Why Write Beautifully About Climate Crisis?

Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2019)

There was a time when the aesthetic goal of environmental writers and artists was clear: make readers love some part of the natural world. Whether we are talking about the words of John Muir or the images of Ansel Adams, their work helped create a group of people who saw themselves as defenders of the natural world. Even writers sounding an alarm about environmental danger did so by invoking an ideal to which we could return.

In recent years, climate change has created a crisis of language for environmental writers. Novelist Amitav Ghosh tackles this question directly in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), in which he notes the distance between the decades-spanning story of climate change and the tendency of novels to focus on character and personal transformation.

Book cover of Rising, by Elizabeth Rush.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush is a book that grapples with the new aesthetic demands on environmental writing. Rush does not try to make the reader fall in love with wetlands, which are at the center of this book. She admits early on that before beginning this study she knew little about wetlands, and she never tries to construct wetlands as beautiful, endangered spaces. Instead, her stark black and white photos interspersed throughout the book depict landscapes under pressure—often featuring ghostly rampikes, standing bare trees whose name I had not previously known.

The choice to write about wetlands is governed by Rush’s desire to find stories that will make clear the human stakes of climate change. Though, as Ghosh argues, human stories are dwarfed by the time span of climate change, Rush has the insight to see that liminal wetlands are spaces where the long story of climate change currently intersects with individual lives. In the course of the book she lets six individuals tell their story in their own words, devoting a short chapter to each. These represent the first trickle of stories that will in coming decades become a forceful stream.

Unlike an environmental writer like Rachel Carson, Rush does not offer up a vision of an ideal world that can be regained with incremental changes in human consumption. Sea level rise will not be letting up. I was moved by her flat statement: “I am done dreaming the earth undrowned; it is no longer a useful skill.” The rising will come. Fact. We can already see it in the tidal wetlands she explores in beautifully written chapters. These places include the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana (where we are seeing the first people in the continental US we could call climate refugees) and places in Florida, Maine, New York, and California. At each stop, she finds a community hard-pressed with this new reality.

Aerial image of blue tributaries through green marshland

Wetlands like the Nanticoke Wildlife Management Area in Wicomico County, MD, form the heart of Rising. Photo by Matt Rath, 2010.

Her acceptance of rising seas as a fact stirs up another question about language: what exactly are the long-range goals of an environmental writer in our time? One answer might be informational. By presenting the scientific consensus clearly and with an engaging human context, writers hope to move the needle of public opinion toward accepting climate change as a looming problem. This well describes the project of a writer like Elizabeth Kolbert in Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006) and The Sixth Extinction (2015). The fact-presenting tone of the work matches its straightforward social goals.

Rising is more difficult and artistically ambitious than texts that focus on communicating information. Rush does not appear to be addressing an audience in doubt about sea level rise. Her readers almost certainly know the grim prognostications well. There is an early reference to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, but not an explication of it. And this is where Rising is an especially interesting text: it is not a book about convincing people, but rather about preparing ourselves, emotionally and spiritually, for what is happening.

Why write beautifully about climate change?

Rush emphasizes the mental anxiety that climate change brings. She writes of “gnawing uncertainty” and “endsickness… a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways.” Those of us looking at the oncoming change will know those feelings well, and this book addresses that anxiety. The lyrical quality of the writing is part of this ministry to anxiety. It is a book about mastering the art of losing, not as an individual, but as a human community. We are not being stirred to fall in love and thus work hard to preserve the disappearing Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana; we are being taught how to say goodbye to that space and the ones that will follow. It is a book that matches many of the emotions stirred recently by the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but it has the strength to insist that this will be a century of leave-takings when it comes to cultural heritage.

We should not move past this question of language too quickly. Why write beautifully about climate change? It is mostly this quality of the writing that has led people to label Rising as elegiac, thereby focusing on the quality of the writing. Other texts on climate change tend to be journalistic or ALL CAPS DIRECT in style (how one might characterize William Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies series). In several places, Rush lays out clearly the value of language and stories in this context of climate change: “The language we use to narrate our experience in the world can awaken in us the knowledge that transformation is both necessary and ongoing.”

Brown and green wetlands and a large gray building

Although rising waters hit marginalized communities first, they will eventually overrun millionaire enclaves, like the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Martyn Smith, 2016.

Through this language, through these stories of loss and transformation, Rush guides readers to an emotional space where we can both prepare ourselves for loss and work to preserve a memory of the past. Rush presents language as something that shifts and changes in ways that we need to learn to mimic: “I have tried . . . to make something durable out of language that flickers like the wing of a rufous in flight.”

Many people who live in the United States will need to get used to pulling up stakes and moving, leaving behind many gleaming modern structures that seemed solid, and perhaps a few very old ones that turn out to be vulnerable. The poor and marginalized will take the brunt of the rising at the start (and they are the focus of so many of these chapters), but eventually the rising sea level will sweep into the millionaire enclaves around Miami, San Francisco Bay, and so many other places. Readers are pushed in Rising to “imagine the unthinkable: unsettling the American shore.” It is “unthinkable” in much the same way that the burning of Notre Dame was inconceivable to so many Americans who trusted in the immutability of western art and architecture—just multiplied many times in magnitude. I struggle to imagine how so much history and so many identities will change as people lose their homes and their communities to the rising.

Rush offers the hope that it will be in the practice of an ordered retreat that we can learn and practice justice. It was the inequity of our society that fed our hunger to burn fossil fuels and construct a world of exclusion. And where some of us built a world of radical inequality down to the edge of our continents, perhaps in our retreat we can learn equality. Building a sustainable society will require curbing excess consumption and building new social values. Rush does not provide a precise roadmap for this approaching future, but she imagines a community of stories in which the memory of loss is kept alive and even gives the strength to build another home. She sees this process beginning in the communities that are already being lost or threatened on our coastlines.

Aerial image of clustered buildings in between wetlands and a highway

An aerial view of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, CA highlights the discrepancy between the company’s sense of virtual community and the physical landscapes that surround it. Photo by Jitze Couperus, 2011.

All this gives real bite to the final chapter in which she takes us onto the tidal flats that come right up to the world headquarters of Facebook. It is a corporation that has prided itself on bringing a decent percentage of humanity together in its online space, but as Rush reveals the extent of its dissociation from the actual landscape that surrounds it, we see the hollowness of such notions of virtual community. Rising urges us to look for ways to strengthen the true physical communities that make up our lives, even as we prepare for the social trauma to come.

Featured image: The wetlands surrounding Facebook headquarters. Photo by Martyn Smith, 2016. 

Martyn Smith is an associate professor of religious studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He teaches classes on Islam and comparative topics such as Religion and the Biosphere. He believes in the importance of students encountering religious sites and so leads annual trips to visit mosques in Dearborn, Michigan. He has led students on field experience trips to Morocco and Senegal. Beginning with his book Religion, Culture, and Sacred Space (2008) he has concentrated on questions concerning the human interaction with place. He has written academic essays on medieval Cairo and has expanded his work into a comparative online examination of sacred space around the globe. Twitter. Contact.