“What’s the story?” stream ecologist Jim Sedell constantly asked. I met Jim when the tides of change washed me to Oregon in the early ‘90s, and I was rather surprised when he appeared a couple weeks ago, in a book.
The book, called Forest Under Story, is an artful collection of writings born in a Pacific Northwest research forest. It’s dedicated to Jim, who died in 2012. Not the sort of book one stumbles across in Kansas, Forest Under Story showed up as I rooted around online for tree titles after getting thoroughly energized by Richard Powers’ towering new work of arboreal fiction, The Overstory.
Just as I wouldn’t expect to find a temperate rainforest book in Kansas, I didn’t expect to find a chapter about said forest in Rising, a powerful new book by Elizabeth Rush about sea-level change at the American shore. What’s the story? thought I, but it fits, and only partly because Rush was a writer-in-residence at the very program whose work previously led to Forest Under Story.
Rising, like that book as well as The Overstory, is science told through stories, and it deserves a wide readership. If Elizabeth Kolbert and Terry Tempest Williams and Charles Mann and Craig Childs (all of whom I’ve written about in this space) give it glowing blurbs, that should tell you something.
Rush takes us around the salt-watery edge of the U.S., moving from Maine, Rhode Island, and New York, along Florida and Louisiana, then up to California and the ancient forest in Oregon. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rising has surfaced during hurricane season. South Texas is flooding (again) as I write. Katrina, Sandy, Irma, and Harvey have become more than just names. Yet the creeping specter of sea level rise, well under way and destined only to get worse, garners far less attention than these dramatic manifestations, despite the headlines we read every day:
"Sea level rise could cut off wastewater service to millions." "Antarctica is melting way faster than anyone expected." "The U.S. just experienced its warmest 3-, 4-, and 5-year spans on record." "Accelerated sea level rise is being driven by rapidly increasing melt from Greenland and Antarctica." And on and on, and up.
Without submerging the relevant science, Rush, an award-winning science writer, focuses on people who are living through it, their lives upended often several times. This even catches the author by surprise: “…What I once thought of as inquiry into vulnerable landscapes—and the plants and animals that call those places home—has also become an inquiry into vulnerable human communities.”
Human communities are indeed integral parts of nature’s communities, as disasters so often make clear. As our eyes begin to see what’s right in front of us, no matter where we live, it’s hard to avoid such a realization. Skeletal trees that have died due to salt water infiltrating their root zones, called rampikes, are pictured at the start of each of the book’s sections, trees again connecting the dots, reminding us of the often deadly effects of unseen forces.
Often while reading I was reminded of the words of writer Rebecca Solnit: "climate change is violence." Then, in the middle of her inquiries, Rush shares a #MeToo moment she’s forced to endure and confront. It’s a well-written account of an uncomfortable intrusion, somewhat paralleling her environmental subject matter. Yet the tone of Rising is one of caring and sympathy, with plants and animals and fellow humans, whether shrimpers from Louisiana or victims of Hurricane Sandy or restoration ecologists in California.
What’s the story? A slow awakening, a rising and compassionate awareness.
-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.