Elizabeth Rush’s intimate treatment of climate change begins with a very apt epigraph from Simone Weil: “Attention is prayer.” If attention is prayer, then in many ways, Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is a complete religious service. She marshals scientific, intellectual, literary, and journalistic resources to document how climate change has impacted our world on multiple levels. Her book is a very honest appraisal of both the changes we have wrought and the challenges that we and our children must face.
Climate change, Rush explains, is not discrete but connected to the whole of our human, natural, and social life. In the first chapter she examines a stand of dead trees as she hikes the shore of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. They are black tupelo trees, and they are dying because of the intrusion of salt water into their freshwater marsh. The tupelo and its plight become part of Rush’s “constellation of ideas and physical objects that I use to draw my navigation charts.” The dying of the tupelos, as much as the melting of the ice caps, are part of a web of meaning for Rush, a part of her chart for understanding our changing world. Even the name “tupelo” carries meaning, as it means swamp tree in the Creek Native American language. In the very spot of its home, the freshwater swamp, it is being killed.
Rush explains that she knew very little about climate change before investigating the death of the trees. She initially approached the tupelo from a point of complete ignorance: “I’ll be the first to admit that before I started coming to Jacob’s Point [a freshwater marsh] I couldn’t tell the difference between black tupelo and black locust, between needlerush and cordgrass. I would learn their names only after I realized the ways in which their letters on my lips might point toward (or away from) incredible loss.”
Rush is a quick study, and learns the language of the natural world rapidly. She wants words and what they stand for to have deep meaning. She boldly states that “unlike Descartes, I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world in which they are a part; I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy and, as a result, care.”
Rush follows this narrative program, examining climate change with nimble and expressive prose. All avenues of approach are open to her investigation. She often employs science to explain our climate, for our shores will soon be submerged, then we “will want to know why, but we need the data first.” But she also veers far from science and its quest for objectivity; for Rush, an equally valid way to explore and explain our disintegrating world is through an unflinching personal reaction. So Rush inserts herself bravely and honestly into her narrative. She visits Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, where rising waters are quickly making the island uninhabitable. She immerses herself in the residents’ lives during a difficult time in her own life; she is not afraid or hesitant to make human connections with the subjects of her writing.
In keeping with her eclectic approach, when visiting Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, Rush views Hurricane Sandy through a sociological lens, explaining that of New York City’s “nearly eight million residents, over four hundred thousand were inundated, many of whom lived atop land that had been formerly zoned as tidal marsh.” Oakwood Beach is such a place, and there Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge reached a record fourteen feet. On land never meant for habitation, the City of New York built a community. Oakwood was a working-class neighborhood, where “teachers, firefighters, cops, and sanitation workers could have their own version of the good life.” But Hurricane Sandy brutally illustrated that this good life bore a terrible, hidden cost. Eventually, the neighborhood accepted a buyout; the federal government bought homes and business at market value, and then those buildings were razed, roads were eliminated, and much of Oakwood Beach is, once again, a marsh. Other neighborhoods may suffer the fate of Oakwood Beach. As New York’s population has expanded during its history, “90% of the city’s salt marshes were backfilled and hardscaped.” Such neighborhoods as Coney Island, Chinatown, East Harlem, Red Hook, and Canarsie were once wetlands. They are in grave danger of flooding and becoming wetlands once again.
The great benefit of Rush’s work is in bringing climate change to our back door. She does not travel to Greenland to witness the collapse of massive glaciers, or northern Alaska to examine melting permafrost. Instead, she spends time on the ground in Staten Island, Florida, and Louisiana. Her narrative argument is clear but powerful: climate change is omnipresent, unavoidable, and right here.
Rush is extremely capable of guiding her readers through the complex set of issues surrounding climate change. She is so dedicated a researcher that she is unafraid to insert herself into the narrative. Rush displays her vulnerability, wrapping her own life and its struggles with the evolving condition of a world in great danger. Rush’s journey of discovery has taken an emotional toll on her, and her book bears the scars of her quest, which makes her writing more intimate, more direct, and ultimately more impactful.
About the Reviewer
Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Trumansburg, New York, with his wife and two children. His book of nonfiction prose, fiction, and poetry, The Torah Sutras, was published by Albion-Andalus Books in 2019.