When The Water Comes
This story is a part of our fall Book Club conversation about ‘Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore.’ Want to participate? Join our online community space or record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app.
The Science Friday Book Club is kicking off for fall. Producer Christie Taylor joins in a conversation with Elizabeth Rush, author of “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore.” They talk about the surprisingly fascinating science of coastal wetlands, and their role in protecting communities from sea level rise—plus how communities themselves, from Staten Island to southern Louisiana, are responding to rising seas and flooding.
For the full rundown, excerpts, and more, check out our main Book Club page.
Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work explores how humans adapt to changes enacted upon them by forces seemingly beyond their control, from ecological transformation to political revolution.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It has been quite the summer for extreme weather in the US. Another record year for wildfires has meant evacuations and dangerously poor air quality in large swaths of the country. Hundreds of thousands remained sweltering and without power for weeks, after Hurricane Ida came in from the Gulf. Flash floods killed dozens in the Northeast. Drought threatens the water supply for millions in the West. Our listener Richard in Seattle called into the SciFri VoxPop app and shared this story from where he lives.
RICHARD: What’s less obvious to the casual observer is that if you stand in Seattle on a clear day you can see mountains 360 degrees around you. Even in the depths of August in previous years, we’d look out and see white on the tops of those mountains. Those glaciers are gone. They’re just gone. It’s scary.
IRA FLATOWW: So do you feel a little bit anxious, like Richard does, about the future of the planet? Or maybe you want to do something, but you don’t know what to do. Our book club may have some inspiration for you. Producer Christie Taylor is here to explain. Hey, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey, there. Ira.
IRA FLATOW: All right. So tell us what we are reading and why?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Sure thing. Ira, we are reading Rising– Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2018. And it follows Elizabeth all over the country as she visits threatened coastal wetlands and talks to people whose communities are in danger from rising seas and flooding, people, though, who are also doing something about it in communities like Staten Island, Pensacola, the South Bay. It’s a really, really gorgeous book, Ira. And it’s one that actually made me feel a little bit like there’s a way to make things better, at the end of the day.
IRA FLATOW: Good to hear that it’s not a bummer, as they say.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It really isn’t, though there are times, I have to be frank, when there are some heavy emotions. Rising author, Elizabeth Rush, joined me for a short chat a couple of weeks ago. And I started by asking her to read an excerpt from the book, one that deals specifically with the kind of grief and anxiety that a lot of people may be feeling.
ELIZABETH RUSH: So this comes about 60 pages into the book. And I think what you need to know is that I’ve spent the morning in a marsh in coastal Maine. And we’re discovering that as the marsh becomes inundated, it’s emitting really high levels of methane, which is a gas that warms the planet really quickly. And I’m out in a kayak with a friend. And so that’s what you need to know as we jump into the scene.
“These days all it takes is a little unusual warmth to make me feel nauseated. I call this new form of climate anxiety and sickness. Like motion sickness or sea sickness, end sickness is its own kind of vertigo, a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways towards what I imagine as a kind of event horizon. A burble of bile rises from my stomach. And a string of observations I’ve been hearing in these parts adulterates the joy of our afternoon adventure.”
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much for reading that. So I think what you’re describing here, this end sickness, as you call it, it’s a very familiar feeling for a lot of people who are already aware of the changes that our planet is undergoing. We announced your book for our fall book club, and several people actually immediately emailed us to say, hey, that’s a really heavy topic. That’s a lot of grief and a lot of anxiety to process here, isn’t there?
ELIZABETH RUSH: It’s interesting. I feel like that deep immersion into climate awareness is something that more and more and more people are feeling in the present tense. I think that there’s something really important, actually, in creating a space to share that grief, to talk about how uncomfortable or unsettling this topic is. Because I think only in making that space do we actually start to arrive at a place of a possibility of moving sort of in that discomfort into or towards climate action.
Towards the middle of the book, I start to drop into communities that have been dwelling in that discomfort for a significant period of time. And they’ve started to recognize that their vulnerability is shared amongst each other. And with that shared vulnerability, they’re gaining a little bit of a sense of the fact that they can do something with it. Like, what are we going to do now that we know that we’re imperiled?
And I think each of those communities comes up with different solutions that are a reflection of the larger socioeconomic circumstances that they find themselves in, the history of these communities. But part of what I think is really special about Rising is that it’s not just about dwelling in discomfort and grief. It’s also about what people have done once they’ve spent a lot of time there. So I also think of it as sort of a guidebook to the future that we all increasingly share.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Overall you write a lot about the importance of wetlands and marshes for keeping people safe from rising waters. But you also write about the ways in which sea level rise is endangering the existence of these marshes. Can you talk a little bit more about what’s happening in these ecosystems?
ELIZABETH RUSH: I will tell you, when I started writing this book, as I started to focus on sea level rise, I thought, OK, I’m going to have to spend a lot of time in wetlands. And my immediate response to that was snooze alert. Like, I want to be on mountaintops. I don’t want to be knee deep in mucky marshes.
But the more I learned about marshes and the more time I spent in them, the more enraptured I became. They are these really dynamic systems. When we’re talking about tidal wetlands, we’re talking about a whole ecosystem that lives really within a very, very fine balance. Thinking about how dynamic they are, that they live in this in-between space, of course as sea levels are rising, they’re starting to, especially in places where they can’t migrate inland because we’ve built roads or along their upland’s edge, they’re starting to get sort of squeezed in place.
You’ve got sea levels rising on one side and an impenetrable barrier on the back end. When we don’t have human-made infrastructure on the back of these marshlands, we can see with a certain pace of sea level rise, the marshes can keep up. They can migrate, move in and out. It’s a beautiful thing to watch but. Also as you become more attuned to it, you start to recognize how tremendously vulnerable they are because they really only live in that unique space between land and sea.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You save many, many pages for just letting people speak and tell their own stories themselves, which feels really important because so often people who experience disasters get treated like characters in a story that they’re not actually writing, right?
ELIZABETH RUSH: It’s also simply about the fact that I’ve been writing about sea level rise for a decade now. And the thing that’s fundamentally transformed me has been sitting in a stranger’s living room and listening to their stories of what it’s like to make a life on top of vulnerable land and then watch parts of that life get washed away. I still remember, to this day, being invited to a celebration-of-life party for this man named Leonard Montalto who died during Hurricane Sandy in Staten Island.
I’d been researching and spending time in Oakwood Beach for over a year. And his daughter Nicole pulled me into her aunt’s guest bedroom and said, you’re writing a book, so I’m going to tell you the story of what happened on the night of Hurricane Sandy because you will help me memorialize my father. And she spoke for two hours. And for the longest time, I had no idea what to do with that interview. I transcribed the entire thing, and it just sat in a folder on my computer for years because I felt like there is nothing that I could do that would add anything to that story.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Speaking of what happened on Staten Island in Hurricane Sandy, I want to ask you to read one more excerpt from the section about how those communities bounced back or responded to Sandy.
ELIZABETH RUSH: So I think the one thing that I want to say to introduce this short piece is that many communities along the edge of Staten Island came together and started to petition the government to purchase and demolish their storm-impacted homes. And they eventually won the right to have those homes purchased and demolished, and they relocated in. And if you look at the story of Staten Island, 80% of islanders stayed on the island. So a lot of their communities remained intact.
Here’s a short excerpt that sort of reflects on my time in Staten Island. “Here’s what I found among the rubble-strewn foundations and the boarded-up bungalows. Alongside the berm with its insides exposed and the inundated cordgrass, it is no surprise that there I found another tremendously vulnerable tidal wetland. But in Oakwood, I began to understand that the vulnerability of these places can and ought to be transformed into a battle cry.
Yes, wetlands communities are the canaries in our coastal coal mines, the first to feel the oceans gathering force. And yet the retreating residents of Oakwood, by banding together and demanding aid, are also something else, an example for the rest of us to follow. They’re less victims than agents, more rhizomes than rampikes.”
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Thank you so much for that. And I just want to make this metaphor you’ve used a little bit more clear for our listeners. So we talked about the rampikes, which are trees that have died because they’re soaking up saltwater. But a rhizome is a strong interconnected thing. And that’s the thing you’re celebrating here.
ELIZABETH RUSH: Absolutely. So rhizomes are these roots that can form new shoots and pop up and create new plants in surprising places. And so when you look at rhizomes, they’re really exciting because it’s not just about the individual plant. It’s about the community of plants that move up and in as these underground networks reach up and in.
And I definitely saw that happening in the human communities that live in these vulnerable places as well. When I could find groups that banded together and discovered a shared sense of vulnerability and a sense of purpose from that vulnerability, they often were able to advocate for themselves new futures that would help them maintain important parts of their community identity, while also shedding their high-risk exposure to flooding. And I found that actually to be, dare I say, a source of hope.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, and we will end on that possibly controversial word. Thank you so much, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH RUSH: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me, Christie.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Elizabeth Rush, author of the book Rising– Dispatches from the New American Shore. As we’ve said, this is the official kickoff for our fall book club. Head to our website sciencefriday.com/bookclub. We have excerpts of the book, a newsletter, discussion communities, and much more.
And you can attend live Zoom events. We’ll have Elizabeth herself back later in the month to answer your questions and talk more about what she saw in coastal communities. Plus, this Tuesday, October 5, join us on Zoom for a live interview about marsh science. Like you just heard, these are vital and fascinating ecologies. And we’re going to put on our virtual waders and splash on in. All the information you need is at sciencefriday.com/bookclub. I’m Christie Taylor.
IRA FLATOW: Christie Taylor, SciFri producer and our radio book club captain. And as you’re reading the book, tell us what you’re thinking, please, via our SciFri VoxPop app. We want to hear your questions, your feelings, and anything else that comes up. It’s all there on the SciFri VoxPop app wherever you get your apps.