An Elegy to the Present 

We're losing a lot right now.

Last year, from the window of my Manhattan-bound A train, I watched the late August sun paint the worn-down docks, stilt houses and tall cordgrass brilliant shades of orange and pink as the train wobbled past Jamaica Bay. Every now and then, clusters of sandpipers and laughing gulls, with their horrible guffaws, dived into the glittering water. By all means, I should have been content, but exhausted from a day’s worth of swimming and meandering around the Rockaways. Yet, there I was, wiping hot tears from my face. All I could think about was how these marshes — so integral to the protection of seaside communities (who tend to be lower income, despite popular belief) — will be the first to go when sea levels rise. 

Granted, I didn’t care for marshes until I impulsively bought Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore at my local bookstore a few days beforehand. I had been looking for books that were loosely about climate migration for my thesis and this one seemed like a good beach read, despite not specifically focusing on international migration. Instead Rush, a trained-poet-turned-intrepid-journalist, reports on various coastal communities across the country who have faced the question of whether or not they should retreat away from the shore. She also intricately weaves in the consequences of certain environmental regulation decisions, moving testimonials from those who have already suffered from rising sea levels and includes her own poignant observations. The result is a sprawling, gripping narrative that lays out the case for managed retreat and a revitalization of wetlands, a vital buffer for those living along the coast.

In moments of stillness, I think about how Rush describes rampikes and rhizomes, dead trees and budding roots, decay and rebirth. Rising does something many climate books fail to do: explore hope without bogging it down with the nitty-gritty of climate science. Rush confronts the inevitability of our self-made destruction, but with power and beauty. “In a hundred years none of these trees will be here,” she writes. “No object thick with pitch to make the mind recollect. And if we do not call them by their names we will lose not only the trees themselves but also all trace of their having ever been.” Language, arguably, is the heart of Rising: What does it mean to be a climate migrant or refugee? What is resiliency, exactly? Is home where you’re from or is it what you make of it? From the coasts of Maine to California, Rush wrestles with these definitions with a tactile empathy for those now fleeing from rising sea levels, all while federal and local governments refuse to offer desperately needed solutions. She also has her own rather elegant term for climate anxiety: “Like motion sickness or sea sickness,” Rush argues, “endsickness is its own kind of vertigo — a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon.”

I’ve felt that same endsickness for some time now. I anguish over the low-income communities of color, like my own, who will be further exploited by the amplification of structural injustices brought on by radical environmental changes. I mourn those who will have to leave their homes as an estimated 200 million to one billion people will be forced to move, either within or outside of their borders, because of climate change in the next thirty years. There may be four feet of sea level rise or there might be six by 2050; regardless, the world will be in desperate need of climate adaptation solutions because it took us too long to wake up. And now, the endsickness is only amplified by disease and government mismanagement. A disaster on top of another disaster on top of another. It’s hard to feel any hope. 

But there is room for reclamation and appreciation. That’s the beauty of effective creative nonfiction: it sticks with you. Before things went remote in March, I shoved my sand-filled, sunscreen-smelling copy of Rising into my tote and carried it with me wherever I went. I embarked on a coastal journey of my own for my thesis, which had pivoted towards climate-based buyouts in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island; Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana; and Newtok, Alaska. I prepared in small ways, like studying the different scientific names of cattail plants and mangrove trees, and larger ways by interviewing people about their own experience. I revisited some of the places where Rush stood and it felt comforting to have her words in my hands, guiding me through the liminal, uncertain space that is the present. Months after these travels, I still think about how flooded Isle de Jean Charles’ main road was after a tiny drizzle and how I couldn’t drive down my rental car without being submerged myself. With Hurricane Laura, I can’t imagine that there’s much road left.

As a work of reportage, Rising raises awareness of disappearing coastlines with ease. However, as an elegy, it pushes the boundaries of when and how the material world can be memorialized. Typically, we only grieve when things are gone, not when they are threatened. Thirty years from now, I will be 51 years old, parts of New York City will be underwater and perhaps I won’t have a Rockaway beach to return to. Instead, it will be a distant, forlorn memory. 

But I will remember valiantly and with precision and detail. For a book to inspire so much resolve is a feat.  

Here’s what I read this week: 

Here’s what I published: A ton apparently? I wrote about how COVID and climate change has put California residents and firefighters at risk for VICE. For GEN, I talked to the geniuses behind the “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands” headline AND some very tender high schoolers about going back.

And here’s a fun recommendation for your weekend: Go to the farmer’s market and buy some peaches! They’re in season right now and you can make a delicious caprese salad with them (grill them or have them raw, tear up some mozz, toss in some basil and balsamic reduction and voila!!).

If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share with your family, friends, enemies, lovers, acquaintances, etc. And if you’re feeling extra generous, feel free to Venmo me (@izzie_r). This newsletter is made with lots of love and your support is how I know how much you want from me. Thanks again for reading!

Also, heads up: The Edit is moving to a bi-weekly schedule to accommodate for me going to graduate school (lol). We’ll see how doable that is. Love you all!!