Interview with Elizabeth Rush

Elizabeth RUSH 300x300

Photo credit to Stephanie A. Ewens

By Ross Nervig

RISING is not just a book about rising sea levels and the lost habitats and homes,” writes Laura Pritchett of Elizabeth Rush’s book. “[I]t’s also a moving rumination on the rise of women as investigative reporters, the rise of tangible solutions, and the rise of human endeavor and flexibility… A beautiful and tender account of what’s happening—and what’s in store.”

In turns poignant, lyrical, and alarming, Rush’s latest book navigates along the changing shorelines of the United States. From the marshlands of Rhode Island to the vanishing coast of Louisiana, the Hurricane Sandy-devastated neighborhoods on Staten Island to the flood-endangered communities around San Francisco Bay, Rush takes a hard look at the ravages sea-level rise is having on our nation’s coastal land and its denizens. Threaded throughout this book, the reader will find the voices of survivors, embattled homeowners, biologists, activists, and the heartbroken.

Rush’s first book was titled Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post, Harpers, Guernica, Granta, Orion, and The New Republic. She teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University. RISING: Dispatches from the New American Shore (Milkweed Editions) was released in June 2018.

More than a few passages in RISING come with dire portents of climate change. Was it tough to stay positive during the writing of this book?

Funnily enough, this is a question I get often. My first response is always the same: exercise. In order to manage my climate-anxiety I find that I need to dive fully into the experience of being in my body in the world. I need to get my endorphins pumping, to reduce the chatter in my brain by flooding my mind with calming chemicals. When I am struggling to ride my bike up a really steep slope I am not able to think beyond that moment. This has a deeply calming effect on me, and from that place of calm I am able to move through the world with greater focus and drive. I mean to say that taking care of myself in this way isn’t only about escape it is also about figuring out what I need to do in order to be able to regularly research and write about what is admittedly a deeply unsettling subject. The flip side of this coin is that I find, more and more, it is also important to acknowledge that human made climate change and all of the losses that are piling up already as a result is scary, unsettling, and deeply disrupts our sense of who we are and where we are going. We have to admit this uncertainty into our hearts in order to begin to act in such a way that fully acknowledges the reality that climate change is already in the process of changing us, whether we like it or not.

Did you coin the term “endsickness”? I wonder if you’ve found ways to medicate this sort of sickness?

I think I was inspired by a Margaret Atwood book in the Oryx and Crake series, but when I recently went back to unearth the word endsickness from the text I returned empty handed. Perhaps, I coined the phrase, though I am sure it appears elsewhere earlier. Really, its appearance in Rising was inspired by my father’s recent struggle with vertigo. Watching him, I began to understand that when the rules governing our day-to-day lives shift it can be a profoundly disorienting and physically exhausting experience. When scientists talk about climate change, they describe “tipping points” and “flips.” When we have pumped enough carbon into the atmosphere to change the climate fundamentally, and when the old climate with its temperate sweet spot is something we can no longer regain, we will have caused the Earth to “flip.” Many think this has already happened or that we are flipping right now. Old laws give way to new ones, and Newbury Street slips beneath the slack tide. My father’s illness has absolutely nothing to do with the science of climate change, and the science of climate change has nothing to do with physical flips or tips. And yet we describe both phenomena with similar language: one is vertical and the other horizontal, but both depict the moment when the body is suddenly lost in space. Both produce a feeling of sickness because the rules we used to rely on to give us a sense of stability are in the process of being rewritten. Sometimes, when I steep myself in the world of sea level rise and the rate at which all of this is unfolding, I begin to feel a little bit like him: disoriented and nauseous as a result. And I think that feeling of sickness is caused by my awakening to the fact that in my lifetime many of the landmarks I have long navigated by are going to be underwater. When I look to my father and the way he dealt with his illness I see that he had no choice but to change the way he was living. He couldn’t drive a car anymore, and if he couldn’t drive a car, he couldn’t keep working as a commercial real estate broker. Instead he focused his energies at home: he painted the house and began to cook elaborate meals for my mom. Adaptation comes in many different shapes and forms.

You write of Louisiana that it was “remarkable that I was seeing environmental destruction bringing a community closer together instead of breaking it apart.” As a recent transplant to New Orleans, I think this could be the city’s motto. How did you find your time in Louisiana?

I did not want to leave Louisiana. I was living in New York City the first time I visited the Isle de Jean Charles (which is about an hour and a half south of New Orleans) and the kindness and hospitality of complete strangers just floored me. On my second or third day on the island I ended up at the marina, a local spot that is central to life on the island. So there I was, asking this man I did not know all about the different floods he has lived through and the long term impact of oil extraction on the wetlands where he grew up. Really heavy subjects. At one point he just stood up, went into the kitchen, and came back with a big bowl of rice and homemade sausage for me. It turns out he was Theo, the guy who owned the place and a kind of local legend. Well, he set that bowl down in front of me and handed me a fork. “Eat up!” he said and went back to trying to answer my question. I was starving! And I have no idea how he knew, but he did and he took care of me. That kind of thing happens all of the time on the bayou, folks just take care of one another. And to me, that thing, that caretaking is a form of resiliency in and of itself. We hear all about resilient landscapes, and living sea walls, and tidal gates, and all of these design solutions for living in a warmer world. So often talking in this way overlooks one of our greatest assets, each other. Our communities can be incredible sources of strength when we watch out for and care for one another. Louisiana taught me that.

Moving from one area to the next, you seem to have a vast knowledge of the flora and fauna in each area. How do you accumulate such knowledge?  How do you acclimate yourself to the lexicon of a particular area?

Whenever I arrived in a new community I was careful to try to learn the names of the local plant and animal species. That is information that residents, whose lives are in some way dependent upon these locations, have to have in order to survive. So I would spend time getting to know local farmers, fishermen and women, folks whose livelihoods are derived from regular interactions with the environment. I would also try to visit the different wetlands I profiled with scientists as well. In both cases I would ask not only what species I was looking at but also how the person knew how to make that species identification. I remember a scientist telling me that spartina alternaflora had broad flat stems that tasted like salt when you sucked on them. From that moment forth, whenever I was in a new east coast wetland and wondering what kind of plant I was looking at, my first instinct became to snap off a blade and suck on it to see if I could taste the salt. That and I invested in some great field guides. My favorite, hands down, is Lone Pine’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest, which incorporates all different kinds of indigenous information into each plant description.

What is next on the horizon for Elizabeth Rush?

My husband and I are both professors, and we both have a sabbatical next year. He is Colombian, so we are going to be based in Bogotá. And from there I plan to begin researching my next book, tentatively titled Dispatches from the Disappearing, which looks at the loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice. I just found out that I am a finalist for a National Science Foundation Antarctica Artists and Writers fellowship, which would (fingers crossed) bring me to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for a couple months in the upcoming year. So very much of what is happening with sea level rise is tied to events that are unfolding on the southern-most continent on the planet. Often when we read about Antarctica we encounter stories heavy with scientific fact, that, while urgent, remain removed from our everyday lives. So I am proposing to go down to Antarctica and interview the scientists working there about how, for instance, glacial collapse changes or unsettles their idea of god, whether or not they want to have children, the place they think humans occupy in the world order. By centralizing the emotional responses these researchers have to their own work, I want to lessen the perceived distance between the reader and that far away continent where unprecedented and game-changing geological transformation is ongoing.