Elizabeth Rush on Listening to Those on the Frontline of Climate Change

I often find myself pulling books from my office shelves to loan to whatever MFA student or undergraduate has dropped in for a visit. It’s a delight to first listen to a curious writer discuss their ...

I often find myself pulling books from my office shelves to loan to whatever MFA student or undergraduate has dropped in for a visit. It’s a delight to first listen to a curious writer discuss their current ambition, hunger for a model, or project in which they’re feeling somewhat stuck, and then wordlessly reach up to grab the spine of a helpful companion for that particular moment in their process. The hope is that they’ll return the book once said moment has passed, but books are meant to be shared, so I don’t sweat it if the occasional title doesn’t make it home. In my decade of teaching, I’ve noticed that a few books consistently aren’t returned, copy after copy—I assume because the borrowers found too much in what they encountered to let it go. I’ve had to order several replacements of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, and, since its publication last June, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore has proven similarly difficult to keep.

My university’s essayists, magazine writers, and students in environmental studies are all drawn to Rush’s impressive book-length act of lyrical reportage because it succeeds in several capacities: as a timely discussion of a global issue, as a model for sharp scene work, as responsible reported content, and as a vivid example of specific artistic expression. These students (and perpetrators of petty larceny) rave about Rush’s clear vision as a writer, journalist, and communicator of scientific material—the book’s unique identity has a value to them in the face of many science writing titles that aim for a flatter affect. This climate change crisis requires both storytelling and individual vision, they tell me, and Rising serves as an impressive model on both accounts. That a book so singular, written on its own terms, was recently named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in “general nonfiction” thrills them (and me!) to no end.

Around the time I had to purchase my first replacement copy of Rising, Elizabeth Rush and I chatted about the making of her book. Among the topics we discussed: the art of interviewing, Svetlana Alexievich, the challenges of conveying massive subjects to a readership, and Rush’s magical interviewing pen.


Elena Passarello (EP): The “call to arms” of the book happens right away, in a scene of you in a wetland near your current home of Providence. There you reveal your “obsession” with the subject of sea level rise. Can you tell us more about the nature of this obsession, which in the end yielded Rising? What is it about sea level rise that rouses you in particular, compared to the myriad other by-products of climate change currently visible on our planet that could also constitute a book?

 

Elizabeth Rush (ER): Rising is one of those books with many beginnings. However, if I had to pinpoint the moment I became “all in” with sea level rise, I would say, without a doubt, it was during Hurricane Sandy. I was living in Brooklyn and teaching out at the College of Staten Island at the time. In the weeks after the storm Staten Island was in a state of quiet crisis. The university closed, the ferry stopped running. One day I drove across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to deliver a donation to a local help center at New Dorp High School. All along Father Capodanno Boulevard boats lay in the middle of the street, were smashed into these single-story ranch homes. I knew many of my students came from that neighborhood and that their lives, their homes, had come undone in ways I did not fully understand.

Staten Island, as a place, has a big town kind of feel. Many people have lived on the island for generations. Which is to say that when something like Sandy happens, it is deeply disturbing. A bunch of my students didn’t return to class when school started back up again. Some were living in temporary housing in New Jersey and were also working, so their jobs took precedence. They couldn’t afford to commute to both. It was then that I knew that sea level rise was already unsettling our very ideas of who we are and where we come from. And that felt like fertile ground on which to write a book. I didn’t want to foreground the science or to argue that sea level rise was happening so much as I wanted to explore how this impossibly large planetary phenomenon was already transforming the places we love and our definition of home.

 

EP: And then you set out and gathered the material for the post-Sandy scenes in the book?

 

ER: In Sandy’s wake, a journalist friend and I got really invested in the idea that many of those living in frontline communities were not being invited to tell their story of the storm and its aftermath. We started doing interviews around Staten Island and New Jersey and put together a detailed grant application to start a citizen journalism program that would be centered on those living on the margins telling their own Sandy stories. We were finalists for the grant but didn’t get the funding in the end. However, the idea stuck with me. How can we include the voices of those people most at risk, whose experiences are written about often by outsiders and abstractly, in the official record? And how can they enter into the discussion about climate change on their own terms?

 

EP: How did you make the decisions to go to the other locations (Louisiana, Florida, Maine, et cetera)? I guess I’m asking about how your understanding of the project, as it grew, dictated these “assignments.”

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ER: For the most part I was looking for communities that were not likely to receive money for high-tech, innovative infrastructure—places that were being affected by flooding now and were not candidates for living dunes and sea gates. I wanted to know how people were coming to terms with rising seas when there was not a lot buffering them from the losses that come with this condition. Put another way: we talk a lot about “resilience” these days, but resilience means different things in different locations. In Miami Beach “resilience” means flood pumps and raised roadways, while just five miles up the road in Shorecrest (a majority Latinx community), “resilience” means taking your shoes off and wading through the water. And I wanted to write a book that spoke to this distinction, that put the communities often overlooked when it comes to funding “resilient” infrastructure at the center of the story.

These were the parameters that brought me to the southern coast of Louisiana, which has been losing land at the lightning-fast rate of a football field per hour. There I spent a month on an island inhabited by Native Americans who were trying to hold on to the place that defined them even when that place was changing irrevocably. From there I returned to New York City and began reporting on a tight-knit, working-class coastal community in Staten Island that was petitioning the state to purchase and demolish their seaside homes! This shocked me, as many of the residents were Republicans and, as such, were some of the folks I least expected to be interested in what is arguably one of the most progressive climate change adaptation strategies out there: managed retreat. I figured that if they were embracing retreat as a viable option, it was something I ought to learn more about. That solidified a second theme in the book.

And right around this point in the process I began to realize that the communities most “at risk” today are also sited on top of or alongside wetlands. This latter designation brought me to the Sprague River Marsh in Maine, Jacob’s Point in Rhode Island, and out to Alviso in the southern spur of the San Francisco Bay, an area where wetlands were turned into the largest salt production complex in the world.

 

EP: Were there any communities or types of effects that you wanted to include in the book but could not? Relatedly, did you spend time in any communities that didn’t make it into the final version of the project?

 

ER: Oh gosh, I have about 30 notebooks full of notes from people and places that didn’t make it into Rising. Mostly there were additional stories within the broader geographic areas that I was exploring that I couldn’t include because I didn’t have the space. Like, I did a fair amount of work on how public housing in New Jersey was retrofitting their multifamily buildings to be flood ready post Sandy, and that didn’t make it into the book. Also, I spent about a third of my time in the Bay area in East Palo Alto (which was one of the epicenters of the black power movement back in the 1960s and ’70s), looking at how gentrification threatened the community from one side and sea level rise from the other, and that didn’t make it into the book. I wish I had made it to the Carolinas and to Georgia during my research. But in that case, I started to run out of time and knew I needed to add a West Coast location in order for Rising to really feel as though it were taking the pulse of local responses to sea level rise nationwide.

So at the end of the spring semester two years ago, I taught my last class and flew to California two days later. I spent about a month crashing on a friend’s pull-out sofa and wading into these really significant wetlands restoration and resilience projects. And just as soon as I had enough information to write, I loaded up my rental car, drove up Interstate 5, and locked myself away at a place called PLAYA. PLAYA, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a stunning residency perched on the edge of an ephemeral high desert lake in the middle of the Oregon outback. I was down to the wire and had about three weeks to pump out a rough draft of the final essay in the book. So I woke and wrote for eight hours a day; then I biked down the road to the natural hot springs, soaked, returned home, made dinner, fell asleep, and did it again. It was hectic and it was heaven.

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EP: Good lord, that sounds amazing. It also makes me curious about your reconstruction process. Your past two responses indicate that you were doing quite a bit of this wetland telling after (and away from) the fact—days later in the desert, or perhaps even longer for some of your other projects. In a book that’s tasked with recreating so many very specific spaces, what in your practice allows you to best present that kind of work?

 

ER: I create a very detailed multimodal record of every place I write about when I am there, standing knee-deep in marsh muck or chatting with a local shrimper. To do that I use three different media: audio recordings, photographs, and handwritten notes. Over time I learned that it is far easier for me to document a place and a set of interactions than it is for me to recreate a scene after the fact. One of my favorite tools to help in this process is called a Livescribe pen. This thing is 100 percent pure magic. On the surface it looks like a normal old pad and pen. But the pen has a recording device in it and the paper is covered in a tiny dot-matrix grid. This technology syncs the audio recording to the notes I write in my notebook, which I then upload into my computer. It is a gigantic time saver because instead of having to transcribe every conversation I record, I am able to open my files from that day, click on a word in my notes, and hear exactly what the person was saying at that given moment. Whenever I describe that thing I feel like I am in a James Bond movie talking about spy gadgets. It is seriously awesome.

On top of that fancy pen, which incidentally, if you are interested, isn’t very expensive (okay, I will stop with the Livescribe infomercial), I try to be really religious about writing down first impressions and end-of-the-day reflections. What are the things that stood out? How did I feel when first stepping foot on the island? All that stuff. If I don’t write it down in the moment, it is lost, and recreation often, with me at least, pretty quickly veers into the land of cliché. Finally, I am a big fan of snapping photos with my phone. For instance, there is a very detailed description of Edison Dardar’s workshop in the second essay in the book, and that was built out from a photo I took. I didn’t remember that there was a pregnant cat sitting on an overturned crate. That cat also didn’t turn up in my notes or my recordings, but I did have a photograph of it, so there it is in the book, lounging beneath a laminated poster of Jesus.

 

EP: That pen of yours always thrills me. I like to think that you’re the only person in the world who has one and it is your superpower. Your comment about interviewing leads me to another thing I’m interested to know about. Some of your subjects have their language presented via narrative scene work, so their quotes appear as part of a dialogue with you or others. But other voices get entire pages to themselves, out of scene, almost like monologues. How do you see these moments in the book, and what led you to create them?

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ER: Yes, the monologues. I also like to refer to them as the “testimonies,” where local residents bear witness to the world around them as it changes. Perhaps more specifically, in these sections the voices of everyday citizens rise from the page to tell a story, in their own words, of the moment that woke them into awareness that sea level rise was not a far-off or abstract phenomenon and that personal action must be taken now. To be honest, two books introduced me to the possibility of writing in this way, and one of them was yours, Let Me Clear My Throat. The other was, of course, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. I read your book first, and I remember being immediately enamored with the idea that you had chosen to write a book about the human voice and then had bent your form to reflect that choice. Let Me Clear My Throat is populated by a multitude of voices, many of which are not your own. We, the readers, get to hear from “The Frontman,” “The Motor-Mouth,” and one of my personal favorites, the Elvis interpreter, or “The King,” in addition to hearing from you through your gorgeous lyric prose.

So your book woke me up to the fact that it was possible to have other people’s voices appear alongside my own, and when I read Alexievich’s work I began to understand just how powerful it is when someone speaks, in the first person, about an event that will reshape the trajectory of their life. I included these testimonies to inject a sense of urgency into Rising. Not the kind of abstract, “the world is ending” urgency, but something more intimate and immediate. Climate change as a phenomenon is so slow moving, so place-based. It is about the late arrival of ice on the lake and the sap freezing in the branches of the stone fruit tree that thought that the winter was behind it—things that one can only really notice when one has been in place for a very long time. I have moved more than a dozen times in my life, so it is nearly impossible for me to see these changes, but there are plenty of folks who have been in place for a very long time. So I turned to them to tell their own story of what it means to watch the shape of our coastline shift.

 

EP: That’s a great point in terms of bringing urgency to the book (though it’s unreal, I suppose, to think any part of a book about climate change isn’t “urgent”). So much of Rising involves looking at a landscape that has changed and will change further, but you arrive at these places as the primary “camera” in the book in periods of relative calm. That does great service to other tonalities, but when we hear Nicole Montalto remember aloud the very dramatic events on Staten Island during Hurricane Sandy (a heartbreaking story that, when you read it at an event I attended, just riveted the room), the reader then has access to this harried, frightening, and very urgent part of the sea level rise narrative. Did you have a different code or practice when you were editing the monologues? How about when you perform them at readings?

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ER: I do, in fact, have a particular ethical and practical code I work with when doing “testimonial-style” essays. In creative nonfiction, often people start with the assumption that a writer will be working in ways that are similar to how a journalist might proceed (though John D’Agata has done an excellent job of exposing the shortcomings of swallowing this thinking hook, line, and sinker). When I think of journalism and the ethical codes that can define that profession I often end up thinking of the journalist as someone who is a public servant and is tasked with uncovering and exposing stories that would otherwise go unnoticed. The traditional journalist is responsible to their readers, and their job is to inform public discourse.

With these testimonial-style essays I feel that my first obligation is to the interviewee, to the speaker of the testimony. I want to make sure that I am getting their voice and their story correct. So I tend to do really long interviews, sometimes multiple interviews, which I then transcribe. Once I have a transcription I start cutting out the text that doesn’t feel central to the emotional heart of the story or its narrative arc. And once I have a rough draft I share the entire thing with the interviewee and ask for feedback. This is something that most journalists would not do, for instance, fearing that their interviewee would try to change or cut quotes. But I want my interviewees, in this case, to be collaborators with me in the creation of these testimonies. I want them to want to sign off on their story making its way into the world in this way. It is always really scary for me to send a draft to an interviewee, but it also keeps me very honest.

As for reading the pieces out loud in public, I have actually done very little of it at this point. That reading you reference is one of the few times I have read Nicole’s piece out loud. I did find, amazingly, that I felt my voice change as soon as I started to read that testimony. And in a sense that made me feel, very viscerally, that Nicole was present with us in the room. I am not an actress, so it felt surreal that this book was demanding that I act a little, that I learn what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. If that is not empathy, I don’t know what is.

 

EP: I notice that the jacket copy for Rising identifies the book as “lyrical reportage.” Can you talk a little about how you came to this style of presentation? Was it your voice, or did the project call for it? Where does the tradition of lyrical reportage begin—is Rachel Carson a lyrical reporter, for example? Why do you think discussions of our rapidly changing planet particularly benefit from this approach?

 

ER: I was actually, initially, trained as a poet. My favorite writing is lyrical. And when I say “lyrical” here, I am thinking that the narrative itself is not the sole thing driving the writing forward. The poems, essays, books I most enjoy often make their argument (if you can call it that) through proximity, white space, sound. I love how letting go of the idea of a thing—embracing instead, perhaps, the rhythm of it or the shape of it in your mouth—can open you up to new ways of thinking about that very thing itself. However, when I graduated from college I found out very quickly that it is hard to make a living as a lyric poet. So I started doing more journalistic work. I reported on different stories all over the world, from cattle smugglers on the India–Bangladesh border to the underground performance art scene in Myanmar. A lot of my initial writing on sea level rise was journalistic in nature. But there definitely came a time when I felt that the environmental journalism I was doing was often too abstract and at the same time too depressing. And those two things also made it too easy for readers to turn away from or forget these stories that I felt were deeply important. Rachel Carson was an inspiration, to be sure, as were Ryszard Kapuściński and Matt Power and Eula Biss. Many of the pieces in Rising I wrote first as newspaper articles and then a second time as lyrical reportage. And let me tell you, writing about these things with the heightened language of a poet felt like coming home.

 

EP: And finally, I’m curious about the fight between the tone of your subject matter and the energy necessary to sustain a project. My last book, all about animals, often felt like a real downer project—with nearly every animal I researched, even the ones whose stories originally seemed lighthearted, I ended up telling the tale of a compromised creature. It was challenging making a book that breathed and lifted and moved when the content was inescapably dark/violent/sad. And I think the nature of my project pales in comparison, tonally, to your subject matter. Was this a concern for you—putting energy/motion/thrust into a book that covers such a frightening, often depressing or woe-producing subject? If so, how did you combat that in your strategy? And if not, how did you view the tone of the subject matter?

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ER: One of the ways I combated, if only slightly, the depressing nature of the subject was to work to make the prose itself aesthetically pleasing, to lean into lyricism. On a larger level, I think it is important to understand that climate change communications is at a kind of crossroads. When I started out, many environmental writers had been sounding the “world is ending” alarm for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be working. Or it worked to wake people up to climate change, but the question then becomes, now what? I didn’t want to write another apocalyptic climate change story. I was very clear about that from the get-go, in part because I think they make people feel scared to the point of despondency.

One of the other ways I avoided slipping into that narrative was to really focus on those people who have no choice but to shape their lives to rising seas. The community of Native Americans that I mentioned earlier, when I first started visiting them, back in 2012, they were gardening in repurposed bathtubs to keep their plants’ roots out of the increasingly salty soil. I returned three years later to find out that they had won a big federal grant and were in the process of relocating inland to higher ground. Many people, far more than you would expect, with precious few choices are choosing to move away from risk, and I find that heartening in a way. Retreat as a strategy only makes financial sense if everyone does it together, rich and poor alike. And it is one of the few climate change adaptation strategies that will also give the more-than-human world humming in our tidal wetlands the chance to move too. I mean to say, it is radically egalitarian. This is what kept me buoyant through the writing of Rising: the possibility that we might be able to move away from our rising seas instead of being forced. And that those who are already in the middle of the process can tell us the stories we need to hear in order to learn how to let go of the places we love.

 

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon