Here is the physical proof talking with elizabeth rush – the rumpus.net

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.