communities that she drives through. She also notes that, elsewhere in Genesis, the story of Noah’s flood “does not start with a rainstorm or an ark, but earlier, with unprecedented population growth and God’s scorn” at how people are behaving wickedly. And then came the division of those who will get to survive the forewarned deluge and those who will not.
“Who will get to enter the boat?” she writes. “God says to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family …. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of unclean animal, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.” If Rush believes in the severity of climate science, she wonders, “will I be among the chosen?” And: “Will those who are the most vulnerable now have the same chances as those who are not?”
Rush is invigorated by serious attempts to rebuild wetlands and preserve essential ecosystems. Especially on the West Coast, she shows us some brilliant people who are working to prepare for the sea level’s rise with massive interventions. But she is wary of thinking we can design our way out of the problem of climate change. She codes it as another example of “first-world exceptionalism” that may, as it has in our history, have unintended consequences.
If retreat feels outrageously sad — giving up forever on our proud homes and grand cities and tight-knit communities, bearing a grievous on-the-ground price for bad decisions, some of which were made long in the past and far above our station — Rush points to how we might learn from the marsh itself.
Here, the cordgrass is connected to a subterranean web of rhizomes that serves as a “connective tissue” that makes the soil “dense and strong” when the marsh is healthy. The rising table of saltwater is causing the collapse of the network. But unlike traditional roots, which move downward, rhizomes “find the line of flight and act. When the plant is threatened by too much salt, for example, horizontal root growth often starts reaching steadily uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space in the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.”
There is a time to withdraw. The rhizomes “find not only a way forward but also a way to continue to be itself, albeit in a slightly different location.” For the sake of our earth and all living things, for ourselves and for each other, so might we.
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