A Reflection on Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
By Jesse Curran
Last month, on “Earth Day at 50,” Orion published words of hope from ten of its beloved authors. Many of the authors were old favorites — E.O. Wilson, Krista Tippett, Amy Tan — though some voices were new to me. Elizabeth Rush was one of them. I read in her brief bio that she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and currently teaches at Brown. Her recent book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (Milkweed, 2019) brings us voices and visions from American communities most vulnerable to rising seas.
I teach in a first-year experience program at SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island, and I’m on the prowl for a good environmental text to suggest as a Common Read. It’s not always the easiest task; the author must make a visit within our modest budget, and be able to maintain audience with our students. The book must be accessible –and mustn’t be too long. It must allow the students to deeply reflect on an issue connected to our college’s historic social justice mission. Rhode Island is close to Long Island, and part of Rush’s book reports on communities in Staten Island. It seems close to home for us, so Rising rose to the top of my pile.
I do my best to read a few pages of a book each night before I turn out the light. With two kids under five, it can take me weeks to get through a book that I used to breeze through on a quiet Saturday. Such reading, I have learned, is a small means of salvaging writerly identity in the trenches of early parenthood. Often the books that rise to the top of my pile nourish an essential inquiry – or offer insight or perspective I desperately need.
As a scholar of environmental literature, I’ve read many books about climate change. I try to stare into it. But Rush’s book hit me in the gut, in the way fine literature does; her empathetic vulnerability provides a narrative that resonates with the uncertainty that COVID-19 casts over our lives. Reading her book about rising tides during a mass pandemic is both prophetic and therapeutic. It feels like the issue at the heart of the issue.
Early on in the pandemic, my husband Dylan and I quietly agreed over a late night glass of wine that it is unfolding. The radical uncertainty of ecological imbalance is upon us, within us. Scientists have been warning about mass pandemics for decades. We know a multitude of pressures are being placed on the planet by human consumption and arrogance. We know about carrying capacity and positive feedback loops. We believe that, in terms of deep time and ecological systems, human exceptionalism is at best an illusion. At worst, it is a ticking timebomb.
The pandemic reveals what already is: the tremendous responsibility of the essential worker; the broken health care system; a scared and anti-intellectual public; alienated hording and clannist isolation; deep inequities based on race, ethnicity, and class. Most importantly, it reveals vulnerability. So do rising waters and the destruction of marshlands. So does Rush’s book.
Rising speaks to radical uncertainty in the face of ecological precarity. It is necessarily elegiac and does grief work. Rush writes:
These days all it takes is a little usual 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.
Or consider this exposition, which reflects on her kayak ride with eco-psychologist Laura Sewall in coastal Maine:
“We have to be uncomfortable with uncertainty,” she says, as if reading my mind.
“Those who lived during the plague were probably a little uncertain about their future prospects,” I say with a snort. “Maybe we can try to channel them.”
Statistics can be frightening. But because they are often impersonal, they are also easy to dismiss. Witness and testimony, on the other hand, bear poetic pathos and strains of resilience. In the book, Rush also tells detailed stories of her dreams; she pays attention to the subconscious wisdom of ecological enmeshment. In addition to research from scientists and scholars that she delivers through intimate dialogue, Rich lyricizes intimate dreamscapes, refugee testimony, and personal observations in the field.
We will experience – we are experiencing – climate change in our minds, bodies, and hearts. Those of us with empathetic nerving endings already hear the grief-laden sigh. Like with the current pandemic, we feel the heartbreak; we feel the collapse of a system that cannot sustain. We don’t know what the century will bring, but we know what it is bringing. We are part of that system. Our hearts are breaking.
In two days, my family will celebrate our first full year of homeownership in our major-fixer-upper-gut-renovated house. We live a straight mile uphill from Northport Harbor. One hundred and eighteen point one feet above sea level. Our home won’t likely flood. But those close to the sixteen hundred miles of Long Island’s coastline will. Have. Are.
The other night around midnight after reading a chapter or two from Rising, I clambered down the stairs in my bathrobe to talk to Dylan about taking whatever savings we could muster to buy a piece of land near our friends in the Adirondacks; after all, we visit each year and consider it a second home; Dylan was born in raised in the Capital District. I realize this is selfish and maternal thought born out of a fear and a conviction that this island is too crowded to feel safe. Like a too-crowded hospital. Still so, Rich’s book speaks to a resilient instinct to see what is happening and to seek higher ground.
Jesse Curran, PhD, is a poet, essayist, scholar, and educator who lives in Northport, NY. Her creative work has appeared in a number of literary journals including Ruminate, About Place, Spillway, Leaping Clear, Green Humanities, Blueline, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.