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Rising: Dispatches from the  New American Shore

Elizabeth Rush

328 pages

Milkweed Editions, 2019

reviewed by bridget a. lyons & andew mobbs


ANDREW MOBBS: At the heart of this book is Rush’s invitation to consider both the physical changes of US coastlines and the metaphorical boundaries of the new American shore. The question she faces in undertaking this project is a significant one: how do we make individuals who are not directly affected by sea level rise—those who live in landlocked areas and are removed from the Arctic and the Bay Area and the coast of Florida—care?  Her answer is to braid personal narratives—both her own and those of individuals directly affected by sea level rise—with substantiated science and, in the creative nonfiction fashion, suspense. What’s going to happen to these people? What options will emerge for them as they contemplate retreat? The stories of the individuals profiled in Rising are what made the book come alive for me. Laura Sewall of Maine; Chris Brunet and Edison Dardar of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana; Alvin of Pensacola, Florida; and Richard Santos of Alviso, California come from a variety of backgrounds, yet they are unwittingly united in their struggle against the water that has been an integral part of their lives. If they must confront the looming threat of losing their homes and lifestyles to sea level rise, who’s to say that rest of us are invincible?

BRIDGET A. LYONS: I agree that both the characters and their struggles were vividly presented. Interestingly, though, I found myself caring about the individuals’ relationships with the places they inhabit even more than the individuals themselves. I was intrigued by Rush’s developing connection to a rampike-filled marsh outside of Provincetown, RI. I was moved by the ways Chris Brunet and the other members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Isle de Jean Charles are renegotiating their interactions with the Louisiana Bayou. The way Nicole Montalto of Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach has had to adapt to the loss of her neighborhood affected how I think about the geography of my home. These place-based relationships deepened my investment in the book and forced me to more clearly envision the widespread displacement that will be caused by sea level rise and other climate change-driven phenomena. The people we meet in Rising serve as effective bridges between readers and these threatened ecological zones that we may or may not have personal connections to.

AM: Yes, it’s as though there’s a symbiotic relationship between these people and places because the places are part of the identity of the people. Chris Brunet of Isle de Jean Charles said that his ancestors had lived there since the namesake of the island was alive—almost 200 years. That detail made me appreciate their “should we stay or should we go?” dilemma. I think that when a place is named, it’s brought into existence more tangibly, making its disappearance more palpable. And of course, not only were the locations named, the individuals, their homes, and aspects of their culture were named too, increasing their impact. Of the place-based relationships described in Rising, which one lingers most with you?

BAL: The Staten Island case I just mentioned really struck me—mostly because it’s the place where the solution Rush advocates for has been successfully employed. Throughout this book, Rush makes the case for retreat—the mass relocation of people whose livelihood is in danger of being swept away in rising seas. In Oakwood Beach, retreat has actually happened, thanks in part to the state’s willingness to compensate residents for their lost property and ensure that resettlement will not happen in this precarious ecosystem. It was fascinating to learn about both the logistics and the emotional repercussions of the retreat process, and I think including this section supported Rush’s position very well. It’s also important to note that, in this case, retreat happened in the wake of a major disaster. There’s a difference between human beings reacting to a catastrophe and proactively retreating before one happens. That’s one of the challenges of our species; we seem to do better when we’re faced with an imminent threat.

AM: A big question that I couldn’t avoid in reading Rising is how you get people to buy into the retreat option, particularly those who are keenly aware of how their homes are inextricable aspects of their identities. When Rush asks Edison if he plans to leave Isle de Jean Charles as part of the relocation project, he says, “I’m not leaving. This is my home… I have no interest in moving into a poorly made house fifty miles inland” (169). How underwater does a place have to be for relocation to be embraced? An additional advantage of retreat that Rush presents is that aside from helping humans directly, relocating human beings has the potential to help other forms of life as well. But it’s really hard to get that buy-in; by the time enough people would agree, it’s almost too late.

BAL: I do think, though, that the personal narratives remind us that at least some people are considering proactive steps. The interlude narrated by Dan Kipnis, a former Miami Beach resident, displays forward thinking. He explains how he’s decided to sell the home he and his wife had lived in for over thirty years, saying, “This was the house we were going to grow old in… Then it would go to the kids. But I’m not going to be able to give the house to them because of what is happening in Miami Beach. Because of sea level rise” (94). Of course, his financial situation allows him to sell his house, make some money on it, and move to a place where sea level rise won’t be an issue. Not all people have that luxury, and I think Rush does an excellent job of foregrounding this issue in Rising—the reality that not all human beings will be affected equally by sea level rise, and that questions of social justice are intertwined with questions of climate change.

AM: I agree; she provides many good examples of this reality. We see it with some residents of Alviso, California who aren’t part of a privileged, billion-dollar corporation like Facebook, whose headquarters is in Alviso’s backyard. We see this with Alvin in the Tanyard, a less affluent, flood-prone Pensacola neighborhood occupied primarily by people of color. Rush makes a valid point when she wonders about the future of the poor people of Miami-Dade County, where, unlike Kipnis, 60% of the three million residents can’t make a living wage. She says, “They are working hard trying to get a better life, trying to get the American Dream. Well, you know what, their dream is gonna drown” (95).

BAL: That brings us to another theme of this book that I really appreciated—the questionable viability of the American Dream. The version of it that has been codified for the past two hundred years—the one that includes a house, a car, and 2.1 kids—is becoming less sustainable. While Rush doesn’t overtly say this, I think she shows us that the American Dream we have come to embrace is what got us into this situation to start with. Any way out of our predicament involves letting go of this mirage.

AM: Fortunately, I think Rising suggests the possibility of having a meaningful relationship with a place without claiming ownership of it. This mentality is going to be necessary to let go of attachments, understand the value of retreat, and allow nature to take back some of the land.

BAL: And, I think that Rush argues that we need to let go of structures that are not serving us as well. This includes the idea that we can separate an environmental crisis from a social justice crisis. What we have is a sentient being crisis. Putting up boundaries between these issues is not working. In some ways, I see this as a kind of “retreat” too. In fact, by the time I was done with the book, I ended up interpreting “retreat” less as a physical process and more as a metaphor for taking a humbler stance before the world, for not being so aggressive about how we use resources and how we interact with other species. “Retreat” could also mean something like taking a deep breath and stepping back to look at our role in the big picture. It could mean retreating from positions of power and superiority. 

AM: So, is this the “next step,” that is proposed in this book, then—to radically shift our attitudes? I have to say, Rising did leave me wondering “what next?” What are we supposed to do now?

BAL: I don’t know, exactly; but I am not sure I’m meant to. There is a tradition of not necessarily fixing problems or providing solutions in creative nonfiction essays. The point is not to come to a conclusion, but rather to broaden the reader’s understanding of an issue by looking at it from many different angles. I think this book fits into that tradition by examining sea level rise in the US from a number of different geographic locations and through a number of different sets of eyes. Rush looks at the issue of sea level rise from social justice, endangered species, and place-based perspectives in order to encourage and celebrate our ability to probe ideas more deeply.  That may ultimately result in solutions.

AM: Yes, solutions, plural, is the key. We’re going to need to have multiple solutions rather than one all-encompassing answer. While the right mentality could be a “one size fits all” kind of thing, the concrete solutions are going have to be numerous.


BAL: Were you left feeling optimistic about these solutions? Did you need to feel optimistic?

AM: I think Rising is beautifully written, but it’s far from uplifting. In fact, parts of it were downright heartbreaking for me. But, in a way, I think this is necessary. Rush would likely agree that a false narrative of optimism would be a disservice to not only the threat of climate change, but also to the people whose lives are immediately at stake—people like Chris, Edison, Alvin, Richard, Laura, and Nicole. Did you think we were meant to find hope in the book?

BAL: I think hope is a simplistic response to climate change, and I suspect Rush would agree with me. I didn’t find hope in Rising, but I did find connection. I found vulnerability. I found the possibility of letting go. That’s enough.

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bridget a. lyons

lives two blocks from the water in Santa Cruz, CA, where she watches the coastline change every day. She works as a writer and editor and is currently finishing up a book examining human and non-human migratory lifestyles in light of our planet's increasing instability.

andrew mobbs

is a native Arkansan based in Flagstaff, AZ. In 2013, he released his poetry chapbook, Strangers and Pilgrims (Six Gallery Press) and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize the following year. His work has appeared in Bayou Magazine, Frontier Poetry, Poetry Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature, and elsewhere. He also co-edits the online literary journal Nude Bruce Review.

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