Here Is the Physical Proof: Talking with Elizabeth Rush
The debate over climate has often been defined by politicians and interest groups, its effects dismissed as a problem felt by people in faraway island nations. But in her new book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, Elizabeth Rush documents how communities around the country are feeling the impacts of climate change now.
In a reported tour of American coastal communities, Rush uses lyrical prose and empathic connection to transcend what we’ve come to think of as climate reporting, emerging with something refreshingly alive and her own.
I interviewed her in June at my home in Washington, DC, a stop on her book tour during which, at a bookstore near the Capitol, she read aloud from her intensely political—and personal—politician-free book.
The Rumpus: Let me start by saying as a friend, professional admirer, and fellow climate reporter, I’m so glad you’re giving a reading in DC because, while you don’t quote a politician anywhere in this book, I think it has some crucial information for them. Was it a conscious choice to sidestep a political conversation that is missing the mark?
Elizabeth Rush: I hadn’t noticed that I hadn’t quoted a politician until you pointed it out. [Laughs] However, the desire to take citizens who are living through really fundamentally transformative experiences on the frontlines of climate change and put them front and center in the book, and then also including the scientists who work in areas in or adjacent to where those citizens live to give a kind of validity to their lived experience through science, that was intentional.
The lived experience of climate change came first. I wanted to sidestep the political discussion because water doesn’t know the difference between a Democrat or a Republican. People all over this country and the world—we’re all finding ourselves in the same soggy position with a set of limited options.
When I was in Louisiana five years ago, my first trip out, something I would hear again and again and again was: We’re so alone in this. No one else is in a situation that’s similar. We don’t feel like we have a lot of other people we can go to who know what we are living through.
So I wanted to write a book that created this kind of idea of a coalition between flood victims and survivors. What does it mean to understand that maybe you’re not alone in this condition, and what do other people who are in a somewhat similar position do?
That seemed to me like vitally important information to share.
Rumpus: You’re not a traditional climate reporter. How did you come to this book?
Rush: I would say in many ways I think of myself as a poet first. So I wrote a collection of lyric poems that were largely about how female bodies encounter space and in particular wilderness and the wild under Katie Ford at Reed College, and I think of her as the woman who turned me into a writer.
I worked on these poems all summer and then I had a year to work with her and I handed her a stack of poems that I’d labored on and she handed them back to me and said, “This isn’t poetry.” She was really hard on me. And then spent an hour with me every week—and as a professor now I understand what an enormous gift that was—editing my work. She always said, Edit toward exactitude but in the mystery.
Nonfiction isn’t always engaged with creating the most beautiful work, and in writing Rising I wanted to craft it in such a way that the language had a little bit of a power to intoxicate and to keep people engaged. There was an idea that heightened language could help engage some folks who might find climate writing a little dry or easy to walk away from.
Rumpus: Why climate change?
Rush: I’d spent a lot of time reporting on urban development in Southeast Asia, and I knew probably five years into that if I didn’t pivot soon I would just continue to get stories about urban development in Southeast Asia or other stories about Southeast Asia.
I came back to the United States, and I was teaching at the College of Staten Island when Hurricane Sandy hit and the campus closed for like two weeks and when it reopened, a lot of my students were gone. A lot of students at the College of Staten Island work and go to school at the same time. They were displaced, and then a lot of them were living in temporary housing. If they had a set of priorities, their priorities became continuing to work. Studying took a back seat.
We did lose a lot of students after Sandy and that struck me as a way in which climate change was already dismantling coastal communities but in a way that wasn’t easily reported on by news media and certainly went un- or under-reported after Sandy.
Rumpus: So you were reading these stories about what climate change might do far away or in the future while being in it?
Rush: While being in it and realizing that it’s just fundamentally in this insidious way dismantling some of the places we call home and the people who usually, though not always, have to face a very difficult set of decisions around what to do when their homes are flooding.
I’ve heard it put that the options are pretty basic: You either raise your house up or raze it to the ground and leave. And there are places where raising it up is just too financially costly.
Rumpus: At what point did you realize you would be writing so much about swamps? Did you understand the problem of salinization in coastal marshes here beforehand?
Rush: I didn’t come into this book with that knowledge so that was in some ways an eye-opening experience and one that I hoped to carry readers into. Each chapter opens with a picture of a tree that’s died because of saline inundation in that location. Climate change can be hard to observe in our day-to-day lives. But these trees are very clear markers: sea levels are rising. Here is the physical proof. They are such ghostly forms and they are proof of sea level rise that anyone who knows what to look for can see.
The East Coast in the US has a tremendous amount of tidal marshes, which at a topographical level are all very similar because they’re all within six feet of mean high tide, so that just means they’re all incredibly vulnerable and just a one-foot rise in sea level is already putting significant portions of them underwater.
Rumpus: Swamps get a bad name. Among the most popular things to say last election was, “Drain the swamp!” which is precisely what you think people should not do—literally.
Rush: That’s correct. Literally, we’ve drained a lot of swamps and there are multiple disastrous effects of draining swamps that I guess we won’t get into.
But I grew up in an area that had tons of tidal marshes as a kid, and we hiked in mountains and went on forest walks but we never went to go hang out in the marsh, even though it’s a really dynamic ecosystem that in many ways defines a lot of the green space along the East Coast. They’ve often been associated with, like, marsh monsters and swamp serpents and alligators.
There’s a long period of people thinking that if you went to a marsh you would develop these horrible coughs and then die, and I’m sure there’s some connection. We know that mosquitoes breed in swamps. So before the awareness of mosquitoes being a vector for disease, there was just this idea, this association, that if you go to the swamp, you’re going to get really sick. It’s not the swamp that’s doing that necessarily, it’s probably the mosquito.
They also are really hard to place property lines around. Tidal marshes by definition are usually underwater for some portion of the day and that means that it’s really hard to say, Okay, what is this. Is this land? Is this ocean?
Rumpus: How does that affect the communities living there?
Rush: The places that flood when sea levels are less static are often considered less valuable land and so the people who buy it often have done so because they didn’t have a lot of other options.
Rumpus: One thing I found really refreshing about your book was its human approach to reporting. But sometimes as a reporter you have to ask rude questions. How do you walk the line between being a good reporter and human?
Rush: I think about that a lot. I often think of a reporter as working in service of the general public and your job is to, especially perhaps in the context of politics, break through the boilerplate and try to understand what’s going on behind this veneer. You’re a public servant, and I think of myself, in some ways, as a servant to the communities that I spend time in.
There are limits to that, for sure. I don’t always ask the really rude question. But the book has all these testimonies in it from people in the places where I spent time. And there are these long sections that are written entirely in the voice of the person I’m speaking to, and they’re the result of transcription and then significant reshuffling and condensing down into a narrative arc. But it’s all their language and it’s all the result of extended, often repeated, interviews. A reporter wouldn’t typically show interviewees the final product like that. But every single person whose testimony appears in the book I showed a draft ahead of time, and I said, I want your feedback. You have to be on-board. You have to sign off on me having your voice in my book in this way.
Rumpus: One of the words you just used that I like was “veneer,” and specifically, breaking through it. It speaks to something your book does really well in moving in and out of your own interior monologues. You’ll say what you said, and then what you thought, and then what you dreamt, and read, and can imagine going forward. You’re constantly moving in and out of the conscious world, and you do that really fluidly, moving between your thinking and your feeling in a way that we typically consider the province of fiction.
Rush: I think a lot of people who I read and love and devour and are contemporary are pretty good at that. The first person who jumps to mind is Eula Biss, who writes a lot about white privilege and racism but also recently had a whole book on inoculations and that book is an incredible deep-dive into the history of vaccinations, but it’s also a deep-dive into the history of the science of vaccinations. And she has a child and she has to go through the process of thinking about whether she’s going to get her child vaccinated. I find that that bleed between the things that she’s writing about and the ways that it’s shaping and reshaping her inner world deeply compelling as a reader. So I wanted to do that.
Rumpus: You also offer up personal information about yourself to the people you’re interviewing, and in the places where you do that—I’m thinking of Chris Brunet in Louisiana—it makes for some of the deepest source relationships you have.
Rush: I think it happened on one of those early reporting trips to Louisiana because the Isle de Jean Charles is where Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed, and when I got there I was certainly not the first outsider to come in and be interested in that space and those people.
I felt a bit of distance for the first couple days. I was also, at the time, leaving a fairly abusive relationship. I literally packed my suitcase in New York City and went to Louisiana to work on this story and I never moved back into that apartment with the guy to whom I’d been engaged to be married.
So the first couple days I would go out and do these interviews and then I would literally go back to the house that I had rented and like, just cry, which sounds somewhat melodramatic but it was hard.
Rumpus: And it probably affected your headspace a lot in writing about transience and loss.
Rush: Yeah, and how do you let go of something you love when the initial bargain that you had has changed and that thing that you loved has turned into a source of pain or is harming you? So I remember at some point telling Chris—who has really become a friend through the writing of this book—that I was leaving this relationship and I asked his advice even as I was asking him personal questions about his life: How do you think about letting go of the island? I have to think about letting go of this person.
That exchange just changed everything.
Rumpus: I think a lot of writers would be afraid that readers would think, Oh, you’re comparing your personal problems to systematic retreat.
Rush: I was deeply afraid of that! And I wanted to be very specific in the language that I used so that readers would know that I don’t think they’re synonymous. But as a practice, making myself vulnerable as a human being with my interviewees was really important. We all have different access points and entryways into vulnerability—I don’t think they have to be synonymous vulnerabilities. We all do know, a lot of us know, what it feels like to be vulnerable.
That’s important: if you don’t live on the coast, how do you imagine what it’s like to lose it?
Rumpus: It certainly seemed to enhance your connection with Chris.
Rush: He calls me every Christmas and Easter and I usually call him every Thanksgiving and we just chat—it’s nice.
Rumpus: That’s so interesting because in journalism, political journalism certainly, you’re taught to be a fly on the wall. You seem to be saying, I’m not a fly—I’m a human. Let’s talk!
Rush: It didn’t feel to me like objectivity was the thing I had to strive for; that felt disingenuous. When I sent out a very early book proposal and an editor was interested in it, she said, Why don’t you write the “Cadillac Desert” of sea-level rise? This is really fascinating! And I went home and thought long and hard about it, and thought, This is exciting. They’re a big publishing house. Then I thought, I don’t think I want to write the “Cadillac Desert” of sea-level rise. That’s a much more objective, first-person history of water-sharing in the US. And it’s a tome, it’s like six hundred pages long. I thought, No, that’s not my book.
I got to this moment where I was like, Should I pursue a book that doesn’t have “I” in it? They were interested in it. And I was like, Oh! Someone’s interested! That’s exciting.
Ultimately, as a writer with my initial experiences, it was not the book I wanted to write, though it was scary to walk away from an opportunity.
Rumpus: Something I like about your choice to include “I” is that it almost doesn’t feel like a choice—there doesn’t seem to be a tradeoff. “I” is in there, but you also zoom out to the level of the solar system and what happened five hundred years ago, and dinosaurs, and also look into possible futures while still also being very grounded in the present.
Have you dispensed with the notion you have to choose between writing personally and writing big?
Rush: I often tell my students, Think metonymically. A metonym is when you say something like, All hands on deck. By hands you mean sailors. So what’s the tiny exactitude that can stand in for and be the sort of gestural toward the larger concept?
I don’t think that by grounding yourself in an “I” and being very specific you have to give up the universal at all.
Rumpus: I’m interested in your use of landscapes—how central they are to your writing, how often your stories start with them, end with them, are interlaced with them, how you write people into them.
We typically think of landscape-oriented art, be it writing or painting, as being apolitical, typically of pretty flowers and sunsets. How do you think about it?
Rush: I’ve learned to un-think that because landscapes are definitely infused with politics.
Rumpus: What does the natural world mean to you? We hear so much about the whole man-in-the-wild narrative that for me it is genuinely exhilarating to hear a woman writing about it from a passionate place. But it’s a different place. There’s less conquering involved.
Rush: I think there’s less conquering involved because throughout my teens and twenties I got dragged on those conquering missions and felt somewhat imperiled by them. So that instinct has never been my instinct. I’ve never wanted to put my body at the edge of oblivion and see how well it can handle that pressure. That’s not something I actively seek out.
I really enjoy long walks and long bike rides outside by myself. It’s a time for me to be outside some of the social responsibilities I might have to other human beings. I think of it as a time when I get to be in the world, fully inhabiting my body in a kind of unmediated way. And that’s really exciting to me.
And that doesn’t have to be about, I climbed the tallest mountain.
Rumpus: Does it help you go into deeper places? One of the things you do in this book is move from what are fairly superficial or technical conversations into these deeper emotional states of being. How do you access those spaces and do you have to be in the outdoors to access them?
Rush: The outdoors is certainly sort of a shunt to those spaces for me—it gets me there faster with less labor. How do I do it? I think there are two ways that it happens. With a lot of communities that I write about I often am really deliberate to just spend a lot of time walking them and being on the ground in them and not always seeking out interviews.
Rumpus: You talk at one point in your chapter on Staten Island about walking around instead of biking, about wanting to slow down.
Rush: I walk really slowly and deliberately and I always have my notebook and I take a lot of notes. Also if I stop to take a note I might see some wild carrot and then it’s, Oh that’s Queen Anne’s lace! Oh that’s a rampike!
That note taking slows me down in one space. And if I don’t take those notes, I get back to my computer and I can’t remember any of the specificity in that time and that space. They’re not always full sentences, my notes. They might be just nouns.
Then there’s the end of the day when I’ll usually do some reflection at home about the emotional weight of the day and I’ll write that down. And I write everything down with pad and pen.
Rumpus: That’s interesting. It’s slower and your body is more in the stroke of the letter than when typing at a keyboard.
Rush: I guess that is the writer in me that is more personal, that is more quiet, that is less networked into all of these political conversations that happen on the internet. That space is just my space.
And then, also, I had the pleasure of getting a couple writing residencies and I’d work for eight hours and then I’d go hiking for the afternoon. And sometimes wringing my body out would help me come back to the text and access some of that deeper thinking.
Photograph of Elizabeth Rush © Stephanie Ewens.