Mark Goldthorpe reviews Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore: a contemplation of transience, connection and the possibilities of resilience, demonstrating the power of story to highlight opportunities to attend and adapt to a changing world.
2,860 words: estimated reading time 11.5 minutes
A copy of Rising goes to Nick Drake for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
In a book that sets out to investigate a nation’s changing margins, Elizabeth Rush uncovers the local and global realities of coastal change. Hers is a personal and generous exploration of vulnerability and resilience, loss and possibility. A sort of refugee herself — leaving her home and long-term relationship, migrating to America’s east, west and south coasts — Rush encounters those who are facing or have already experienced internal displacement from homes on the front lines of coastal squeeze, rising seas, increasing storms and repeated flooding. Through her insights into the lives of others, we meet those who move and those who stay.
Rising is a book where the human and the more-than-human share centre stage on the edges of land and water. America’s wetlands offer an exemplar of the changes at play now and into the future as our colonial and industrial legacies unroll, complicating further our options for adapting to a changing climate. Rush handles the different scales of change — individual, community, species, ecosystem and landscape — with elegant prose, switching between visits with local people and experts and personal reflections on transience. It’s lucid writing. She describes a visit to Maine’s Sprague River Marsh:
Out here the surface of the water is pure glass, spotted occasionally by the passing of a cloud. Every time I pull my paddle from the sea a tiny wave travels outward and dissolves. Something happens as I nose my little boat closer and closer to the blue-on-blue horizon, where water and sky become indistinguishable. I begin to feel as though I am paddling straight into the heart of a Rothko painting, or a landscape where all traces of memory have been wiped away. The sun strikes the bay, filling my vision like a bell, and the morning’s worry momentarily disappears.
Her prose opens us up to the shocks that global disruption is creating. Disruption that, at first, our human-fixated imaginations refuse to see, only to be revealed finally as felt within. Rush brings us up against the deep transformations underway within even innocent adventures such as her excursion onto the water. This is de-rangement, a sudden out-of-kilter sense of living upon the seemingly still surface of the world, which we now see floats above perilous forces we’ve unleashed.
These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety endsickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach and a string of observations I have been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.
Because the Gulf of Maine is warmer than ever before (she invokes this phrase each time she lays out the next fact for us to take in) … the fish are pulling away from shore … the shrimp fishery has closed … phytoplankton are disappearing … green crab populations are exploding … the lobsters are moving into deep waters, keeping the lobstermen away from home for longer: “everyone and everything that lives is changing radically.”
‘Endsickness’ captures, channels, the odd feeling of a new eeriness in the changing world. It’s a feeling that many people have been reporting recently, for example with the early prefiguring of Spring here in the UK in an anomalous February spell of sunshine and warmth. One acquaintance closed a recent email to me: “Enjoy the weekend. I am torn between feeling really joyful because of the beauty of the days, or horrified because February feels like Spring…”
Roots, risk and resilience
Rush structures her book in three parts, the first two — Rampikes, Rhizomes — drawing metaphorically on the characteristics of wetland plants that help shape how their landscape responds to encroaching seas: surrendering to their own vulnerability or else proving resilient against at least the initial stages of change. The final section, Rising, speaks to the opportunities of accepting the rising waters’ challenge, meeting it with a new spirit, an ethos of working more with the natural world than against it — or, at least, acting in knowledge rather than ignorance of nature.
Rampikes — trees that have surrendered to salt waters and died — are “bleached skeletons or splintered trunks … undone by natural forces.” The word’s origins are in ‘raunpick’ or raven-picked, made bare. “Bare indeed,” she says of the dead tupelos she witnesses in Rhode Island — “how exposed and plain, the gesture these trees make alongside our transforming shore.” Tupelos are marsh trees — the word itself Native American: “ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean ‘swamp tree.’ Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water.” But not if the water is salt and rising.
As with Rhode Island tupelos, so with the oaks and cypresses Rush encounters on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana:
I walk back down the Island Road, and every two hundred yards or so, I pass a huge cypress tree or oak stripped bare, its leafless branches reaching like electricity in search of a point of contact. The cause of the trees’ demise isn’t in the air, but deep in the ground where the roots wander, where the salt water has started to work its way in. Just south of the Island Road, half the trees have fallen into the widening channel. Those that are still standing are just barely so. Everything, it seems, leans toward the salt water that wasn’t always there.
Rhizomes are vast underground root systems, a “web of connective tissue” that sustains and anchors plants such as cordgrass. When overwhelmed with salt water, the rhizomes retract, loosening the soil so the ground starts to collapse. But the creeping salt is not inevitable death for the cordgrass.
Rhizomes, it can be said, have a mind of their own. They find the line of flight and act … horizontal root growth often starts reaching uphill, away from the element that will not suit. If there is space for the marsh to migrate, it will. From each root a new shoot sprouts — the community, and the home it provides, remade from within.
In Florida, she realises that “what I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes … has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.” Such vulnerabilities are exacerbated by the way societies develop along certain paths rather than others. Risk as a concept, she finds, is “a question of proximity … From a distance, risk looks like something that can be managed, through informed decision making or insurance.” But these are rules “written by those whose power, in its various shapes and forms, keeps their bodies safe.” Close up, risk is the existential peril that comes “from living in a community that with each flood is split in half, then split again. From wind; from chemicals blossoming on the water’s surface, then settling mutely into the soil; from the storm’s warm tide and the darkness that follows.”
In California, she witnesses the phenomenon of coastal squeeze in communities whose homes have been relatively affordable only because of their susceptibility to flood; “these people are sandwiched between rising tides on one side and Silicon Valley on the other, and … this position is not so different from the one that most tideland species currently occupy.” Vulnerability and risk seem designed in:
… while Facebook purposefully, painstakingly lifted every single one of its new offices as protection from the first wave of future flooding, it didn’t elevate much of the infrastructure the buildings depend upon. It didn’t elevate the roadways or the storm pipes or the sewer system … Because what they do and who they are is not dependent upon the land where their company rests; if Facebook eventually relocates to higher ground, it will be exactly what it was before — a social networking platform that connects users globally, while disconnecting them from the physical setting where their lives take place.
Passwords for a rising world
It’s connection that Rising is about, ultimately. Not simply the connection between people and place, species and habitat, process and landscape; also, connection between locations, between lives, through migration and communication. Spending time in an Oregon research forest, inland from the coasts and a thousand feet above sea level, she still finds all her thoughts are of the changing coasts she’s witnessed. Captivated by the iridescent feathers of a rufous hummingbird, “I do not see a bird exactly. Instead I see a map of its migratory route, and the many swamps and wooded lowlands that it passes through along the way.” Rising opens with a Simone Weil quote: “Attention is prayer.” And here it’s as if attention-as-prayer is a form of mapping, a tracing of the contours and features that mark the surfacing of processes and connectedness we see as nature and society.
It might seem a stretch to say that here is connected to there, and that the bodies of the small birds do the connecting. However, just as the Neapolitan immigrant brings a bit of Italy to New York City, and just as Colombians from Medellin carry the central highlands to the northern corner of Providence, so the rufous transport some piece of all the places they pass through here…
Language itself is a migration, a connecting. Rush writes so as to reduce distance between humans and the rest of the natural world: through attention to attachment, and thus to care. She speaks of ‘interspecies intimacy’ although, of course, it’s not so much a connection between species as a reconnection of humans to others. Language — culture — as a means of repairing natural links that have been perilously diminished.
Seeing those dead, rampike tupelos for the first time, Rush remembers a ‘scrap of language’ she’d found in an article on Alzheimer’s and held onto, knowing one day it would prove useful: “’Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.’ Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.”
Names — ‘raven-picked’, ‘swamp trees’ — offer a form of re-enchantment: passwords that “might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness — that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.” Just as, in past times, the physical presence of tupelos was once a sign to marsh travellers of “what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.” Words enable a form of adaptive thinking, which Rush sees in the stories that the people she meets create, shape and shift. The stories people tell are a means of “retaining control — if not over the physical world, then over the words they use to make sense of their experience in it. The longer I spend on our disintegrating shoreline, the more this strikes me as an adaptive technique that humans alone might have.”
Rising sketches some of the historical choices that have led to the current experiences of flood, storms and inundation. From pre-European societies who lived in moveable camps set back from the Mississippi, to conquistador marches halted by the river’s floods and the 20th and 21st century destructions of towns, of New Orleans, “it wasn’t until the Mississippi got in the way of the colonial project that its predictably fickle flow was deemed a problem.”
Long regarded as wasteland, coastal wetlands became attractive for development with the 1850 Swamp Act, which gave states the right to sell federal wetlands so people would create productive farmland, or else for short-lived port developments that later became waste dumps, finally built over for cheap housing. But water doesn’t just go away. Dams, locks, levees and floodwalls seek to contain its excessive forces — while, in tandem, other interventions open the way for those forces to reach the most vulnerable, the least powerful. For Isle de Jean Charles, when the oil rigs came to the Louisiana coast, ‘channelisation’ created access routes through the marsh. When the oil companies failed to backfill them, the channels eroded, growing wider and eating further into the land. “‘They didn’t maintain the bayou like they said they would, and now the gulf is at our back door’, I was told in town.”
Absence as form
It’s voices such as these, and stories of individuals, families and communities, that Rising gives essential space to. They weave throughout the book, lending it a rhizomatic character of its own; their nuances allow the narrative to move and strengthen as the facts and histories that Rush elaborates seep in. You sense the conversations continuing once the page is turned: life continuing in all its complexity.
In Maine, Laura demonstrates the conflicted feelings of living with inundation:
“I have to take into account my incredible love for sitting right here. I feel so privileged to be observing these changes so immediately. It is frightening but it also incredibly interesting, awesome really. There is something magical and enlivening about seeing how dynamic life is on the planet … But there are also nights in the winter when the wind will be blowing so hard I fear that my metal roof is going to rip off and be shredded into pieces that pierce through the windows. This fear drives my spiritual work. Where I go with it, on a personal level, is toward making peace with uncertainty. Toward being more fully in the present, and toward living a life where gratitude is near the surface.”
Suzanne recalls life on Staten Island before the storm that finally forced managed retreat, when “residents of nine communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh … ‘Seeing my childhood home destroyed was an experience,’ she says … ‘Can we learn to see demolition, absence itself, as an architectural form?’ she asks quietly, before hanging up.” And for Nicole “it’s tough to see the neighbourhood I grew up in, that my father grew up in … being demolished. But on the other side, it’s nice knowing that this is to protect everyone else and that it can’t happen again … And maybe the government really will do the right thing and let [it] go back to nature.’”
In Florida, Rush meets a woman wading resignedly through her flooded street. “‘We get flooded with just about every high tide,’ the woman tells me… ‘And if the moon is big it’s worse.’”
Rush is painfully aware of the locked-in systems and lifestyles that fuel the processes driving the planet’s overheating. Even those feeling the rising waters’ full force are trapped into feeding the cycle; people whose own gardens once provided their food now must drive for supplies. The sea took their gardens; fossil-fuelled food miles raise the seas. “I want to ask if they know the consequences of their new way of life — but I cannot think of a way to formulate this question without sounding rude. Instead I ask for another slice of cake.”
As with one species, so with others. Rush discovers that the bodies of young moonbirds are getting smaller because their arctic breeding ice grounds melt earlier, so plants bloom sooner and insects emerge before the fledgelings can eat them. The smaller birds fly south but, with shorter beaks, they cannot dig out the molluscs they migrate for. Instead, they’re forced to eat rhizomes closer to the surface, causing the seagrass beds to slump, “slowly breaking apart beneath the rising tide … I fall asleep with the image floating in my mind: bite by bite … unknowingly untying the web of their survival.”
Rising calls on us to act on better dreams. “I am thinking about justice, and what it might look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other.”
Find out more
Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is published by Milkweed Editions in the US, where you will also find a Reader’s Guide. You can read more of Elizabeth Rush’s writing, including excerpts from Rising, at elizabethrush.net.
Update: In June 2019, Public Books published an Elizabeth Rush interview by Elena Passarello, exploring lived experiences of a changing climate, possibilities for resilience and adaptation, the nature of environmental writing and the process of interviewing those on the frontlines.