The science and consequences of global warming have inspired so many excellent books that one might reasonably ask what Elizabeth Rush can add with her new book, “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore.’’
The short answer is: a writer’s sensibility.
Rush, who teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University, has chosen to examine climate change through the lens of American places and people devastated by rising seas and higher temperatures. Reading her book is like learning ecology at the feet of a poet rather than a scientist.
You visit the eastern shore of Staten Island, where Loisann Kelly saw her living room fill with water in a matter of minutes when Hurricane Sandy raged ashore in 2012. “I’ve seen scary things,’’ Kelly tells Rush. “I saw the plane hit the Twin Towers. But this was worse.’’
To the south, Rush finds Alvin Turner, a retired widower in the Tanyard district of Pensacola, Fla., where his neighbors place their homes on cinder blocks and wade through streets of ankle-deep water — not occasionally, but every time it rains.
An empathetic writer and observer, Rush hints that she is learning alongside you. “To most, a wetland is just a mess of grass,’’ she writes. “The sulfuric scent of decomposition. But I am beginning to see them as divining rods, signaling where there will be more water in the future. And even more importantly, that the future is, in many cases, already here.’’
Rush’s literary framing does not always succeed. Her detours into memoir, though brief, can be distracting rather than enlightening. She lacks the reportorial acuity of Elizabeth Kolbert, whose books and New Yorker essays always seem to take you to the hard frontier of climate science and climate change. And her metaphysical premise — that “naming things’’ can help us appreciate nature — seems inapt, since it was humankind’s insistence on defining nature that caused this mess in the first place.
Nonetheless, this is a lovely and thoughtful book, so lyrical that you forget how much science it delivers.
I didn’t know that big patches of New York City — Chinatown, East Harlem, the Rockaways — were once wetlands, natural sponges that mitigated flooding until people paved them over.
Then there is this tutorial on the fragility of nature: The roseate spoonbill, with a beak “shaped like a serving utensil,’’ feeds in shallow water by scooping up fish; when the water level in its south Florida nesting grounds rose by just a few inches, the birds had to leave or starve.
In the end, what lingers is Rush’s cast of characters — and their slow dread as familiar places succumb to unfamiliar forces. She quotes Laura Sewall, a New England ecologist with ancestral roots along Maine’s Sprague River Marsh: “I need time to just be here before I can decide whether to stay or not. My guess is that I will tap into so much gratitude for my life alongside this marsh that I may just become an old lady who drowns right here.’’
Dave Hage is an editor at the Star Tribune.
By: Elizabeth Rush.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 320 pages, $26.