FINALIST FOR THE PULITZER PRIZE IN GENERAL NONFICTION
WINNER OF THE NATIONAL OUTDOOR BOOK AWARD
A CHICAGO TRIBUNE TOP TEN BOOK OF 2018
A GUARDIAN, NPR’s SCIENCE FRIDAY, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, AND LIBRARY JOURNAL BEST BOOK OF 2018
Hailed as “deeply felt” (New York Times), “a revelation” (Pacific Standard), and “the book on climate change and sea levels that was missing” (Chicago Tribune), Rising is both a highly original work of lyric reportage and a haunting meditation on how to let go of the places we love.
With every passing day, and every record-breaking hurricane, it grows clearer that climate change is neither imagined nor distantand that rising seas are transforming the coastline of the United States in irrevocable ways. In Rising, Elizabeth Rush guides readers through some of the places where this change has been most dramatic, from the Gulf Coast to Miami, and from New York City to the Bay Area. For many of the plants, animals, and humans in these places, the options are stark: retreat or perish in place.
Weaving firsthand testimonials from those facing this choicea Staten Islander who lost her father during Sandy, the remaining holdouts of a Native American community on a drowning Isle de Jean Charles, a neighborhood in Pensacola settled by escaped slaves hundreds of years agowith profiles of wildlife biologists, activists, and other members of these vulnerable communities, Rising privileges the voices of those too often kept at the margins.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Rush ’s journalism has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper's, Guernica, Granta, Orion, and the New Republic, among others. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants including the Howard Foundation Fellowship, awarded by Brown University; the Andrew Mellon Foundation Fellowship for Pedagogical Innovation in the Humanities; the Metcalf Institute Fellowship; and the Science in Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University and her BA from Reed College. She lives in Rhode Island, where she teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University.
Read an Excerpt
from Divining Rod
Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
This is a book with many beginnings. One takes place in Bangladesh. Another deep in the Louisiana bayou. Sparks also flare from the eastern shore of Staten Island, after the storm that took Leonard Montalto’s life.
Before I moved to the Ocean State, I lived in New York City. Before Miami and Phippsburg there was Oakwood Beach. I was working at the College of Staten Island in 2012, during the fall that Sandy spun into the harbor. Both the size of the storm and its unusual route were unprecedented in scientific memory. Never before had the water reached so high. Of the city’s nearly eight million residents, over four hundred thousand were inundated, many of whom lived atop land that had formerly been zoned as tidal marsh. While flooding in these neighborhoods was common, Sandy exceeded all previous experience. In Oakwood Beach the storm surge topped out at a record-breaking fourteen feet. The college campus remained closed for weeks. When classes finally resumed, some of my students were missing, displaced or worse by a previously unimaginable amount of salt water.
One, a brilliant Russian woman named Lena, had been living in a basement apartment in Midland Beach. During the storm the ocean poured into her rented room. The little she had was ruined. Her bed, her books, even her computer; all became bloated with water. I offered her my couch but she said she would stay with a friend. As the semester progressed, Lena stopped coming to class regularly. I don’t know if it was the commute from her temporary housing in Jersey or her lack of funds that finally did her in. Either way, she disappeared. A few months later she wrote me a short e-mail from her landlocked home in central Russia,
saying thank you and goodbye.
I suppose you could say it was then that I knew that the coverage of the storm and of all that it gestured toward was incomplete. Where was Lena’s story? And though I had yet to meet her,
where was Nicole’s? Where were the stories of those who had been flooded before Sandy? And of those who, in the wake of a storm so powerful it sucked the light right out of the tip of Manhattan, had left?
For much of the last half century, the eastern side of Staten Island was the kind of place where teachers, firefighters, cops, and sanitation workers could have their own version of the good life, digging for mollusks in the mudflats, fishing for stripers off the pier. In places like Oakwood Beach, there were clambakes in the summer, and the neighborhood kids played soccer together at night under the streetlights. Sure there was a flooding problem and a wastewater treatment plant, but it was considered home and a good one at that. Leonard Montalto grew up there and he liked it so much he stayed put, raising three daughters in the little white cottage on Fox Beach Avenue. His sister, Patti Snyder, raised her family just down the block. And when Patti’s daughter moved out, it was to a bungalow right across the street from
Leonard and his children.
Despite their love for the place that had long defined them, after Sandy, residents of nine local communities began begging the state government to bulldoze their homes and allow the land to return to tidal marsh. This, more than anything else about Sandy and its aftermath, surprised me. Not the fact that Goldman Sachs was one of the few buildings below Chambers Street to keep its power intact through the storm. Not the fires that raged out at Breezy Point or the elderly stranded in the Red Hook Houses for weeks. It was the clamor rising from the sodden side of the city’s only Republican borough, the signs that read, “Mother Nature wants her land back” and “Buyout Wanted, Buyout Needed.” What did these residents of right-leaning, climate change–denying, low-lying, working-class neighborhoods know that the rest of us did not? How was it that they were interested in retreat, one of the most progressive and controversial adaptation strategies for sea level rise?
When I finally make it out to Oakwood Beach that summer, over a hundred million dollars have been allocated to purchase and demolish the tight-knit seaside community. The work of unsettling the shore has begun.
The trip from Manhattan takes a little over an hour. From the ferry deck I watch the century-old skyscrapers recede. Once on Staten Island, I ride my bicycle down Bay Street through Little Sri
Lanka, among the two-hundred-year-old stone cannon mounts at Fort Wadsworth, and out along the boardwalk on South Beach. The bustle of the city starts to fall away. The bike path is suddenly studded with dunes and cedars and black needlerush. An abandoned airplane hangar, a washed-out teal jungle gym, and a stone-gray wastewater treatment plant. I feel as if I am in some neglected corner of the Hamptons, yet I have not officially left the city.
Twenty-two thousand years ago the massive Laurentide Ice Sheet began to withdraw. It had covered New England and all of New York City in nearly mile-thick glaciers. When the ice pulled back, much of the land that lay just beyond its farthest edge subsided, creating hundreds of miles of swamps, bogs, and tidal marshes, including those that line Staten Island’s eastern shore. At the turn of the last century, there were over three hundred square miles of wetlands within a twenty-five-mile radius of New York’s city hall. Where the land met the sea, muskrats made mischief, white water lilies bloomed, and egrets nested. Neither wholly water nor wholly terra firma, wetlands, at least in post-contact North America, were rarely explored or developed. That is, until the Swamp Land Act of 1850, which gave states ownership over any marsh they could drain. Ever since, these unique ecosystems have been under threat. Land that once was deplored, in part because of the difficulties speculators faced in placing hard boundaries around blurry edges, suddenly provided a chance to make money from something that had been, for the longest time, considered worthless.
As the population of the New York metropolitan area expanded, roughly 90 percent of the city’s wetlands were backfilled and hardscaped. Chinatown was once a wetland. Coney Island was once a wetland. East Harlem was once a wetland. So were Red Hook and the Rockaways. Broad Channel, Bergen Beach, and Canarsie. John F. Kennedy International Airport is sited atop former tidal marsh. So are Fresh Kills Landfill and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a healthy chunk of coastal Queens, and almost all of Staten Island’s eastern shore.
It’s not just Gotham where wetlands once reigned. Much of the Northeast Corridor, the most densely populated portion of the country, was covered in cordgrass not that long ago. Since the eighteenth century, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland have all lost over 50 percent of their coastal wetlands to development. Big chunks of Boston, Providence, New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, were all once so wet that no one dreamed of living there. These seemingly mundane landscapes were not fawned over or earmarked for preservation. Instead, in urban areas, they often became informal garbage dumpsdamp, unprofitable land fit for hiding trash.
Around the turn of the last century, a significant portion of these wetlands turned landfills got paved over to meet the demands of the region’s growing industrial ports. Then, as the shipping industry waned in the forties, the mixed industrial areas were redeveloped once again. At the time, living alongside our country’s polluted waterways was considered a nuisance, so public and low-income housing often went in. The population boom of the fifties led to a shortage of residential units, and the once soggy edges of many cities provided cheap, if flood-prone, shelter to those who did not have enough money to live anywhere else. As the century progressed these were also the neighborhoods that didn’t receive much infrastructural support; they were the places that flooded most regularly and got the least help.
A few months after my first visit to Oakwood Beach, I stop by Alan Benimoff’s office at the College of Staten Island. Our resident geologist, Alan has been working on a series of papers in which he attempts to expose some of the underlying causes of Sandy’s devastating impact. When I first see him, he is hunched over his computer at the far end of a dimly lit room littered with different earthly artifactsrock samples, embossed topographic maps, and replicas of prehistoric fossils. Alan lets out a sigh big enough to travel. Then he looks up and gestures for me to come closer. It is an unseasonably warm late-winter day, and the sky beyond his window threatens thunder. The campus should be covered in snow but instead is pocked by mud and puddles.
Potbellied, balding, an old-school Italian American with a big white mustache, Alan strikes me as an unlikely climate change specialist at first. While he is reluctant to talk about the future, he has no problem discussing how poorly planned urban environments contributed mightily to the chaos Sandy wrought. On his computer he pulls up a layered map of Staten Island’s eastern shore compiled from various data sets: population density, topographical features, building types, zoning codes. Most of the land is bright red, meaning that it lies no more than ten feet above sea level. Some is shaded light blue, making it difficult to distinguish from the bay. “Blue means the area is zoned as a wetland,” he explains.
Alan’s map also shows building footprints. He clicks, and the information displayed on the screen changes. “This is the turn of the century,” he says. “You can see that the area was mostly marsh, with a few buildings indicated in black.” I am surprised to discover that back then the borough had a different shape. It was not the triangle I tend to think of it as being but rather more of an hourglass, with most of the desirable neighborhoods buffered by a belt of arterial wetlands cinched around the island’s waist.
Alan shows me the last hundred years of Staten Island’s development in ten-year intervals. As the century progresses, the number of black building footprints increases, even in the areas that previously weren’t considered land. There the jagged lines that indicate marsh grasses are plastered over, and a street grid emerges. “Wetlands act as giant sponges, absorbing storm surges. When they are paved over, that water still has to go somewhere, crashing into everything in its path,” Alan says. “No one talks about it, but the way we have developed the coast amplified Sandy’s destructive force.”
He looks at me through rimless round glasses and adds one final data set to the map. Twenty-four red dots appear scattered along Staten Island’s coast. “I’ve plotted every single Sandy-related death as well. The important thing to realize is this: over half of the people who died in the storm were standing atop land that once was a tidal marsh. If you ask me,” he says, his cursor hovering over the fragile fingers of development that compose the easternmost reaches of Oakwood Beach, “none of those homes should have been built in the first place.”
After forty minutes of riding I eventually arrive at the edge of Oakwood. I have seen a single building razed before, but nothing prepares me for watching an entire community get wiped off the map. The crunch and snap of backhoes eating away at siding sounds at the far end of Kissam Avenue. One yellow machine mounts a pile of debris and gnaws like a praying mantis dismantling its prey. The farther I ride down the street, the less I hear, because the demolitions are mostly complete, some of the houses already gone.
I lock my bike to a tree so I can move more slowly. Waves of invasive grasses keel around the dozen or so concrete foundations that remain. I walk down what was once a driveway, out to a slab that was once a house. Most of what made this place home in the strictest sensethe walls, the roof shingles, the joistshas been broken apart and now waits to be carted away. Wind blows in warm scraps while I investigate the smashed-up concrete, the abandoned gutters, and the sheets of Pepto-Bismol-pink fiberglass.
A family of geese waddle across the rubble, then veer off, disappearing into the marsh like soap bubbles popping: one-two-three. I follow them, venturing a little farther into the rambunctious green. The cordgrass and cattails get caught by the wind and sway. I step carefully, feeling out the uneven ground. Red, tannic water wells up around my feet while a zebra finch sings from the broken branches of a nearby tree. It is not my first time visiting a marsh, but it is, in truth, one of the first times that I am really paying attention. The calm that washes over me is immediate, the city’s stresses sloughing off in thick sheets. I had expected this day in Oakwood to feel like an excursion to a ruin, but the neighborhood and the surrounding tidal marsh are alive in ways I hadn’t anticipated. This place is both accursed and holy, the land forsaken by humans and also in the process of being reclaimed by forces beyond our control. Within this tension, I feel strangely at peace.
For most of my life I never gave tidal marshes much thought, but now they are, in their sly and unassuming way, absorbing my attention. To most, a wetland is just a mess of grass. The sulfuric scent of decomposition. Miasmas and mud. But I am beginning to see them as divining rods, signaling where there will be more water in the future. And even more importantly, that the future is, in many cases, already here.
Table of Contents
Jacob’s Point, Rhode Island
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Laura Sewall: Small Point, Maine
The Marsh at the End of the World
Dan Kipnis: Miami Beach, Florida
Nicole Montalto: Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
Oakwood Beach, Staten Island
Marilynn Wiggins: Pensacola, Florida
Chris Brunet: Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Goodbye Cloud Reflections in the Bay
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
Connecting the Dots
H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, Oregon
Richard Santos: Alviso, California
Looking Backward and Forward in Time
San Francisco Bay, California
Afterword: Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katia. Lee. Maria. Nate. Ophelia.