The sheer beauty of this book took my breath away, especially given its subject matter: climate change, and the destruction it is wrecking on coastal communities, both human and non-human, throughout the US. In a series of connected essays, Rush explores rising sea level and its effect on tidal salt marshes, migratory birds, and the many human settlements, from San Francisco to Staten Island to south Florida, that rest on the disappearing American coasts.
This was a book I couldn’t put down. I was taken back by the gorgeousness of the writing. Each essay felt like a gemstone, hard and glittering. Rush’s writing is quiet, thoughtful, and serious, and her essays are perfectly crafted, each one weaving together various interconnected strands into a provocative and compelling whole. There’s a little of everything in this book–science, keen observations about nature and landscape, politics, history, reflections on how we see and interact with the places we call home, intimate human stories, activism.
In each case study, Rush is careful to look at the places and people she encounters through many lenses. The book travels from the working class neighborhood of Oakwood Beach in Staten Island, devastated by Hurricane Sandy, to the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, a tiny, mostly Native community now nearly completely swallowed by the sea. In Phippsburg, Maine, a once-healthy tidal marsh is rotting from inside out as sea level rises. In San Francisco, a massive tidal restoration project is underway, yet even the people in charge of the project readily admit that it is not a solution, but a stopgap. In all of these places, Rush looks at the lives of the human and non-human residents, the failures and successes of projects intended to bulwark costal communities against sea level rise, all the things we stand to lose as climate change runs its course. She has a nuanced understanding of the ways that classism, racism, history, and privilege affect who climate change harms most.
“Our collective security,” she writes, “will be arrived at, should it come at all, as a result of our ability to reckon with our country’s history and how it has left so very many bodies unjustly exposed to risks that only continue to mount.”
What I found most powerful and beautiful about this book was Rush’s deep love of, and reckoning with, the physical world. It was a hard book to read, but it was not without hope. Not because Rush argues that we can stop (or even slow) climate change, but in her thoughtful reflections on what it means to retreat, and the opportunities that retreat and adaption provide for learning how to live in a drastically altered world.
In Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, for example, the community successfully lobbied for a government buy-out program, so that residents could leave an area so devastated by flooding. Abandoned houses were torn down, and nothing was to be built in their place. Rush’s writing about retreat is both chilling and prescient. Climate change is killing people. Communities are being destroyed, coastline disappearing. While the restoration projects she writes about are interesting, it’s the bigger pictures she paints, of humanity as a species, and how me must learn to adapt, to retreat, to change our relationship with the places we have always loved and called home, that stayed with me.
“When people love a place, it can change in shape and we can adapt our love to its transformed state. We can make do with less. Catch fewer shrimp. Sink cucumbers seeds into soil we have placed in a repurposed bathtub. Plant persimmon trees. Or else we can pull up our roots and move in. When we suffer unthinkable losses we can conjure images of what once was.”
The inclusion of several interviews from people who live (or lived) in the various costal communities Rush visits added another layer of honesty and power to the book. I highly recommend this one.