Jessica D'Avanza: [00:00:00] Hey there, Rhody Radio listeners. This is Jessica D'Avanza from Barrington Public Library and the Rhody Radio editorial board. As you know, we are on a break this month, so we've decided to re-air some of our favorite episodes from the archive. Rhody Radio will return from our break on October 19th with all-new content. This week's episode features an interview with last year's 2020 Reading Across Rhode Island author Elizabeth Rush about her book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore.
Listening to this episode a year later, I'm reminded how much Rhody Radio has grown. I recorded this interview in August 2020 on Zoom using an iPad. Elizabeth was on her computer with earbuds. Today in September 2021, I'm recording this intro in a mobile podcasting studio that now lives in our library. So, dear listener, please excuse the beginner-level sound quality that you will hear in this episode, we all have to start somewhere.
I want to share that this episode originally was planned as an in-person event. It was to take place on March 12th, 2020. Well, we all know what happened in the middle of March 2020. 18 months later, we are still living through it. Elizabeth was kind enough to accept our pivot from an in-person event to this podcast interview. At the original event, we had planned to have a Q&A opportunity for the community to ask their questions. Still wanting to capture this local engagement in the podcast, I asked residents to submit their questions via email or a voice memo. You will hear questions directed at Elizabeth by the Barrington community towards the end of the interview.
The other thing I noticed while re-listening to this episode is how I jump right into a hard interview question with [00:02:00] no warmup. I have since learned that is not the best way to conduct an interview. If you are thinking about becoming a podcaster, I highly recommend you read So You Want to Start a Podcast by Kristen Meinzer or you can watch our webinar series Podcasting In Seven Easy Steps, which offers seven videos with experts, including Kristen Meinzer, who shares her tips for beginner podcasters. You can find the link to this video series in our show notes.
At the end of this interview, we've included a short reading by Elizabeth of the opening chapter of Rising titled The Password. It is set along the East Bay Bike Path at Jacob's Point in Rhode Island. I hope you will stick around for that. Elizabeth's lyrical writing will stir your senses and awaken you to examine the natural world that exists all around you.
A few weeks ago as I began preparing to set this episode in motion for its re-airing, I was visited at the library by Elizabeth Rush's mother and father. Her mother Martha came by to introduce herself and thanked me for the work I'd done in promoting her daughter's book here in Barrington. Even after 18 months, I still continue to think about that event that never happened, but we all must move forward.
So I asked her mother about the progress on Elizabeth's next book and invited her to bring her grandson to story time at our library. I want to thank the community partners who worked on the original in-person event we had to cancel due to the pandemic. This includes the Friends of Barrington Public Library, Barrington Land Conservation Trust, Ink Fish Books in Warren, Change for the Better Community Action Group, Rhode Island Center for the Book, and the staff of Barrington Public Library. Now, onto [00:04:00] our interview.
Speaker 1: You are listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. When you're listening to Rhody Radio, you know you're listening to something good.
Jessica: Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and still lifes from a vanishing city. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and more. She is a recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, including in 2019, she was the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artist and Writer. She received her BA in English from Reed College and her MFA in Non-fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. Today, she teaches creative non-fiction courses at Brown University that carry the environmental sciences and digital technologies into the humanities classroom. Welcome, Elizabeth, to Rhody Radio.
Elizabeth Rush: Hi, Jessica. Thanks for having me.
Jessica: We first met in June of 2018 at Riffraff Books in Providence, where you were promoting the recent publication of your book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. In Barrington, just a couple of months earlier, the library and the Barrington Land Conservation Trust had hosted a talk titled Climate Change and Rising Water: How Barrington will be affected. It was our first event on the topic and over 75 people turned up to hear from our speakers at Save the Bay and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
It was a sobering presentation as CRMC showed us their storm tools maps to illustrate how coastal storms with or without [00:06:00] sea-level rise will impact communities like Barrington and East Bay. In your book, you document nearby Jacob's Point and the effects of saltwater inundation on the tupelo trees. Can you share a bit about the significance of this for Barrington, the East Bay, and Rhode Islanders?
Elizabeth: Yes. I think for me, one of the most important first steps in terms of waking up to climate change and its impact on us is learning to see it. We often hear about 1 degree of warming, 1.5 degrees of warming, 2 degrees of warming. Those are all markers that I think are a little bit hard to keep track of or feel or sense in our bodies. What's the difference between 78 degrees and 79 degrees? That's a very, very fine line for most human beings. They have a hard time mapping and tracking those kinds of changes.
For me, one of the things that caught my attention as I worked on Rising here in Rhode Island, but also around the country, is that every community that I went to had dead hardwood trees in it, alongside it. Those dead hardwoods are dying because of saline inundation. They're dying because of rising sea levels. You can see them everywhere you go around the country in low-lying areas. To me, they're a marker. They're a clearing call. They help me remember that all of the vulnerable species living in our borderlands if they don't have the ability to move are often dying in place.
This opening chapter of the book opens with an image of the tupelo trees at Jacob's Point that have died of saline inundation. I mean them to be a key [00:08:00] that helps me, but also readers learn how to see and recognize sea-level rises early impact on our coastal communities. If you're taking a train between here and New York City, you fly alongside these wetlands that line the East Coast. They are aligned in dead trees and that's because of sea-level rise. I'm trying to help readers learn to see and identify the ongoing early impacts of climate change.
Jessica: You have mentioned a little bit about the photos in your book, I'm imagining you took all of them while you're out in the field.
Elizabeth: Yes. Each chapter opens with a picture of a tree that has died due to saline inundation in that community. I did take all of the pictures. To me, I didn't want to take pictures of the people in those communities, that maybe felt a bit exploitative, and instead, I wanted to create a series of images that are haunting and poetic, at the same time, lyrical that mimic the pros that's in this book and that teach us to also see and engage with the more-than-human world.
This is not just a human problem, human vulnerable communities problem, this is all about all of the different species that are wetlands dependent, and if we don't help them move, they will also perish in place and that will contribute significantly to the ongoing extinction that's playing out all around us. They are also a call to remind us that it's not just vulnerable human communities that live in these spaces, it's vulnerable animals, plants, more-than-human communities that occupy them do.
Jessica: Coronavirus and living through a pandemic is new for almost all of us, [00:10:00] and we've had to make significant changes to our daily lives, but we've been living with the effects of climate change for years. Your book shows proof of this slow-moving environmental pandemic, if we can call it that, and yet we don't respond with any sense of urgency. In both situations, it's communities of color that are the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 and rising sea levels. What connections are you drawing from our current state of the pandemic in America and our collective sense of environmental justice?
Elizabeth: As COVID-19 started to unfold during the past spring and we started to read the reports, or I started to read the reports that you were seeing significantly higher percentages of cases in Black and Brown communities with higher death rates, I was unfortunately not surprised by that.
I think that when we see the ways in which climate change impacts frontline communities first and the way that those communities are often Black and Brown communities, and that that same phenomenon is happening with COVID-19, you just start to see the deep structural inequality baked into our society.
Whether it's the fact that you have communities in Florida that are predominantly Black and Brown where escaped slaves sought out these places because they were so low-lying, they were swamps and no one wanted them and they also provided a sense of refuge, those are the places that are being inundated by rising sea levels now. [00:12:00] You see the ways in which Black and Brown communities are often the ones who can't afford to work from home, who have to continue to drive Ubers or to work as Amazon delivery drivers, or to continue to do lower-wage labor in the age of the pandemic. These things, these states are the result of historical inequality and oppression.
When we can call them out for that, then hopefully we can start to recognize the deep sickness at the heart of our society and the ways in which we can't just solve these problems with single one-off individual solutions. The answer is not just to stay at home and order Amazon. The answer is not just to lift your home up on stilts and let your neighbor suffer. The answer is to say, why do we live in a world-- how did we get to the point that we live in a world where safety is not distributed evenly? As long as safety isn't distributed evenly, as long as risk isn't distributed evenly, none of us are safe and all of us are at risk.
I think that is true with climate change just as it's true with COVID-19. I think that we're starting to have those conversations, though I worry about the depth of the engagement that we're having. Sometimes I worry that we're having the conversations because people are stuck at home and anxious and then others are working and incredibly angry, [00:14:00] and I wonder what happens when some of those driving forces shift a little bit.
I think that if we continue to see significant protests play out in the lead-up to the election, that would make me pleased because we know that protests can historically shape election results, but only happen really close to the election. What happened this summer as a distance from the upcoming election doesn't necessarily have a profound enough impact. We have to keep that energy going as we move into the next electoral cycle. There's a lot of overlap. I have some hope and also some deep [chuckles] concerns about where we go next.
Jessica: For those who don't own a home right now, or have families of their own, I'm thinking of Gen Y or millennials like myself, who for many reasons have decided to continue renting and remain childless. There's often the feeling you describe in your book as end sickness, like motion sickness or seasickness, this is a climate sickness and uncertainty about the future.
At a time when we are all living with feelings of uncertainty due to the coronavirus, I'm very interested to hear what you would tell someone at age 15, 25, or 35 who believes they are facing a future so different from their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, a future that requires them to make choices about their family size, where they will put down roots, and how they will form their communities.
Elizabeth: I don't mean this to sound flippant. Part of me says, "Lucky you." How wonderful that you have to, as [00:16:00] you come into being who you are profoundly as an adult, have to think about that identity being one of incredible flexibility and resilience and an identity that has to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. That has to be at ease with being uncertain about what is coming next because that is the world that we live in.
I think sometimes the generations that we're seeing suffering the most, struggling the most to hold on to what was are generations that haven't had as their touchstone this idea that the future that they're going to inhabit is profoundly uncertain. I would say I'm right on the cusp, I'm 36. I just bought my first home. I just had my first child, and I definitely, I think because of the work that I do, also understand how profoundly uncertain those things that I just committed to are.
Will the United States continue to be a functioning civil society? Is this home going to continue to gain value? Will my son inhabit a world where social order is maintained, or will climate change fundamentally render and disrupt the weave of society as we know it? I think about those things all the time. There is also a part of me that wants to encourage you to continue to fall in love with the more-than-human world, continue to live deeply, and engage with that which matters most to you, that [00:18:00] even though things are uncertain, that doesn't mean that you should give up on that which fundamentally fuels you or fills you with a sense of regeneration and hope. I think that those are things that we also have to learn to foster even amidst all of that uncertainty.
Jessica: In addition to your book, what other titles do you recommend to readers who are passionate about reading further on this topic? At the library, we share reading lists and recommendations all the time, but I'm curious to hear what titles you recommend and also maybe some that you want to read.
Elizabeth: I'm just looking over at my bookshelf to remember my favorites. The first title that comes to mind when I hear your question is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It's not directly related to climate change. She is both a botanist and native American, and she has written this book that fundamentally looks at the places where indigenous traditional knowledge overlap with an echo and reinforce what we know from the world of botany.
I will say, as I worked on Rising, I would often find myself asking, especially in frontline communities that were indigenous, what are the ways in which you are adapting to rising sea levels? How does your knowledge of the more-than-human world fundamentally shape the solutions that you're coming up with? Often when I read the reports, it would be like, "Oh, well, they're using traditional knowledge," and then there was no information on what traditional knowledge meant in this situation.
This book I think is a fundamentally-- [00:20:00] it's a profound response to that question. What is traditional knowledge? It actually tries to name it and carry it into our consciousness in the form of really beautifully written, engaging stories. A hard, hard sell on Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
It's funny. I think the other book I wanted to recommend is coming out in September, it's called Mill Town. As I'm reflecting on these two recommendations, neither is directly related with climate change, but both are fundamentally related to some of the things that are at stake in Rising. I think that's also to say that I find a lot of climate change writing hard to read, not as pleasurable to read, and not as engaging to read. It's not all of it, but I'm just laughing that I still think it's a conversation that unfortunately we tend to have, and a set rubric, and often the language that we use to describe climate change can leave me feeling a little lackluster.
Anyways, the other book I would recommend is Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault. It's coming out September 1st. It's the only non-fiction book that broke through the fog of late pregnancy for me. It is a story of Mexico, Maine, which is home to one of the largest paper mills in the state. It asks a series of really profound questions. Kerri, the author, is from Mexico, Maine. Her father worked in the mill, and it asks these questions around, what does it mean to live in a place where the economy functions banks impart to an industry [00:22:00] that fundamentally ruins that place and fundamentally ruins the people that are involved in the industry?
Her father dies of lung cancer, likely related to his work in the mill though she can't directly prove that. It also asks about the long-term environmental impact, the mill sits on the Androscoggin River, which runs through Maine, and it asks about the load that we ask that river to carry both in a very physical sense, but also in a spiritual sense. As someone who lives-- who grew up in a mill town in New England, it is a deep history of mill towns in New England, and that's something that I've actually never encountered before.
It helped me to also feel like even though the book's about Mexico, Maine that I was learning about the social and political inequality at the heart of a lot of New England's dying industrial towns. It gave me, I think, insight into some of the anger and the oppression that the places that many of the towns that I've lived as an adult has fundamentally shaped the way those towns work. It's also beautifully written. Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault, you should definitely go read.
Jessica: Thank you. I'll make sure we buy a copy of that book.
Elizabeth: Yes, it's excellent.
Jessica: You were included in the recently published book, Writing Wild by Kathryn Aalto. The book explores the important work of 25 women whose writing shapes the way we see our landscape. She describes you as having given a voice to those who have been ignored for too long and even giving voice to the melting ice itself. Last year, you were an artist and writer in residence for the National Science Foundation [00:24:00] in Antarctica. Can you share a bit about that trip and what you are planning for your next book?
Elizabeth: Sure. Last year I had the incredible honor of being sent on a two-month-long expedition to the calving edge of the Thwaites Glacier, which is in a part of Antarctica so remote that no one had ever been there before in the history of the planet. I was sent there with a crew of scientists whose task was to take fundamental, basic observational data from the place where the ice shelf meets the sea in order to better understand the rate at which the weights will disintegrate in the coming century.
There's a couple of fundamental things at play here that I certainly didn't know before I started this project. One, if you were to take all of the ice off of Antarctica, what remains is an archipelago of islands. That's really fundamentally true on the Western side of Antarctica. A lot of the ice that sits at the Southern part of our planet rests on land that's below water-- or below-- sorry, rests on land that's below water. That's correct. As ocean currents have fundamentally shifted and started to warm, a lot of Western Antarctica is being eaten away at from beneath by these warmer currents, but how warm the water is, how much is circulating beneath the ice, how fundamentally the ice is being melted by that water is almost impossible for us to know because it's so [00:26:00] remote, this part of the planet is so remote that unless you send someone there, all you have is aerial imagery or aerial information. It's very hard to create any sense of real numbers around how quickly West Antarctica is falling apart.
When you look at the predictions for sea-level rise, there's often a big asterisk, which says, "This doesn't take into account West Antarctica." There's some scientists out there who believe that the weights, this glacier that is the size of Great Britain could because of a series of physical processes fall apart in the next 100 years. That would cause that glacier alone would cause sea levels to rise 4 feet globally. It's so massive. It corks the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which if that melted, we'd have 12 feet of sea-level rise.
We were sent there to try to better understand the rate at which this glacier is stepping back. As I started to research Antarctica, I realized that the first person to see Antarctica caught sight of land there in 1820. That's 200 years ago, and that in the time, since the majority of the stories that we've told about the last continent have been written by men and are often stories of conquest, of exceptional human beings, overcoming great odds to do something that a single person has never done before, and almost all the land features in Antarctica are named after men whose narrative falls into this pattern.
I started to ask myself if there was a different story that one might tell [00:28:00] about a journey to Antarctica and what that might look like. As I set out to go to Antarctica last year, certainly my husband and I were on the cusp of trying to conceive a child. It's really a book that thinks about motherhood and what it means to bring a child into the world in the present moment alongside a journey to Antarctica, alongside a journey to the last continent, and alongside a journey to a glacier that is fundamentally falling apart in the present tense.
What does it mean to have those two concerns in your mind at the same time? I'll say that it has testimonies just like Rising, and currently, it's written in the second person, which feels like a massive risk. I don't know if that'll stay, but that's the book.
Jessica: I can't wait. I can't wait for that. Thank you so much.
We are going to conclude with a series of questions from the Barrington community. The first one comes from Chuck Nichols. "I'm a retired physics lecturer. I had a unit in my course on climate change in a physics of the environment course, wish I had your book then for my students. I wonder if high schools and grad schools are incorporating climate change in their curriculums in different studies, not just science but in literature and civic education. Are you aware of programs like this? This would be a wonderful way to raise the awareness and by addressing it in different studies, it may motivate students besides science majors to become involved in climate concerns."
Elizabeth: I would say absolutely. I've been teaching in a bunch of [00:30:00] different university systems for almost a decade now. During that time, both I've been invited to teach more classes in the English Department on new nature writing is the way I would describe it. Writing that incorporates climate change into a set of concerns, but we're also seeing, and this is something that certainly happened since I even graduated from college, the rise in environmental studies programs and programs that really are designed to be a meeting place in the hard sciences, and the humanities.
Even a place like Brown University, they have the Institute at Brown for the study of Environment and Society. They have everything from physics courses, to history courses, to geology courses, to humanities courses, some that are even co-taught by someone in humanities and by someone in the hard sciences that are meant to really bridge that gap that sometimes exists between the sciences and the humanities. I think we're certainly seeing more and more across the university systems, this move towards an interdisciplinary study of climate change.
Jessica: The second one comes from Cindy Pierce. "In an interview you gave on Rising, you were discussing climate refugees and vulnerable populations. You said one of your aims for the book was to show that vulnerability can be a strength and that our vulnerability can be something that unites us. How can communities, Barrington, for example, tap into that vulnerability and come together to make hard decisions about the future landscape of our town in a proactive unifying way versus a reactive way?" I'm going to pair Cindy's [00:32:00] question with a voice memo we received from Robert Hart.
Robert Hart: Hello, my name is Robert from Barrington, Rhode Island. My question for Elizabeth is, when is the appropriate time to implement managed retreat? It seems like in many cases today, managed retreat is implemented post-storm in the face of disaster and loss. I wonder is it preferable from your perspective, that a community could implement managed retreat before the storm when sea level rise shows where certain neighborhoods will soon be lost.
Jessica: I thought Cindy's question about being proactive might fit here.
Elizabeth: Yes, those are both fabulous questions. I think in many senses, as more and more of us wake up to the reality that climate changes with us in the present tense, they are questions that are in the forefront of people's minds. My mind immediately goes to two different places, Louisiana, and North Carolina, and the ways in which different communities are responding there that I find really proactive and promising.
One thing that we see is, for this question about whether or not we should be and how we might be able to be proactive about managed retreat, I think it is important to start to recognize that there are places that we will ultimately have to leave behind. It's not the entire coastline, but it's thinking really seriously about where our communities that are within 6 feet of high tide, or 10 feet of high tide.
We know that we've dialed in a certain amount of sea-level rise and that it's not going to get to be less than that [00:34:00] in the next 100 years. Still, the predictions change and fluctuate, but the more we know about sea-level rise, the more we think that we're likely to get at least 6 feet by the end of the century. Being able to identify places that no matter what are going to be habitable soon, I think, is really important.
One thing that I've seen, for instance, in Norfolk is that they are pairing the rights to develop in the high spots in the city with a need to generate what they're called resiliency credits. If you want to put in a new Target on top of Mount Manresa in Norfolk, you have to earn a certain amount of resiliency credits in the community.
One of the ways to do that is to offer to purchase low-lying lands and low-lying homes and to help those people living there retreat. It's pairing this proactive development that's saying, "We're Norfolk, we want to stay here, we want to maintain our community with the recognition that there are places where we are going to have to move away from risk. Asking the developers who want to benefit or profit from their developments to carry some of that burden, I think, is a really interesting way to think about being proactive about managed retreat.
The other thing that comes to mind is that we're seeing in Louisiana, which we know has lost an incredible amount of land, land subsidence, and also sea-level rise over the past 50 years, we're talking about a landmass equal in size to the state of Delaware has been lost, they're slated to lose land equal in size to the [00:36:00] state of Rhode Island in the next 80 years. They have started to, across coastal communities, across the state, carry out a series of community-based conversations around what they want to maintain, how they want to maintain it, and what they're willing to give up.
I think really interestingly in a pilot program there, the state has agreed to offer funding to six different communities to fund the things that they elect to do in these community-held conversations. It's really interesting to see that process play out because you'll have a community that will say, "Okay, we want each community that got involved in the project, got funding to fund two projects," and there are some that have identified both managed retreat as one of their top funding priorities, and building up the shoreline in another part of town.
Managed retreat may be from a few pocket-size neighborhoods and putting in wetlands to safeguard or buffer the marina. You're seeing communities come up with a list of priorities together in a grassroots way, and then the state is helping them fund both all of the options or two of the options that they're interested in pursuing. That's in a sense another way in which we can be proactive and thinking about where we want to go.
I think that one of the things that we face with sea-level rise is there's often an incredible conversation that needs to happen around what will be lost, but there's also a conversation to be had around who we want to become and where we want to go. I think in Rhode Island, [00:38:00] our overall coastline to acreage ratio is literally the second-highest in the country. It's higher than Hawaii, which I find really amazing.
One of the things I think we could be thinking about here in Rhode Island is do we want a national seashore program, do we want to create a series of length parks that are like Jacob's Point, but start to wrap our coastline in protective and buffering wetlands? Wetlands are one of the things that can protect us in the storms to come as well as providing important habitat for wetlands creatures and communities. I think that there's a way for us to be forward-looking, and that's also a conversation that needs to happen community by community. I know that lots of our coastal communities are starting to have those conversations that I find quite gooey.
Jessica: The next question comes from Victor Laroche. "Sadly, the arc of your stories are only partly written. While you give us frightening glimpses of what the future holds, I imagine it must be heartbreaking as an author to step away from the writing of the book after its completion. Could you reflect on this? In addition, I am wondering if you have continued to follow the individual stories of the places and people you write about in the book, and might we hear from you about this in the future?"
Elizabeth: Thank you for asking those questions. It was incredibly moving to me. Let me take a step back. Rising was chosen as Read Across Rhode Island book of the year, and when we launched the project, when we launched the program in January, I had the incredible [00:40:00] honor of being in the audience while the local theater group presented an interpretive play of the book. They performed the first chapter, the Jacob's Point chapter. It was incredibly moving to be in the audience and to watch other folks take on this issue as actors and turn it into theater.
It also gave me a chance to reflect as I watched them and listened, I could hear the incredible grief from which that first chapter is written. It is a grief that I dwelled in, and that as you heard, if you've listened to me read some of that chapter, really worked its way into my subconscious, caused me to have tremendous nightmares. I think for years, I steeped in the sense of reckoning with what would be lost, what is being lost.
Of course, I continue to follow and be deeply involved in the climate change conversation. As I sat in the audience and watched that grief play out on stage, I also recognize that that's not necessarily where I dwell any longer. That's partly because of programs like Read Across Rhode Island. It's partly because of the fact that when I open the newspaper now, I actually read climate change stories.
When I started writing this book, that was rarely the case. It feels like since I started writing this book in 2011, we're on the cusp of 2021, and the way that we talk about and engage with climate change over that decade has changed fundamentally. It is part of the public [00:42:00] conversation in a way that it wasn't 5, 10 years ago. That actually fills me with a bit of a sense of hope. I think that we're doing more now than we ever were doing 5, 10 years ago.
There was a second part to the question. I want to make sure I don't forget it. Oh, have I kept up with people? Absolutely. Every single person whose testimony is in the book I stay in touch with. It was really wonderful to be able to call each of them and tell them that the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. They took incredible amount of pride and excitement with that news, especially Nicole Montalto who's a young woman who shared with me the story of Hurricane Sandy and how it took her father's life.
She felt that not only is his memory living in this book but that it's also hopefully helping to do some good in terms of conversations around managed retreat and unlawful weapons development. I've definitely stayed in touch with everyone, and as you rightly point out, when I finished writing the book, none of the stories were finished. None of the stories in the book are finished now.
Nicole recently gave birth to her second child. Her first was a girl and she's named Leonora after her father Leonard. As I follow people's stories, I've seen just the cycle of life continue to carry them onward. Laura is in the process of trying to sell her house. The captain, Dan [00:44:00] Kipnis, did finally sell his house. You know that these stories are just always unfolding and you're right to point out that they're not over, and they will continue to unfold all across the country and coastal communities. If it's not the specific people in this book, it's someone else, that are happening to them right now.
Jessica: The fifth question comes from Nickerson Miles and I'll play his audio.
Nickerson Miles: Hi, I'm Nick Miles, a resident of Barrington and a member of the climate change lifelong learning collaborative class. Here's my question. Grover Fugate, a former head of the Coastal Resources Management Council in Rhode Island said, "To put it simply, by the turn of the century, there will be many more islands in the state of Rhode Island." I find that a sobering thought. The ocean state is well ahead of many others in recognizing the challenge, but changing infrastructure like roadways usually takes decades. It strikes me that we're quickly running out of time, not just to affect the rate of sea level rise, but to accommodate its implications in all aspects of our lives. What's your reaction?
Elizabeth: I think that this question points out one of the most fundamentally vexing things that we have to reckon with in terms of sea level rise. I think a lot of folks get to the point where they recognize that sea levels are rising, and then the instinct is, "Okay. Well, I'll lift my home above the rising tides." We have programs in this country funded through FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program to do just that.
However, [00:46:00] as you point out, it's not just a single home that has to be lifted. It is the infrastructure that serves that community, it's the roadways, it's the electric lines, it's the gas lines. There's a fabulous web application called Surging Seas run by Climate Central and it allows you to map any place in the United States and lots of places internationally as well, map a bathtub model of one feet, two feet, three feet of sea level rise atop your local community. I did it yesterday for Barrington and saw-- I believe it's County Road or Country Road.
Jessica: County Road.
Elizabeth: County Road is with six feet, which again, is what I would say some might call a conservative estimate for the end of the century, significant portions of it are underwater. You have to think about not just a couple of homes-- it's more than a couple of homes, but not just the neighborhoods and homes that are underwater, but how are you going to also continue to surface the surrounding areas that might not be inundated with six feet of sea level rise, but depend on those roadways, depend upon all of the infrastructure to maintain a thriving community.
That's also where I think you start to get into the deeper philosophical questions around who we are and what we want to become because when you start to recognize that it's not as easy as paying a couple hundred thousand dollars to lift a home. When you start to recognize that the very lifelines, the veins that tie our communities together in terms of infrastructure also being inundated, you recognize that climate change doesn't have [00:48:00] an easy one-stop design solution to it, that we have to, as a society, reckon with the fact that we have fundamentally changed the way our planet functions.
We need to change who we are and how we think about getting around and maintaining life on this planet as a result. The answer isn't necessarily to raise County Road, it's to have a serious conversation around, "So, what are we going to prioritize as a community? Do we want to prioritize impermeable driving surfaces, or do we want to prioritize walking paths and biking paths? How do we want to get around? What do we want to maintain?"
If we're going to assume that this is going to be underwater, the answer isn't just to build it higher and wait for the next storm. It's to have a deep conversation around what makes Barrington Barrington, what makes Warren Warren. How do we hold on to those things as the land itself changes shape?
Jessica: The sixth and final question comes from Lisa Valentino.
Lisa Valentino: Hello, my name is Lisa Valentino, and my comment and question for Elizabeth involves taking action. Elizabeth, I think that we are all genuinely concerned with climate change issues, especially in our communities, but oftentimes you don't know how to take action. After reading your book, Rising, what is one thing that the reader can do to act on climate change in a positive way? Thank you.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Lisa, for that question. I think the answer is going to change and be different person by person, community by community. I think for the longest time we've heard, "Change your light bulbs, [00:50:00] use less electricity, buy an electric car." The reality is that none of those individual actions is fundamentally enough to change the course of history that we're on right now. One thing that I learned from coastal communities around the country is that when communities started to recognize that their vulnerability was shared amongst and between themselves, amongst and between their neighbors. It wasn't just something like, "Oh, my house floods." No, I flood and all of the people on my street flood. We can't continue to pump out our basements or raise up our homes, there has to be a larger-scale solution.
We're going to come together as a community to demand that larger scale solution. I would say becoming involved in your community over an issue that can unite those who are vulnerable to it and help you collectively raise awareness so that political action can happen, that's where I would go in terms of what's one thing you can do. What that looks like is going to be different person by person, community by community. I do want to give a shout-out to a couple of different organizations that you might think about, looking into to see what they're doing in your neck of the woods, because they might have an arm of their organization already active.
The first one that I would mention is a group called Higher Ground. They're the largest coalition of flood survivors in the country. They have over 100,000 members already. They are designed to-- They're a central organization that provides [00:52:00] pro bono environmental assessment, hydrological assessments, and also pro bono legal counsel to frontline communities that are experiencing flooding. The idea being, once a community is empowered with knowledge around what their flooding looks like and how it's going to get worse with climate change, they can start to create a cohesive argument for local politicians about what they'd like to do in response to those threats.
That can be anything from managed retreats to-- we've seen environmental lawsuits against unlawful wetlands development. This organization helps put you in contact with different resources that can, I think, make a real significant difference in terms of how your local battle with flooding plays out on the ground. I call out Higher Ground as an excellent resource. I would also say that here in Rhode Island, I've become involved with Nationalize grid, which is part of the Democratic Socialists of America, and their movement to fundamentally shift who has control over the development of energy infrastructure in the state.
There's a lot of questions that are currently playing out in Rhode Island. We know that the governor says we want to be entirely renewable in the electric field in a short span of time, but what is that going to look like? We already know that for instance, Rhode Islanders pay, I believe, the second highest utility rates in the nation after Hawaii. In order to transition our energy infrastructure to entirely renewables, who's going to bear the brunt of that cost? How are we going to make it affordable for [00:54:00] low-income Black and Brown communities in the state?
There's a lot. Rhode Island is very progressive in many ways in terms of climate change adaptation, but there are these really tricky conversations that we have to have around how we're going to fund these transitions and how we're going to do it in a timeline that really matters. I would say get involved with local organizations that are engaging with climate change in a way that speaks to you. It can be flooding, it can be energy infrastructure, but set aside a little bit of time to join with others and find that strength in numbers. I also love the Sunrise Movement, and I love seeing young folks all around the country get activated around climate change.
They know it's a social justice issue. They know it's an environmental justice issue. That's something that I think it's taken the older generation quite a while longer to wake up to. When I go to Sunrise events, I'm just impressed by how profoundly they understand that this is not just a conversation around wetlands conservation or recycling plastics. They understand that it's really a conversation around who's contributed the most to change the environment, and who bears the brunt of the impact, and how we might see this as an opportunity to arrive at a more just, more equal distribution of wealth and resources all around the planet.
How can we think of climate change is offering us an opportunity to talk about what it means to thrive as beings as opposed to what it means to thrive financially or economically. Sunrise, I think, gets that. [00:56:00] If you're younger and listening and you haven't gotten involved with Sunrise yet, get out there and get involved with them. They're wonderful.
Jessica: On behalf of Barrington Public Library, I thank you for sharing your time with us, answering our many questions and providing such an impactful book. Thank you for being a part of Rhody Radio.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much for having me. Let me just say that it's an incredible honor to have Rising as the Reading Across Rhode Island book for 2020. I really enjoyed all the conversations that I've been able to have with residents across the state since we started this project, and I look forward to them continuing into the future. Thanks so much for reading.
Jessica: Thank you for listening. Today's podcast episode is a production of Barrington Public Library. Our theme music is Pure Water by Meydän. Rhody Radio is a project of the Office of Library and Information Services, and made possible through a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. This episode is brought to you by our wonderful and supportive friends of Barrington Public Library. Join the friends and support the programs you love. Learn more at friendsofthebarringtonlibrary.org.
Speaker 1: Rhody Radio is a project of the Office of Library and Information Services and is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.
Elizabeth: I thought I'd read a significant chunk of [00:58:00] the first chapter of the book called The Password. It takes place in Jacob's Point, Rhode Island, which many of you as Rhode Island listeners may be quite familiar with. It is the chapter that starts the book and really sets the tone for the entirety of what's about to come. This is The Password.
I've lived in Rhode Island for one week when I set out to explore the nearest tidal marsh, the landscape I know will be the first to show signs of sea level rise. I bike across the Washington Bridge, past the East Providence wastewater treatment plant, the Dari Bee, and the repurposed railway station, through Barrington to Jacob's Point. As expected, out along the Narragansett Bay, a line of dead trees holds the horizon. Some have tapering trunks and branches that fork and split. Bark peels from their bodies in thick husks.
The local Audubon ecologist tells me that they are black tupelos. I rolled the word in my mouth, tupelo, and cannot put it down. Tupelo becomes part of the constellation of ideas and physical objects that I use to drop my navigational charts. I aim toward tupelo. Words can shuttle us around in time and space from New England to old England, from Rhode Island back over 2,000 years when the Wampanoag and Narragansett first harvested shellfish in these tide-washed shoals, to a time when language tangibly connected the physical world and the world on the page and in our conversations.
Take tupelo, for instance. It is Native American in origin and comes from the Creek [01:00:00] 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. Word of tupelos once told marsh waders what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.
A month or two before I witnessed my first dead tupelo, and right before I packed up my apartment in Brooklyn and moved north, I found a scrap of language and an essay on Alzheimer's and stuck it to my computer monitor, thinking it might serve some future purpose. It read, "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 did 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.
Chance has sent me to Providence, but the move feels deeply fortuitous. Here, I think, I will become immersed in the subject matter that's begun to obsess me, the rate at which the ocean is rising. No state, save Maryland, and only by a hair, ranks higher in the ratio of coastline to overall acreage. It's no surprise, then, that 15% of Rhode Island is classified as wetlands and of that 15%, roughly an eighth is tidal, both one of the most nimble ecosystems in the world and one of the most imperiled. Over the past 200 years, Rhode Island lost over 50% of its tidal [01:02:00] marshes, to the filling and diking that come with development. Today, the remaining fields of black needlerush and cordgrass are beginning to disappear thanks to higher tides and stronger storms.
In the mornings, I ride down the path lining the Narragansett Bay to Jacob's Point just to look at that stand of dead trees. I secure my bike to a wooden fence, then walk across the width of the marsh to shoot black-and-white photographs of their ghostly silhouettes. The trees' bare limbs twine and reach, a testimony to the energy once spent searching for light. I picture the shade they used to cast and the bank swallows awash in that balm, diving like synchronized swimmers, one after another, from the lowest branches. Or at least that is how I imagine it once was before the ice sheets started sloughing into the sea, before the shoreline started to change its shape, before the tupelos along the East Bay started to die.
My first summer in Rhode Island, I returned to the marsh often. One morning someone else is there. When he and I crossed paths, I ask, as nonchalantly as possible, if he knows why these tupelos are all dead. I'm trying to find out whether he can see what I've learned to see, that the precious balance between saltwater and fresh that once defined this tidal wetland has been upset. "No," the man says, binoculars jangling around his neck. "I'm sorry."
I'll be the first to admit that when I started to come to Jacob's Point I couldn't tell the difference between black tupelo and black locust, between needlerush and cordgrass. I would learn their names only after [01:04:00] I realized the ways in which their letters on my lips might point towards or away from incredible loss. Then I became fascinated because like Descartes, I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part. I believe it can foster interspecies intimacy, and as a result, care.
If, as Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests in her essay on the power of identifying all living beings with personal pronouns, "naming is the beginning of justice," then saying tupelo takes me one step closer to recognizing these trees as kin and endowing their flesh with the same inalienable rights we humans hold.
That's because sometime during the last half century, these tupelos' taproots started to suck up more salt water than they had in the past. They were stunned and stunted. Then they stopped growing. The sea kept working its way into the aquifer, storms got stronger and dumped more standing water onto marshes, and tupelos all along the East Coast died. Now they no longer bathe the edges of Jacob's Point in shade. The green coins of their leaves are gone, and a recent bird census carried out in Rhode Island's East Bay suggests that the bank swallows are going too.
I tell the stranger all of this. The sentences unspooling fast like the outgoing tide while he shifts from foot to foot, anxious to break away. He has, he tells me, never heard of the tupelo tree. Instead of the luscious rasp of growth on growth and the electric trill of a songbird [01:06:00] in flight, out here, at the farthest end of Jacob's Point, we're surrounded by the ticking sound of unprecedented heat. Above us the tupelos' empty, oracular branches groan.
The oldest living black tupelo in the United States sprouted 650 years ago. That means its first buds burst while the plague was busy killing off approximately one-third of Europe. Now it's the tupelo's turn to succumb in great numbers, and the red knot's, and the whooping crane's, and the salt marsh sparrow's. Of the 1,400 endangered or threatened species in the United States, over half are wetlands dependent.
Five times in the history of earth nearly all life has winked out, the planet undergoing a series of changes so massive that the overwhelming majority of living species died. These great extinctions are so exceptional they even have a catchy name, the Big Five. Today, 7 out of 10 scientists believe that we're in the middle of the sixth. But there's one thing that distinguishes those past die-offs from the one we're currently constructing. Never before have humans been there to tell the tale. The language we use to narrate our experience in the world can awaken in us the knowledge that transformation is both necessary and ongoing. When we say the word tupelo, we begin to see both the trees themselves and the very particular ecology they once depended upon, are at least where they are rooted, gone.
Sometimes the key arrives before the lock. Now I'm thinking, sometimes the password arrives before the impasse. These words, when spoken or written down, might grant us [01:08:00] entry into a previously unimaginable awareness. That the coast and all the living beings on it are changing radically.
One day I decided to visit the Audubon Environmental Education Center at Jacob's Point. It's noon and I'm red-faced, my shins sliced by bull and catbrier, from spending my mornings batting around those dead tupelo. The blue-haired volunteer behind the desk looks at me as though I'm mad for having been in the marshes instead of in the air conditioning, looking at dioramas of the marshes. "Can you tell me about Jacob's Point and those trees at the far ends that are dying?" I ask. She suggests I walk through the interpretive exhibit. She even waives the $5 fee.
I sneak through five rooms where the rhythmic lick of water melting into mudflats sounds from a pair of Sony speakers. The mallards don't move because they've been stuffed with wool. The box turtles swim tight circles in a tiny tank at the back of a room without windows. I emerge from a papier-mâché cave (a cave in a marsh?) and repeat my question. This time she refers me to Cameron McCormick, the groundskeeper and the person most likely to know what is actually happening at Jacob's Point.
Cameron doesn't have voicemail, so I leave a message with the center's secretary. Two days later, he calls me and we meet at the path down to the marsh the following morning. His eyes are wild and attentive, filled with flecks of cornflower and amber. He wears carpenters' work boots that have come undone and a poorly tie-eyed Audubon T-shirt clearly abandoned by a summer camper. Cameron has a degree in ecology and has been managing Jacob's Point for the last five years. It's a process that's become increasingly difficult as the [01:10:00] systems inputs, temperature, salt water levels, tidal highs and lows, all shift. He makes a plan. The saltwater inundates a new portion of the marsh and the entire ecosystem changes.
Together, we make a beeline for the shore, where Cameron delivers a plastic box full of fishing nets to a group of excited eight-year-olds who are about to catch fiddler crabs. Next we walk toward the stand of tupelos. At first we stick to the high ground. Then, abandoning the idea of keeping our feet dry, we leave the path behind and sink into the soaked land.
Jacob's Point, like all tidal marshes, contains three distinct zones, low marsh, high marsh, and an upland area at its farthest inland edge. Every day the low marsh is covered in salt water twice, and also uncovered twice; the high marsh slips beneath the salt only in storms. Which is to say, along the point's seaward edge, the plants and animals have adapted to live with the tides, while upland the opposite is true.
Think of a tidal marsh as like all wetlands, a transitional region where distinctions blur and the entirely wet world morphs into the almost entirely dry one. It is a liminal ribbon, an in-between, a spit of land at the edge of things, where the governing laws change four times a day. Tidal marshes are frontiers. As Gary Snyder says, "A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzled, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds." To pass from one to the other is to cross an almost imperceptible but important boundary, the place where freshwater meets the brine of the sea.
As we walk [01:12:00] toward the tupelos we're slowly grading downward, crossing the threshold between sweet water and salt. Cameron tells me what he sees and also what he does not. "These weren't here five years ago," he says, clomping through a bunch of coarse-toothed marsh elders that have taken over a section of the point that's become suddenly rich in saline. "I expect more on their way, but it's hard to keep up with." The knee-high shrubs have pushed out a stand of phragmites, their arrival making Cameron's job easier in this small acre, but the equilibrium they've brought is not destined to last.
"In the past, when sea levels dropped, the marsh dropped down too and when they rose the marsh rose with them," Cameron says as we work our way past the tupelos toward the rugosa-studded bank. If you were to take an aerial time-lapse photo of the process he's describing, it would look as if Jacob's Point in the ocean were moving in and out together the way desire follows the desired.
This swirling, migratory dance is primarily the result of two different physical and ecological processes. The first is called accretion. "As salt water flows in and out of the marsh, vegetation traps some of the sediments suspended in it. As those settlements settle, the marsh gradually gains elevation," Cameron tells me. Accretion results in the building up of low-lying land, its nature's nimble backhoe. If accretion makes marsh migration possible, then rhizomes power their retreat. Dense, arterial, and interconnected, these specialized root systems run belowground, giving wetlands their shape.
In the past, as sea levels rose and the marsh gained sediment, rhizomes would pull away from the increased salinity while simultaneously sending out new shoots, often uphill, in search of the kind [01:14:00] of water that suited them best. As these plant communities moved up and in, the fauna that depended upon them moved too. While the physical location of the salt marsh might change, its defining features would not.
But now that sea levels are rising faster than they have in the last 28 centuries, the ocean and the tidal marsh are falling out of sequence. In the Ocean State and along the rest of the Atlantic coast of North America, the rate of the rise is significantly higher than the global average. Here, accretion is already being outpaced, which means that the land that once was built up slowly is starting to slip beneath the sea surface. On top of that, if the marsh's upland slope abuts some piece of human infrastructure, a road, or, as is the case of Jacob's Point, an old railway line, as the rhizomes pull away, there's nowhere else less salty for them to thrust their spindly roots. The marsh is squeezed between the sea and the hard stop we built along its upland edge and, like the tupelo, it too begins to drown in place.
"Maybe if the old Bristol line weren't there, Jacob's Point would stand a chance, but then again maybe not. It's so hard to tell with accretion rates being what they are," Cameron says. Then he adds, "It's a terrifying and wonderful time to do the work that I do."
That fall, I begin to suffer from an acute form of anxiety. Nameless storms so large they leave my house lightless and full of water spin into my dreams. My faith in natural processes and the intricate systems of reciprocity that I was raised to believe keep nature from tilting out of balance is lost. [01:16:00] Gnawing uncertainty takes its place. I wonder if there's a threshold between immersing myself and my subject matter and drowning in it, and whether I've crossed that line. At night, unprecedented storm surges rearrange the furniture and my family lineage. The commonly held notion that what has happened will happen again, that there are no new stories, this idea becomes fat with water, fully saturated. Then it too flips beneath the sea's dark surface.
Whenever I can, I pull away from my computer screen and ride back out to Jacob's Point. There I wander in a landscape we do not yet have a name for, a marsh inundated by too much of the very thing that shaped it. I've read about the disappearance of tree frogs in Panama, the droughts scraping across Kenya, the heat waves killing thousands in Paris and Andgha Pradesh and Chicago and Dhaka and São Paulo. I've written about communities affected by sea level rise, but my life has seemed so removed, so buffered from those events.
At Jacob's point, I am finally glimpsing the hem of the specter's dressing gown. The tupelos, the dead tupelos that lined the edge of this disappearing marshland, are my Delphi, my portal, my proof, the stone I pick up and drop into my pocket to remember. I see them and know that the erosion of species, of land, and, if we are not careful, of the very words we use to name the plants and animals that are disappearing is not a political lever or a fever dream. I see them and remember that those who live on the margins of our society are the most vulnerable [01:18:00] and that the story of species vanishing is repeating itself in nearly every borderland.
In 100 years, none of these trees will be here. No object thick with pitch to make the mind recollect. If we do not call them by their names, we will lose not only the trees themselves but all trace of their having ever been. Looking at the bare tupelos at the farthest edge of Jacob's Point, I'm reminded of something John Bear Mitchell said when my students asked him how the Penobscot people of Maine have responded to centuries of environmental change.
"Our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don't live here anymore. The change is in how we acknowledge them." His response surprised my students. He seemed to be saying, learn the names now, and you will at least be able to preserve what is being threatened in our collective memory, if not in the physical world. His faith in language clearly eclipsed their own.
Then there is the pleasure of it. I like my excursions best when I am alone. Waking early to ride to a slender little marsh that most overlook. The wild blackberries, ripe from summer heat, seemingly fruiting just for me. The black needlerush dried in logarithmic spirals, and patches of salt marsh cordgrass that look like jackstraws and blowdowns in an aging forest. Both bearing the delicate trace of the last outgoing tide.
Beyond the stand of tupelos, the marsh still hums with the low-grade sound of honeybees hunting in loosestrife. The ospreys cast their shadows over cicadas and lamb's quarters and bayberry. This tiny journey into the marsh [01:20:00] feels like a grand field trip. Mud snails wrestle in the ebb tide, a great egret hunches at the far horizon scanning for mummichogs, and the sea balm rushes through the tree of heaven. I walk out only a fifth of a mile farther than most people go, and yet there's so much happening, so many unexpected gifts and self-made surprises.
Dropping down, I arrive at the water's edge. I pull on my bathing suit and dive into the bay, but not before stubbing my toe on a barnacle-covered rock submerged just beneath the surface. I care intensely about being here, about coming back alone and often, and I don't really understand why. Sometimes the key arrives before the lock. Sometimes the password arrives before the impasse. Speak it and enter a world transformed by salt and blue. Say, "Tupelo."
[01:21:13] [END OF AUDIO]