Orion Blog, page 3

At the News of Merwin’s Passing

Editor’s Note: All of us at Orion were saddened by the news of W.S. Merwin’s death. Merwin, who served as an advisor to Orion for many years, was a true friend to the magazine. His poetry and prose appeared in Orion many times, and in 2002 he received Orion’s John Hay Award, an award given annually to leading writers and educators. Orion’s Forgotten Language Tour, founded by poet Christopher Merrill but administered by Orion from 1992 to 2003, received its name from a line of Merwin’s poetry (“I want to tell what the forests / were like / I will have to speak / in a forgotten language”). The Forgotten Language Tour facilitated events in communities across the U.S. in which writers and poets offered readings, workshops, and discussions that attempted to strengthen the local community’s understanding of the natural world and human community as well as to promote nature literacy.

I pull out my favorite book of his, The Rain in the Trees. I read every poem from it to my middle-school students last year, one by one, morning by morning. Each morning a poem. They closed their eyes as I read. When it was over, they opened their eyes, slowly, to the brutal-beautiful world again, and we’d talk. They mulled thoughtfully over each word and meaning. Each sound. On spring mornings the rain pattered from the gutter outside the window, against the school building. A rain-soaked o’hia forest on Hawai’i Island darkens the cover of the book. I told them about the sound of the rain there on banana leaves, on the tin roof of the old sugarcane-processing barn my father lives in.

We learned about the ravaged former pineapple-plantation land in the Pe’ahi valley of Maui that Merwin bought in the ’70s and began to plant trees on. The planters had plowed the land for sugar wherever they could, far beyond the central isthmus, he wrote in his essay “The House and the Garden: The Emergence of a Dream.”

But the yield out along the coast proved not to pay for the growing, and the fields were abandoned. The plowing had accelerated the erosion begun by the cutting of the trees. Then the land reverted to poor pasture for some years, and in the early twentieth century, a group of hopeful speculators who had watched the introduction of large-scale pineapple growing, decided to go in for it themselves, and they pooled their resources and bought most of the valley, intending to grow pineapple on the slopes. For some reason hard to imagine, they plowed the slopes vertically — up and down — which of course greatly accelerated the erosion. In the winter rains the land lost what little topsoil had survived the earlier abuses, the speculators gave up the whole business, and the land stood idle for decades. Wasteland.

He and his wife Paula began to hand-plant palm seedlings on the land because they were the only tree that would grow in the depleted soil. Then they kept planting them for forty years. “I hope to be able to go on planting palms on this land for a long time,” he wrote in “The House and the Garden,” in 2010. He did, until his death, keep planting and tending. They grew the saplings of rare and endangered palms and began to envision a sort of palm-species refuge from all the world’s colonized and deforested tropics. Today, Merwin’s nineteen acres have nearly 3,000 individual palms, with more than 400 species, 125 genera, and 800 varieties. This tree collection is a world treasure-house. “This significant botanical and horticultural assemblage is now preserved forever through a deed of conservation easement held by the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust,” wrote the Merwin Conservancy on the occasion of Merwin’s death, announcing the permanent protection of his palm forest. His poems and his trees live on. They breathe life into the world, after he has taken his last breaths. I put hickory nuts, walnuts, and acorns into my students’ open palms and told them that whole forests rested in their hands.

For the past three years, on a day in April, near my birthday, I invite every student in the school into my classroom to hear poems that my own students and I read aloud. When the kindergarteners and first-graders come in all jittery, I begin with Merwin’s “Place”:

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

They fall hushed. Their eyes get wide.

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

When I pulled out the book this morning, the page was still marked from when I last read it to them, and I read it this morning, to no one. To myself. To everyone.

I planted more than a thousand trees with my mother, who had a forestry degree, in the first five years of my life. We planted them all over the rural but developing county where we lived, in Tennessee, where trees had been cut for roads and right-of-ways and cow pasture. We dug little holes and lowered the saplings in and filled the holes and patted the soil down around the trees. “No story, though, begins at the beginning,” writes Merwin. “The beginning does not belong to knowledge.”

In Hawai’i, I’ve heard the rain pattering gently in the koa and o’hia rainforest around the volcano and heard the honeycreepers singing there in the island’s last remnants of forest that preserve only 2 percent of the former honeycreeper populations. I’ve laid in bed in the morning at my father’s barn listening to the sound of rain on the roof and roosters crowing, and cried. Where are the trees?

nobody has seen it happening
nobody remembers

this is what the words were made
to prophesy

here are the extinct feathers
here is the rain we saw

I read the words aloud to my students. They close their eyes and listen to the pattery rhythms of the lines. As I read, I think of myself as planting seeds in them. I think of the wasted earth in which Merwin had hope. The tiny roots of saplings reaching down into it, the trees growing taller.


Nine Questions for the Author: Amy Irvine, Desert Cabal

Amy Irvine is a sixth-generation Utahn and long-time public lands activist. Her work has appeared in Orion, High Country News, High Desert Journal, Rock & Ice, and Red Rock Testimony—an anthology that was instrumental in Obama’s establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument. Her memoir, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land (2008), received the Orion Book Award, the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and the Colorado Book Award—while the Los Angeles Times wrote that it “might very well be Desert Solitaire’s literary heir.” Irvine teaches nonfiction in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives and writes on a remote mesa in southwest Colorado, just spitting distance from her Utah homeland.

Her third book, Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness, is a conversation with Edward Abbey—fifty years after Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness was published. Desert Cabal was excerpted in the Winter 2018 issue of Orion. I caught up with Irvine to learn about the book and her process.

NT: Tell us about your very first encounter with Edward Abbey’s work?

AI: My senior year, after a bad breakup and too much partying to cope, my history teacher gave me a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang and a map to get to my first redrock slot canyon. He told me not to come back until I had found a bigger reason to live. Reading that book, I saw my Utah homeland anew: I could protest, resist! On behalf of wild places and creatures! How fortunate, I felt—to embrace this right, this responsibility. To stand with others as an active citizenry, a cabal.

NT: In Desert Cabal, you wonderfully navigate both your reverence for Abbey’s influence in your life, activism, and writing, while also calling out his blindspots. Structurally, how did you pull this off?

AI: In an age of extreme dualities we must be rigorous in holding more than one truth at once. It’s true that Abbey’s life and work have been (and still are) invaluable to our efforts to protect wild spaces. It’s also true that his life and work (especially now) are far too privileged and exclusive to help us garner widespread support for sweeping land conservation. So the writing came from doing my best to hold multiple truths while acknowledging my own privileges and excesses as an upper-middle class, able-bodied, white woman. My goal was not to take Abbey down, but rather to make space for other voices and relationships to the natural world.

NT: You are writing this book to Abbey’s ghost, in second person. Did you have an image or photo of him at your desk as you wrote?

AI: Hell, no. As a woman whose upbringing was far too steeped in Utah’s uber-patriarchy, I cannot afford any gesture or token that tips toward white male idolatry—which Abbey most certainly represents. To this end, I used second-person as a retort to his distant, third-person treatment of women. Where he objectified, I subjectified.

NT: You often reference relationships, eco-erotics, and fidelity. Connect the dots between lovers and land intimacy.

AI: Abbey invoked not only a sensual communion with the desert, but an outright carnality. I’m not opposed to this choice—to lean into the animal body is to be absorbed by the natural world. This is a place of arousal. And once we are this open, this awake, we fall in love—but not in some small romantic way. The land demands that we grow our hearts. The ecology of desire and devotion is panoramic.

NT: I’m drawn to the idea that by monkeywrenching, by standing up against extractive, penetrating forces, you are expressing a sort of fidelity to the land. Explain this more.

AI: At this point, monkeywrenching, as delicious as the thought is, lacks fidelity, as it deepens the divisions between the extractors and the protectors. It’s a swift, fleeting gesture. Fidelity is the backbone of marriage, and in our conjunction with a place, we must act in ways that endure. This means reducing our carbon contributions—every single one of us in a radical way. What if we each took a vow of environmental chastity? Could we be faithful enough to turn down the weekend fling with the wild—to put the survival of a place above satisfying our pleasures? Can we love it enough to…gulp…stay home? The very thought is heretical, isn’t it?

NT: In Desert Cabal you posit that the lone wolf, wilderness warrior archetype might be overdue. In an era of fractured experience—climate refugees, political division, species loss—what practices might bring us together?

AI: More than ever, we must refuse to point the finger. Every one of us is complicit in loving wild places to death, in adding to the climate crisis. Example: most desert defenders loathe cattle grazing on public lands—and yet so many of us adhere to the paleo diet! This, despite knowing that the consumption of animal products is one of the leading causes of climate collapse. The question should not be “how dare they?” but rather “what is my part?”

NT: “To love any more deeply is to love in a way that devastates.” You invite us not to be mere voyeurs of the wild but instead dive deep into the core of a landscape—exterior and interior. What does that look like in your daily life?

AI: I live off-the-grid in the very arid Southwest, where drought and fire are now constant. Every bit of dishwater is carried outside and poured over sagebrush, yucca, and pinion. We buy most of our food from our neighbors and most days I work at home in my pajamas. We shower twice a week and recycle and all that, too—but it’s not enough. Every day an inventory is taken—the search for places where our family can exercise more restraint—and where we can do it with joy, humor, and a sense of generosity. It’s tempting to turn away from the impotence one feels when staring down the barrel at a swiftly failing planet—knowing you are helping to pull the trigger. In order to do your part, you have to be willing to live with a troubled heart.

NT: White man goes into wilderness alone. Writes about it. Becomes legend. So much of this popular prescription excludes large portions of the country’s population, for which access is either unavailable, financially less feasible, or unsafe. Can you say more?

AI: Abbey’s take on wilderness was a useful construct at a time when the nation needed to lay the brakes on Manifest Destiny. But his views were just as colonialist. The way he wrote about wilderness normalized what was actually a narrative about white male privilege and dominion. He wanted “to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally, as a man desires a beautiful woman.” His view of the land is only one of many, and it’s a modern one. The earliest of our kind encountered the wild in groups—as hunters, migrants, and explorers. To go it alone was to dance with madness or death.

NT: Yes, solitude is important. But then we need to come back, to cultivate an intimacy with the needs of both place and people. After writing this book and exchanging such great dialogue with Abbey’s ghost, what’s your main takeaway for readers?

AI: If we truly want to develop broader constituencies to preserve the last wild places, to arrest the cascade of mass extinctions, and stem the howling tides of climatic and cultural refugees, we’ll have to make room for other stories and experiences and learn to understand how they intersect with ecological concerns. No longer can we speak of wild places as if they exist in a vacuum—as if they are mere surfaces for recreation, or projected aesthetics, or even temples of spiritual sustenance. We are now talking about the need for large, intact ecosystems for survival. Whether you disagree with Abbey or stand firmly with his disciples, the end game is here. There’s no time to quibble. Let this be our moment to shine more brilliantly, more humanely, more wildly, than we ever have before.


Read Amy Irvine’s piece in the Autumn 2018 issue.
Learn more about Irvine’s Desert Cabal.  
Subscribe to Orion today. 

Young Readers Ask: The Book of Snakes

“Young Readers Ask” is a new Orion web series where
young readers interview authors about books.

The Book of Snakes: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World

Mark O’Shea
University of Chicago Press, 2018. $55.
656 pages, 2,400 color plates

From the University of Chicago Press:

“For millennia, humans have regarded snakes with an exceptional combination of fascination and revulsion. Some people recoil in fear at the very suggestion of these creatures, while others happily keep them as pets. Snakes can convey both beauty and menace in a single tongue flick and so these creatures have held a special place in our cultures. Yet, for as many meanings that we attribute to snakes—from fertility and birth to sin and death—the real-life species represent an even wider array of wonders.

The Book of Snakes presents 600 species of snakes from around the world, covering nearly one in six of all snake species. It will bring greater understanding of a group of reptiles that have existed for more than 160 million years, and that now inhabit every continent except Antarctica, as well as two of the great oceans.”

Mark O’Shea is a herpetologist, zoologist, author, lecturer, and television presenter. He is professor of herpetology at the University of Wolverhampton (UK) and consultant curator of reptiles at West Midland Safari Park. O’Shea has hosted numerous television series focused on snakes for the Discovery Channel, the BBC, and ITV, including four seasons as host of the Animal Planet/Discovery Channel show O’Shea’s Big Adventure. He has also run a variety of herpetological field projects for the Royal Geographical Society, Operation Raleigh, Raleigh Executive, and Discovery Expeditions. O’Shea is the author of five books, including A Guide to the Snakes of Papua New Guinea. He lives in Shropshire, England.

Jasper Wood lives in Vermont with his parents and sister (don’t judge, I’m only twelve, he says). His hobbies include—but are not limited to—skiing, snowboarding, hanging out with friends, playing video games, and playing trumpet. He has been interested in the sciences and wildlife from a young age.

JW: What sparked your interest in snakes and reptiles?

MOS: I first got interested in snakes because other people didn’t seem to like them much, so I read about them, and the more I read, the more I learned, and the more questions I wanted answering. I met my first live snake when I was about eight. It was a boa constrictor at the Dublin Zoo in Ireland and the keeper took it out so I could hold it. I thought it was twice as long as I was tall, but sadly no photograph exists of this career-determining moment.

A year later I saw a live adder, our country’s only venomous snake, on a beautiful spot called Kinver Edge near my home in England. This was a wild snake and I asked my aunt to help me catch it. Fortunately, we failed and it got away. But now I wanted my own snake, so I bought an Italian grass snake from a pet shop and called her Escapist, because she did, often, all over the house.

By the late 1970s I had two hundred snakes at home and was breeding them from all over the world. I became Curator of Reptiles at West Midland Safari Park in the UK and moved my collection into theirs, and I have not kept any reptiles at home for over twenty years. I need the freedom to travel that my research demands and now I am more interested in snakes in the wild than snakes in captivity.

JW: How would this information about snakes and reptiles benefit military doctors and medical professionals?

MOS: Firstly, may I correct a little terminology? We don’t say “snakes and reptiles” because snakes are reptiles and that would be like listing snakes twice. It is kind of like saying “animals and birds,” because birds are animals. It is fine to say “snakes and other reptiles.”

The main benefit a military doctor would gain from a book such as The Book of Snakes is being able to identify different species found within a particular part of the world, whether it is venomous, and discover what kind of venom it may possess. But this is a big book including six hundred species of snakes from around the world. Given that there are over 3,750 species of snakes in the world, it does not include all the species in any particular region. For that, a field guide to that country or region would be more useful.

I have presented lectures on snake identification and snakebite first aid to the RAMC, to civilian medics, and to non-medical groups, and I hope those helped narrow down which species are dangerous in different parts of the world. Around the world every year up to 138,000 people die of snakebites, a further 400,000 are permanently disabled by the effects of the venom, and 1,000 people are killed by crocodiles, so reptiles can be very dangerous.

JW: What is the most life-threatening situation you’ve been in related to snakes?

MOS: I’ve had several non-snake life-threatening events, mostly when I was filming O’Shea’s Big Adventure for Animal Planet, such as being swept out to sea by a large wave off South Africa, or running out of air eighty feet down diving for seasnakes off Western Australia. I’ve had a number of serious snakebites from rattlesnakes, cobras, and other species. My worst bite was in 1993 when a large canebrake rattlesnake bit me in the wrist at the Safari Park and injected a lot of venom. I nearly died in the ambulance.

My first rattlesnake bite was in 1987 working for the Royal Geographical Society on a research station in the northern Amazon and back then we did not have cell phones, sat-phones, or the internet. We relied on old-fashioned radios which were turned on for ten minutes at six a.m. and six p.m. to do “radio checks” with our base in the nearest town a five-hour drive away. I was bitten at six-thirty p.m. in the late afternoon and had to survive the night in the jungle before we could even tell anybody outside the research station and request medivac. We had a small supply of antivenom but the fridge was not working so it was a bit cloudy and when I received it I went blind. Fortunately that was a small snake. Had it been one of the large ones, I might not have survived.

On expeditions in tropical countries I’ve had to contend with dangerous humans, and have dealt with roadblocks set up by bandits, so snakes are not necessarily the most dangerous animals in the jungle. Two legs can be more dangerous than no legs!

JW: How long did it take you to write The Book of Snakes?

MOS: The Book of Snakes took about two-and-a-half years from start to finish. The first stage was deciding which six hundred species to include. I wanted to represent the diversity of snakes worldwide so I made a list of the 3,700+ species of snakes of the world and divided them by family and subfamily so I would achieve roughly the same proportions per family/subfamily in the book. Then, I selected representative species for each family/subfamily to illustrate diversity of distribution, prey, reproduction etc. I wanted mainland and island species, widely distributed and locally endemic species, rare and common species etc. One important factor was we must be able to illustrate the snake with a high quality full-body photograph, and if we couldn’t, I had to replace that species.

The writing was fun. I’m busy even now writing the second edition of my field guide to the snakes of New Guinea—the largest tropical island in the world—and I am working on scientific papers describing new snake species, lectures for my students and to deliver in Europe and Australia over the next two months.

JW: Wait, so how many times have you been bitten by a snake?

MOS: I assume you mean by venomous snakes, and it is a few but I never disclose the number because it sounds like bragging. Snakebites are an occupational hazard that you try to keep to an absolute minimum and avoid completely if possible, but sometimes they do happen and you have to be ready to deal with them. People are always so interested in snakebites, so I try and talk about them from an educational standpoint. Not all snakebites are dangerous. Some are defensive, dry bites which inject no venom, or they may inject only a small amount of venom. You just don’t know so you treat them all as serious medical emergencies. The canebrake rattlesnake bite I mentioned earlier was while I was feeding a group of rattlesnakes at the safari park, so the snake intended it as a killing bite and injected a lot of venom, so it was a very serious accident. Non-venomous snakes can bite too and bites from large pythons or anacondas hurt and bleed a lot.

Learn More:

Nine Questions for the Author: Krista Schlyer, “Sacrificial Land”

With the partial federal government shutdown reaching into its second month, we contacted journalist and photographer Krista Schlyer to learn more about the ecological realities along the US-Mexico border. In the current issue of Orion, Schlyer’s photo essay “Sacrificial Land” captures much of what’s at stake along the borderlands—the animate beauty, biodiversity, and shared habitat.

Krista Schlyer is a conservation photographer and writer living in the Washington D.C. area. Her work has been published by the BBC, Orion, The Nature Conservancy, High Country News, Newsweek and others. She is the author of three books: Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award and Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, Almost Anywhere, and her latest book, River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, released in November 2018. Krista is currently working on a documentary film called Ay Mariposa, which tells a story of butterflies and resistance in the US-Mexico borderlands.

NT: How you were you first drawn into border policy and its intersection with wildlife? 

KS:  I worked for Defenders of Wildlife in 2004. At the time, anti-immigrant forces were pushing for a US-Mexico border wall and escalating militarization, and Defenders was advocating for wildlife and ecosystems impacted by such policies. 

I started working as a freelancer shortly after that, and was reporting on a herd of bison living on the border of Chihuahua, Mexico and New Mexico. I was in a small Cessna plane about five hundred feet above the Chihuahuan grasslands, searching for this bison herd with a scientist from Mexico City, Rurik List. We spotted a few members of the herd just as they were leaping over the border barrier at the time, a broken down barbed wire fence.

Later, Rurik and I went to visit the landowners on both sides of the border. In Mexico, the rancher said the bison came to his land almost every day to drink from a pond, one of the only year-round water resources in the area. On the U.S. side, the rancher said the bison came almost every day to eat in a particular pasture, where a nutritious species of grass grew. The herd’s food and water were split by the border.

This was in 2008, shortly after the Secure Fence Act was passed, and the US government was planning to build seven hundred miles of enhanced border barrier. I was struck deeply by the enormity of this moment for wildlife and ecosystems, how thousands of species along this two-thousand-mile border were going to be facing a major (and deadly) transformation of their homeland. My world and work changed in an instant.

NT: What species are most critically affected by a US-Mexico border wall expansion?

KS: It is a long, long list. Environmental groups have stated that about one hundred threatened and endangered species are impacted by border wall. I would say the list of species that will be critically impacted is much longer. There are direct impacts to endangered species that rely on migration corridors like jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundis—three tropical cat species that can be found nowhere else in the United States. They have all been hunted to near extinction and have lost too much habitat, but they are hanging on to existence here, and that existence is tied to migration pathways to healthier populations in Mexico.

Similar threats are posed to Mexican gray wolves, bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, and others. But there is also a grave threat of direct habitat destruction and fragmentation. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, less than five percent of the native habitat remains. The entire ecosystem along the Rio Grande is critically endangered, existing only in fragmented remnants. This remnant ecosystem is essential habitat for a mind-blowing diversity of species. Two of North America’s major avian flyways funnel through this region at the overlap of the temperate and tropical world. More than five hundred species of birds rely on this landscape, as do more than three hundred species of butterflies, imperiled reptiles like the Texas tortoise, and Texas indigo snake.

NT: Have you ever felt endangered while on assignment along the border? What are some of the main environmental challenges to your work?

KS: My fears working on the border have been few; I have always felt safe there. I have been afraid at times of the Border Patrol, because they have a long record of abuses and can be very threatening. But many in Border Patrol are kind and helpful as well. I have had encounters with human migrants, but they posed no threat. They needed my help and I was glad to be there to give it to them. As for wildlife, I’ve had encounters with bears, cats, coyotes, and venomous snakes, but I’ve studied how best to respond and afford them the distance and respect they deserve.

Only once have I ever felt afraid. I was hiking by myself in a remote place and came upon a cave formation in some rock. It smelled strongly of cat musk, what I took to be a cougar but couldn’t be sure because I never saw the animal. The hair on my arms stood up and I felt it was best to move on. I doubt I was ever in any danger, but I trusted my animal instincts. We evolved with predators like big cats. I assume that somewhere in my DNA is a prey instinct, and that’s an instinct worth listening to.

NT: Are mainstream debates on the physical barrier construction deflecting us from the more invisible walls of bureaucracy and policy already being erected behind the scenes?

KS: Absolutely. Our immigration system is broken. Has been for decades. Rather than try to fix it, politicians take the expeditious route and point to the border. They say: “look, over there, let’s do something about that,” when really there is nothing wrong with the border that couldn’t be alleviated with a realistic immigration system and more thoughtful trade policies with our international neighbors.

NT: What other specific examples around the world have borderlands impacted wildlife?

KS: In 2015 the Washington Post ran a story on border wall construction worldwide. By their count some sixty-eight walls were being built that year, more than any other time in human history. Each of these barriers will impact wild species and ecosystems, along with the people who desperately need to migrate.

In an era of changing climates, when migration is an essential survival and adaptation strategy, this will be devastating to countless species. Barriers can be long-lasting, even after the walls come down. There is a species of red deer in Europe, for example, whose migration patterns are still affected by the Iron Curtain, which came down almost three decades ago.



NT: Passage. Freedom of movement. Migration. These should be basic rights. What does a wall, at its core, symbolize to you?

KS: Fear. A need to control what we don’t understand, what we’re afraid to confront with an open mind and heart. Hubris. A cage we impose on ourselves because we don’t have courage to see that this world doesn’t belong to us. We are only creatures living within it, no more or less important than any other.

NT: You’ve been doing this work for over ten years. What keeps you coming back?

KS: Love. Responsibility. Connection. I have photos of so many faces from the borderlands. I look at them periodically—jackrabbits, foxes, butterflies, people. They are all a part of my life. The vulnerability they face at the hands of the U.S. government is my vulnerability, too. Their lives and futures are on the line, and I feel a desperate need to help them.

NT: At end of your essay you ask: “Where will this end?” In your opinion, where will this end?

KS: I would like to say that we will realize what we are doing and change course. In the end, I hold out hope that this will happen. But I’ve seen too much about the way politics works, the way our power structures in Washington D.C. work, and the way our national news media works. I think it will be a long time before we truly change the course we are on.

If every person who cared about wildlife and the natural world picked up the phone and called their members of Congress every day saying no more walls and militarization of the border, we could turn this ship around in an instant. Barring that, it will take decades, and we may have walled off the entire border by then. So then it becomes a project of tearing that wall down. Whatever happens, I’m not giving up, even if I’m chipping at it with a pickaxe when I’m ninety years old.

NT: What is the most important takeaway for concerned readers from all your work?

KS: Consider the lives of those who do not have a voice in our society but depend on the land. This is not only true in the borderlands, but everywhere. I recently published a book called River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia. It’s about a river in the heart of Washington D.C., but fundamentally it’s about seeing all those who live in what Aldo Leopold called the “land community,” and honoring their need for home and habitat.

All my work is geared toward growing an awareness that we are not alone on the land, that everything we do to alter the world has ripples of implications—which can be negative or positive—on a vast community of other creatures.

New to Orion? First-time subscribers get an on-sale rate: One year (4 issues) for only $29.   

Five Questions for the Author: Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

I first met Elizabeth Rush when we were roommates for a Metcalf fellowship that got us to a Climate Adaptation Workshop in Missouri in 2015. We quickly realized how much our histories and interests overlapped, from once living amid the big trees of Oregon right down to tromping down the same flood-ravaged streets of Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy with reporter’s notebooks in hand. It’s with great interest that I’ve followed her progress in turning the Staten Island story, and so many others across the country, into her new book RISING: Dispatches from the New American Shore. In it, she gives voice to the people in communities most vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise as they wrestle with how to respond. 

On a hike this spring through a New England forest, we picked up our ongoing conversation about journalism, storytelling, and what it means for people to remake their lives when the shores they inhabit are transforming around them.

MS: How did the book Rising come about? What were you thinking about professionally and personally, and how did that answer the question of why you should write this book now?

ER: Back in early 2012, Le Monde Diplomatique sent me to India and Bangladesh to report on the completion of the world’s longest border fence. As it turned out the fence was more of a technicality. Sea level rise and water sharing were much more pressing concerns. While my article mentioned this briefly, the work itself continued to haunt me. When I returned to the United States I felt I could see what those whose lives were not dependent upon coastal land could not––that the very shape of our shore was changing. I went in search of someplace in the United States where sea level rise was playing out in the present moment, which is how I ended up in Louisiana.

At that very moment, my life was sort of falling apart. I had just broken off an engagement to the man I was supposed to marry. I moved out and was living in a rented room in Crown Heights. All of my things were in storage. Often I think this helped me to see the transformation of coastal land and those living atop it from a deeply personal lens. I became interested in the question of how a person can stay in a place, even when the place itself is changing irrevocably and how, when the time comes, they learn to let go of the places they love. In Louisiana I realized that erosion, saline inundation, and land loss, these very scientific phenomenon, were deeply transforming both the land and the inner worlds of those who had lived there for centuries.

MS: In Rising you regularly cross the climate divide to report from frontline communities that question human-made climate change even as they witness accelerating environmental change. Can you talk about this part of your reporting process?  

ER: In Rising I wanted to draw close to the places where climate change is being felt now, in the present moment. More often than not, along the coast, these are communities that are not being buffered by big-budget infrastructure projects. They are rural communities where residents have long made a living off their relationship with the land itself. These are communities that have not traditionally been directly engaged by environmental writers and thinkers, though I do think this is certainly changing, thanks in part to the election and columns like yours, “Middle Ground” at Inside Climate News.

Many in the communities I worked in were not keen to use the words “climate change” to talk about their particular experiences. They were happy to talk about changes in the environment but “climate change” felt too politically loaded. They would admit that winters were getting warmer and that they were flooding worse, year after year. Some would say they did think humans were causing it, while others would demur, saying something like, “I am not a scientist so I don’t know what is causing the flooding.”

To be honest, I met very few people who denied the phenomenon outright. Instead they refused to use the terminology. And who can blame them? The words “climate change” are so entrenched in political discourse at this point that they fail to describe what direct experience with climate change feels like. The term itself does not describe how difficult it is, for instance, to watch the land where your father grazed cattle fall into the sea.

MS: What changes or surprises did you or your sources witness over the five years of writing Rising?

ER: During the time it took me to write this book many of the predictions of how high sea levels could rise by 2100 have doubled. Put another way: it is not just that sea levels are rising, but the rate at which they are rising is speeding up too. Significantly. Back in 2011, when I really started to dig into the subject, most reports I were modeling three scenarios: a low rate of rise, a middle rate, and a high rate of rise. Usually the high rates of rise would max out at about plus three feet predicted by 2100 and today the higher rate scenarios often max out at about six feet of rise by 2100.

A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, which is based not on predictive models but on observational data, confirm this fact. It states: “if sea level continues to change at this [new] rate and acceleration, sea-level rise by 2100 will be more than double the amount if the rate was constant.” And some scientists think that even six feet by 2100 is a fairly conservative estimate, given what we know about how fast seas have risen in the historic past: often in rapid surges, jumping as much as fifty feet in three short centuries.

The people I interviewed for this book bear witness to these changes. They have watched many of their beloved coastal communities begin to be transformed by higher tides and stronger storms. “Our area has been flooding progressively worse year after year: more frequently, more often,” Frank Moszczynski of the Staten Island Alliance told me. “Before Sandy, which was the five hundred year storm, there was Irene, which was a two hundred year storm. The year before that we had a three hundred year storm. In less than three years we got over one thousand years of wild weather.”

That weather has increased flooding so mightily in his neighborhood that Frank and his neighbors banded together to petition the State to purchase and demolish their homes. And you know what? The citizens won. That little community in Staten Island is now participating in one of the most progressive climate change adaptation strategies known as “managed retreat.”

MS: Tell me more about these more radical approaches towards conservation and adaptation, especially given the recent findings that suggest that, for instance, the West Coast’s tidal wetlands will drown by 2110 if human communities don’t move up and in.

ER: In the past, when sea levels dropped, the marsh dropped down too, and when they rose the marsh rose with them. If you were to take an aerial time-lapse photo of the process of marsh migration, it would look as if the tidal wetlands and the ocean were moving in and out together, the way desire follows the desired. But today so many of our human communities are sited right up against the farthest inland edges of these marshes, impeding their ability to migrate. This means that, as sea levels rise, these tidal marshes will, unless we relocate, drown in place. Nearly fifty percent of the endangered species in the United States are wetland dependent, which is one of the biggest reasons why I would like to see conversation around managed retreat, like what is taking place in those communities in Staten Island, gain traction in the public debate.

One newer approach to conservation is called “conserving the stage,” and it suggests that if we want to keep a diversity of plant and animal life thriving on our changing planet, we need to begin to set aside areas that are rich in geophysical variation. That’s because, as the earth warms, species are on the move, many relocating up in elevation or poleward at a respective rate of thirty vertical feet and eleven miles every decade.

The idea behind “conserving the stage” is that we need to create arenas where evolution can continue to unfold. Instead of setting aside selected areas (a particular national park) or ecosystem types (wetlands refuges) as monuments to an idea of nature that is no longer tenable, we need to think about working on behalf of the physical factors that foster biodiversity in the first place: soil types, hydrology, landform variation, and, above all else, topography.

MS: John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, famously said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.” Which of these felt most dominant to you as you wrote this book?

National efforts toward mitigation are dwindling. Today many of the battles are being taken up at the state and local level. But Rising itself doesn’t really take on mitigation. Again, I wanted to think about what human and more-than-human communities living in and around wetlands do when there are not a lot of resources being made available.

This leaves us with few options: retreat or perish in place. I personally think of human retreat as a radical form of resilience. Not only does it allow more-than-human wetland communities the chance to move in, it is also proof of how adaptable we humans really are. We can learn to let go of the places we love. We can remake our lives in different locations. We will have to.

Often while writing I came back to something John Bear Mitchell, a Penobscot scholar and member of the Penobscot Nation, told my students back in 2015. He said, “Within a single human existence things are disappearing from the earth, never to be seen again. In Passamaquoddy [Maine] our sacred petroglyphs—those carvings in rock that were put there thousands of years ago—are now being put under water by the rising seas. We’ve seen this happen for a long time—this diminishing of our natural resources—through climate change and invasive species. The losses have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harpers, Guernica, Granta, Orion, and the New Republic, among others. In 2019 she will deploy to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica as the National Science Foundation’s Artist and Writer in Residence. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University, and teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University. Read more of her work on Orion.  

Meera Subramanian is a contributing editor of Orion, award-winning journalist, former MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow, and author of A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis. She just completed Finding Middle Ground, a series exploring perceptions of climate change across America for InsideClimate News. You can find her at www.meerasub.org