Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush

This study of rising sea levels puts both science and poetry to work in honoring human and non-human coastal communities across the United States.

Journalist Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore is science, poetry and personal witness, concerned with human and more-than-human communities. It is a reckoning with the ugly reality of climate change, with numbers and predictions becoming grimmer each year. It is a poetic meditation on the nature of change, on how people can make peace with a changing world and our agency in it. And it is an impassioned consideration of the injustices humans perpetrate on one another, and on the non-human world.

Rush saw firsthand the reality of rising sea levels in inland Bangladesh, when a boy named Faharul showed her his dying mustard greens, their veins filling with salt. It took her years to follow that story to the U.S. communities she visited in researching and writing this book. In Rhode Island, Louisiana, Maine, Florida, New York, Oregon and California, Rush interviews local residents, observes local flora and fauna and questions scientists. She studies climate change and the rise of sea levels globally, but particularly in wetland ecosystems.

Rush’s concerns begin with plants and animals: salt marsh harvest mouse, roseate spoonbill, Caspian tern, rufous hummingbird, red knot, black tupelo. But she quickly extrapolates them to tell a human story, too, about the people threatened alongside greater egret and cypress, and about her own struggle to navigate hope and action within despair. “I have a hard time separating excavation from elegy.” The loss of islands on Louisiana’s coast means the loss of Native communities there, and to understand that loss, one must recognize that those communities were formed by relocated tribes of Chitimacha, Biloxi, Choctaw and Acadian people pushed out of their original homes all over the continent. This is but one example of the vulnerable populations most at risk and least assisted by social supports.

Appealingly, Rush puts her research and writing to work alongside the perspectives of coastal residents: interwoven chapters are told in other voices. She makes allusions to the story of Noah and his ark, and to Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, seeking the right reference point. Striking black-and-white photographs from Rush’s travels add another gorgeous, elegiac layer to the narrative she helps to construct. Finally, an alliterative organizational structure stemming from wetland botanical structures makes this a book to be admired on many levels.

Rising is in some ways a difficult read. Its subjects are sobering and saddening, and survivors of flood events may be re-traumatized by some descriptions. The human-on-human crimes Rush documents include both discriminatory lending practices and sexual assault. These are important subjects to consider, regardless of the pain they may cause, but Rising has more to offer: pulsing, gleaming prose and a stubborn search for, if not hope, then peace in the face of disaster.


This review originally ran in the May 24, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 10 rampikes.

(Yes, that good, even though it made me terribly depressed too.)

guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Mike Shanahan’s Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is a deceptively brief account of the Ficus genus of trees in history, emphasizing but not limited to their relationship with humans. Shanahan brings the expertise of decades of ecological fieldwork and a bubbling enthusiasm to a topic clearly close to his heart. He makes a strong argument that his readers should be attuned to and excited about fig trees, too.

The plant figures into the origin stories of cultures all over the world. Fig trees have provided food, shelter, medicine and materials to humans for as long as humans have existed: figs predate us by nearly 80 million years. Because of their contributions as keystone species in ecosystems around the world, figs offer distinctive services in reforestation efforts and the mitigation of climate change. They have contributed to the theory of evolution, the birth of agriculture and possibly humans’ development of opposable thumbs. The story of the fig is inseparable from that of fig wasps, numerous tiny insect species that have evolved to pair respectively in symbiosis with individual species of fig. Shanahan relates all this and more in a joyous voice with occasional lyricism, as when “the Buddhist monk’s robe sang out loud saffron over the rainforest’s muffled tones of brown and green and grey.”

Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rhinoceros hornbills.

Creative Nonfiction, issue 58: Weather (winter 2016)

You can buy issue 58 here.

You can buy issue 58 here.

I always find something to appreciate from Creative Nonfiction. And in this issue, I confess, I had the added thrill of seeing several essays I got to read as submissions, that made it all the way to publication. Being a reader for CNF has been an incredible learning experience for me.

In this weather-themed issue, I really enjoyed Joe Fassler’s interview with Al Roker (Fassler wrote the essay “Wait Times” that I found so mesmerizing). Andrew Revkin’s essay about climate change, on the other hand, though much praised by editor Lee Gutkind, failed to grasp me: I found it overlong and less-than-gripping, and I guess also I found his opinions hard to access.

Interestingly, among the essays in the magazine’s main section, I was more excited about Ashley Hay’s “The Bus Stop” and Tim Bascom’s “My First Baptist Winter” than I was about the prize-winning “Recorded Lightning” by Amaris Ketcham: I enjoyed Ketcham’s writing very much, but the lightning-shaped text formatting which I think ‘made it’ for some readers only distracted me. Beatrice Lazarus’s “The Snow” was another interesting reading experience. I found the writing sometimes lovely and sometimes awkward, and the story’s steering between extreme weather and human violence took me a minute to grab onto. There is no question these are all impressive essays, but as usual, some worked better for me, personally, than did others.

Sejal H. Patel’s “Writers at Work” piece, called “Think Different,” lets Patel and five other memoirists discuss the impact of technologies on how we access and write about our memories. How does Google Earth, for example, help or confuse our recollections of the houses we grew up in? (Much more on this topic lies within The House That Made Me, which I recommend if this subject interests you.)

This issue of CNF is not the one I’ve enjoyed most, but there’s no shortage of thoughts provoked. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 7 tornadoes.

Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack

This broadly appealing travelogue combines carefully crafted writing with immersion in Northern lands and contemplation of the idea of home.

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Malachy Tallack comes to identify the northern Scottish archipelago of Shetland as home only after a long and troubled journey away and back again. In Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home, Tallack grapples with the concept of belonging to a place, while traveling around the world on a single parallel. “For just as we inhabit the landscape, the landscape inhabits us, in thought, in myth and in memory.” He opens with the evocatively titled chapter “Homegoing,” and wraps up, naturally, with “Homecoming.” The chapters in between might be characterized as home-seeking.

These titles serve as shorthand for a considerably more complicated story. Tallack was not born in Shetland, but a loss he suffered in his teens left him there, feeling stranded. Ever since, he has vacillated with the attraction of other places, of movement, and the comforting appeal of an idea of home. Sixty Degrees North describes his travels through Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia and Scandinavia, which occupy the space of a year and thus document the North’s extreme seasons. This voyage is literally perambulatory, as Tallack compulsively walks, learning towns and cities by foot. In recalling an earlier time spent in Siberia, he studies his attraction to this place from a greater distance. He pursues home, even as he revolves around it.

While largely concerned with interior musings, Tallack makes a remarkable survey of cultures, climates and histories along the way. Ongoing themes include ties to nature and to community; the tension between isolation and engagement; stasis, movement and exile. His topics range over colonialism and native cultures, and the significance of peat, salmon and reindeer to indigenous peoples. He examines Scandinavia’s social and political systems, particularly in the Åland Islands, which belong officially to Finland but are politically independent and have a majority Swedish population. He touches on the science of climate change, the relative definition of “north” and the question of “denordification… as though by changing, by developing, by warming, the north can actually become less like itself.”

An introverted, quietly likable but troubled narrator, Tallack experiences no momentous events in the course of his travels, and even few conversations. His writing is thoughtfully composed, beautiful and often surprising, such as when he observes, “Loss shapes us like a sculptor, carving out our form, and we feel each nick of its blade.” Sixty Degrees North is not a book of action, but rather an extended meditation, on longing and belonging, on personal ties to place and on the particular nature of a certain band of earth and sea.


This review originally ran in the June 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 degrees (in two senses).

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

In this phenomenal exploration of U.S. National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams turns her smart, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future and how we relate to one another.

hour of land

Celebrated conservationist Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge; When Women Were Birds) commemorates the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. In 12 chapters, she explores 12 parks, their histories and futures. Ecology forms a natural overarching theme, but Williams’s topics are variously personal, global and political. The places she visits range from Alaska to Maine to south Texas, while her subjects span still broader ground: biodiversity and water shortages; suicide and hopelessness; continuing unrest in U.S. relations with Native Americans; climate change; political prisoners from around the globe; and the legacy of the Civil War. Her writing is poetic, passionate and unexpected.

In each chapter, Williams describes a visit to a specific national park, and then investigates the place and her experience there, sometimes directly through narrative storytelling and sometimes metaphorically. She begins with Grand Teton National Park, where her family has often returned over the decades and generations. The history of that park’s founding and the establishment of the Parks system melds with her family story: “Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside.” With her father, who spent his career laying pipe for industry and development, and a park superintendent, she tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Together they birdwatch and debate the balance between fossil fuel extraction and conservation. In Acadia National Park, Williams muses that parks may be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” She finds Gettysburg National Battlefield representative of sustained resentments, pain and violence, and at Effigy Mounds National Monument, she encounters cultural heritage and controversy. To escape the pain of Gettysburg and Effigy Mounds, she heads into the desert, to Big Bend National Park.

Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska offers escape from a personal tragedy; Gulf Islands National Seashore, in Florida and Mississippi, reveals that the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remain, stinking and stinging. Williams visits the exhibit by artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the recently established Cesar E. Chavez National Monument; and, of course, her home landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In Glacier National Park, where the Tempest family tries to celebrate a birthday by retracing old steps, they are instead nearly killed by in a forest fire that sweeps over the chalet where they lodge. In these travels, Williams finds beauty and distress over the future, and opines, “We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are.”

By turns sad, despairing, and hopeful, even thrilled in the presence of natural beauty, The Hour of Land is emotive, intelligent and well traveled. It is only right that Williams should celebrate the Park Service’s centennial with such a remarkable collection of wisdom and scintillating lines.


This review originally ran in the May 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 long views.

author interview: Fernanda Santos: Reporting from the Heart

photo: Nick Oza

photo: Nick Oza

Fernanda Santos covers Arizona and New Mexico as the Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times. Her experience as a journalist is broad, crossing two continents, several languages and a range of subjects. Her first book, The Fire Line (Flatiron Books), is about the deadly 2013 Yarnell Hill, Ariz., wildfire that killed 19 members of the firefighting team the Granite Mountain Hotshots. My review is here.

How was writing this book different from newspaper work?

I wanted to write a book because I couldn’t answer the questions that I wanted answered in newspaper stories. I knew that somebody would write about this fire, and I would have tortured myself for the rest of my life for not having had the courage to write it. I called a colleague in New York, and he said, look at every chapter as a story. Can you write a 4,000-, 5,000-word story? And I said yes, I can write that. He said they just all have to connect in the end. And it seemed so simple.

On one hand, it was that simple. But on the other hand, it’s very different than writing a newspaper story. I had complete control over it. In newspapers, the editors get hold of your text and shape it, or send it back to you and ask for more of this or that, because they want to drive a specific point. With the book, I kept waiting for the moment when the editors would get my chapters and start telling me where to go and what to do next, and it never came. When I was halfway through, I sent it to Colin Dickerman, my editor at Flatiron. I didn’t even know if I’d written something that resembled a book. And he said, there’s a lot of great material here, great reporting, but it’s a little confusing. Why don’t you do an outline? And I thought, oh! I guess that would help! With the outline, everything was easier. I set deadlines for each chapter. I only had a certain amount of book leave, and I didn’t want to jeopardize the job that I really love. So I assigned myself these stories, like my friend told me, and pursued the deadlines as if an editor was there to enforce them. And all of a sudden it flowed, just naturally evolved from one chapter to the next. A lot of the skills I used were developed over those years writing newspaper stories.

How did you gain access to these men’s families, and their trust?

I approached it very differently than I would if I were to just write a story about the deaths. I was not looking for a quote, or a quick couple of lines to throw in a story to define a character. I really wanted to understand who these men were, and I figured the best way to do that was if I got to meet their families. I had a friend in common with the wife of Andrew Ashcraft. I asked this friend to reach out to her, and we met. Then she referred me to her mother-in-law, who was close to another mother, who was close to another family, and the word started to get around. I guess they liked me. They said I had a lot of patience, and I was very interested in learning their stories.

I wrote letters to other families. I explained what the book was about, why I wanted to talk to them, and I said that although I had their addresses, I had not gone knocking on their doors because I didn’t want to add to their anguish. I wanted to leave them in control. I wanted them to reach out to me, and say if, when and where. And before I realized it, I had met everybody.

I also went to the fire academy in Prescott, where a lot of the Hotshots trained, and some of them taught; one of them, Eric Marsh, helped found the academy. I did the basic training, and then another course, and I’m actually going back to a third. I wanted to understand the world they inhabited, because wildland firefighting is a very small world, very tight. Once I went through the academy I could understand better what former members of the crew and families of the men had told me.

fire lineI love that you explore so many facets of this story: firefighting techniques, the history of fire management in the United States, the science of weather forecasting.

I realized early on I had to explain three things. Readers had to understand what wildland fire is, what it is like to fight a wildfire. They had to understand the very specific conditions of the vegetation in that part of the state, which obviously connects to the bigger issues of the drying of the west, climate change, the warming of the planet. And they needed to understand the characteristics of the storm that hit the fire, that hooked the flames and turned them around on the men. So I spent a lot of time in the National Weather Service office here in Phoenix, and the office in Flagstaff. I hung out with meteorologists, asking questions. They referred me to some texts. And I had two very thick fire policy books that I read, which were very helpful. I met several times with the author of those books, Stephen Pyne. In fact, he read my manuscript to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself.

It was in some ways a relief, when the emotional side of things became hard to deal with–you know, spending six hours with a widow, talking about a husband and a life that in many ways resemble my own. These guys were younger than my husband, but we like to do a lot of the same things these guys liked to do with their wives; we have a child, a lot of them had kids–so you understand the broad outlines of a life at home. Emotionally, that is very hard. There were times that I really looked forward to sitting down with a meteorologist and talking about science. It gave me a break, and recharged me so I could go back and sit down with another family for hours and talk about whatever they wanted to talk about. My husband says that I report with my heart first, which is why sometimes I come home a total wreck. I hope that’s what comes through.

Was it easy to return to your work for the Times?

It was not easy. I went from an environment where I was in complete control, and I took the story as far as I wanted to take it, to an environment where I have limits to the stories I write, the amount of time I can spend, even the way I write them. I remember telling my editor after one frustrating story, how is that I can write a book and I can’t write a story? And he said you can write both, but you can’t write a story as if you are writing a book.

I miss my book. It’s very weird, but I miss the intimate connection that I had with that story.

This was very rewarding, then.

It’s interesting. I’m from Brazil. I came here as an adult, I’d never written a story in English, I went to graduate school, I’ve been at the Times 10 years, and now I’ve written a book about wildfires. A very American story, in some ways. It was such an empowering experience for me, as a person. We know all the conventions, the boxes people try to fit us into. You’re a woman, you’re an immigrant, you’re a Latina; therefore you’re expected to know about immigrants, Latinos, parenting. Not about firefighters, a real man’s world. Because English is not my first language, how dare I write a book? Those were the things in my head. What are you thinking? Why did you get yourself into this? I had all these battles with myself, and I obviously overcame them, because I wrote the book. To me, that was such a priceless experience. My daughter is six, and I’ve been talking to her about what people say you can and can’t do, what girls can’t do. And in Latin culture we’re very respectful to authority. So I’m telling her, sometimes you have to break the rules. Sometimes you have to try something that people think you’re never going to be able to do, so you can prove to them that you can. It really taught me a lot about how far I can go.


This interview originally ran in the May 10, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

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