I have lived in Rhode Island for one week when I set out to explore the nearest tidal marsh, the landscape I know will be the first to show signs of sea level rise. I bike across the Washington Bridge, past the East Providence wastewater treatment plant, the Dari Bee, and the repurposed railway station, through Barrington to Jacob’s Point. As expected, out along the Narragansett Bay, a line of dead trees holds the horizon. Some have tapering trunks and branches that fork and split. Bark peels from their bodies in thick husks.
Weaving firsthand accounts from those facing the choice between retreating or perishing in place—a Staten Islander who lost her father during Sandy, the remaining holdouts of a Native American community on a drowning Isle de Jean Charles, a neighborhood in Pensacola settled by escaped slaves hundreds of years ago—with profiles of wildlife biologists, activists, and other members of the communities both currently at risk and already displaced, Rising privileges the voices of those usually kept at the margins. At once polyphonic and precise, Rising is a shimmering meditation on vulnerability and on vulnerable communities, both human and more than human, and on how to let go of the places we love.
The local Audubon ecologist tells me that they are black tupelos. I roll the word in my mouth, tupelo, and cannot put it down. Tupelo becomes part of the constellation of ideas and physical objects that I use to draw up my navigational charts—I aim toward tupelo. Words can shuttle us around in time and space from New England to old England, from Rhode Island back over 2,000 years to when the Wampanoag and Narragansett first harvested shellfish in these tide-washed shoals, to a time when language tangibly connected the physical world and the world on the page and in our conversations. Take tupelo, for instance. It is Native American in origin, and comes from the Creek ito and opilwa, which, when smashed together, mean “swamp tree.” Built into the very name of this plant is a love of periodically soaking in water. Word of tupelos once told marsh waders what kind of topography to expect and also where to find relatively high ground.
A month or two before I witnessed my first dead tupelo, and right before I packed up my apartment in Brooklyn and moved north, I found a scrap of language in an essay on Alzheimer’s and stuck it to my computer monitor, thinking it might serve some future purpose. It read, “Sometimes a key arrives before the lock.” Which I understood as a reminder to pay attention to my surroundings. That hidden in plain sight I might discover the key I do not yet know I need, but that will help me cross an important threshold somewhere down the line. When I see that stand of tupelos I instinctually lodge their name in my mind, storing it for a future I do not yet understand.
Chance has sent me to Providence, but the move feels deeply fortuitous. Here, I think, I will become immersed in the subject matter that has begun to obsess me: the rate at which the ocean is rising. No state (save Maryland, and only by a hair) ranks higher in the ratio of coastline to overall acreage. It is no surprise, then, that 15 percent of Rhode Island is classified as wetlands—and of that 15 percent, roughly an eighth is tidal, both one of the most nimble types of ecosystem in the world and one of the most imperiled. Over the past 200 years, Rhode Island lost over 50 percent of its tidal marshes to the filling and diking that come with development. Today the remaining fields of black needlerush and cordgrass are beginning to disappear thanks to higher tides and stronger storms.
My first summer in Rhode Island, I return to the marsh often just to look at that stand of dead trees. I secure my bike to a wooden fence, then walk across the width of the marsh to shoot black-and-white photographs of their ghostly silhouettes. The trees’ bare limbs twine and reach, a testimony to the energy once spent searching for light. I picture the shade they used to cast and the bank swallows awash in that balm, diving like synchronized swimmers, one after another, from the lowest branches.
Or at least that is how I imagine it once was—before the ice sheets started sloughing into the sea, before the shoreline started to change its shape, before the tupelos along the East Bay started to die.
One morning someone else is in the marsh. When he and I cross paths I ask, as nonchalantly as possible, if he knows why these tupelos are all dead. I am trying to find out whether he can see what I can, that the precious balance between salt water and fresh that once defined this tidal wetland has been upset.
“No,” the man says, binoculars jangling around his neck. “I’m sorry.”
I’ll be the first to admit that before I started coming to Jacob’s Point I couldn’t tell the difference between black tupelo and black locust, between needlerush and cordgrass. I would learn their names only after I realized the ways in which their letters on my lips might point toward (or away from) incredible loss. Then I became fascinated. Because unlike Descartes, I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part; I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy and, as a result, care. If, as Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests in her essay on the power of identifying all living beings with personal pronouns, “naming is the beginning of justice,” then saying tupelo takes me one step closer to recognizing these trees as kin and endowing their flesh with the same inalienable rights we humans hold.
Sometime during the last half century, these tupelos’ taproots started to suck up more salt water than they had in the past. They were stunned and stunted. Then they stopped growing. The sea kept working its way into the aquifer, storms got stronger and dumped more standing water into marshes, and tupelos all along the East Coast died. Now they no longer bathe the edges of Jacob’s Point in shade. The green coins of their leaves are gone, and a recent bird census carried out in Rhode Island’s East Bay suggests that the bank swallows are going too.
I tell the stranger all of this. The sentences unspooling fast like the outgoing tide while he shifts from foot to foot, anxious to break away. He has, he tells me, never heard of the tupelo tree. Instead of the luscious rasp of growth on growth and the electric trill of a songbird in flight, out here, at the farthest end of Jacob’s Point, we are surrounded by the ticking sound of unprecedented heat. Above us the tupelos’ empty, oracular branches groan.
The oldest living black tupelo in the United States sprouted 650 years ago. That means its first buds burst while the plague was killing off approximately one-third of Europe. Now it is the tupelo’s turn to succumb in great numbers. And the red knot’s. And the whooping crane’s. And the salt marsh sparrow’s. Of the 1,400 endangered or threatened species in the United States, over half are wetland dependent.
Five times in the history of the earth nearly all life has winked out, the planet undergoing a series of changes so massive that the overwhelming majority of living species died. These great extinctions are so exceptional they even have a catchy name: the Big Five. Today seven out of ten scientists believe that we are in the middle of the sixth. But there is one thing that distinguishes those past die-offs from the one we are currently constructing: never before have humans been there to tell the tale. The language we use to narrate our experience in the world can awaken in us the knowledge that transformation is both necessary and ongoing. When we say the word tupelo we begin to see that both the trees themselves and the very particular ecology they once depended upon are, at least where they are rooted, gone.
Sometimes a key arrives before the lock. Now I am thinking, sometimes the password arrives before the impasse. These words, when spoken or written down, might grant us entry into a previously unimaginable awareness—that the coast, and all the living beings on it, are changing radically.
One day I decide to visit the Audubon Environmental Education Center at Jacob’s Point. It is noon and I am red faced, my shins sliced by bull and catbrier, from spending my morning batting around the dead tupelo. The blue-haired volunteer behind the desk looks at me as though I am mad for having been in the marshes instead of in the air-conditioning, looking at dioramas of the marshes. “Can you tell me about Jacob’s Point and those trees at the far end that are dying?” I ask. She suggests I walk through the interpretive exhibit. She even waives the $5 fee.
I snake through five rooms where the rhythmic lick of water melting into mudflats sounds from a pair of Sony speakers. The mallards don’t move because they have been stuffed with wool. The box turtles swim tight circles in a tiny tank at the back of a room without windows. I emerge from a papier-mâché cave (a cave in a marsh?) and repeat my question. This time she refers me to Cameron McCormick, the groundskeeper and the person most likely to know what is actually happening at Jacob’s Point.
Cameron doesn’t have voicemail, so I leave a message with the center’s secretary. Two days later he calls me, and we meet at the path down to the marsh the following morning. His eyes are wild and attentive, filled with flecks of cornflower and amber. He wears carpenters’ work boots that have come undone and a poorly tie-dyed Audubon T-shirt clearly abandoned by a summer camper. He will spend the rest of the day cutting down invasive head-high grasses called phragmites. Cameron has a degree in ecology and has been managing Jacob’s Point for the past five years. It’s a process that has become increasingly difficult as the system inputs—temperature, saltwater levels, tidal highs and lows—all shift. He makes a plan, the salt water inundates a new portion of the marsh, and the entire ecosystem changes.
Together we make a beeline for the shore, where Cameron delivers a plastic box full of fishing nets to a group of excited eight-year-olds who are about to catch fiddler crabs. Next we walk toward the stand of tupelos. At first we stick to the high ground. Then, abandoning the idea of keeping our feet dry, we leave the path behind and sink into the soaked land.
Jacob’s Point, like all tidal marshes, contains three distinct zones: low marsh, high marsh, and an upland area at its farthest inland edge. Every day the low marsh is covered in salt water twice, and also uncovered twice; the high marsh slips beneath the salt only in storms. Which is to say, along the point’s seaward edge, plants and animals have adapted to live with the tides, while upland the opposite is true. Think of a tidal marsh as—like all wetlands—a transitional region where distinctions blur and the entirely wet world morphs into the almost entirely dry one. It is a liminal ribbon. An in-between. A spit of land at the edge of things, where the governing laws change four times a day. Tidal marshes are frontiers, and as Gary Snyder says, “A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds.” To pass from one to the other is to cross an almost imperceptible but important boundary, the place where freshwater meets the brine of the sea.
As we walk toward the tupelos we are slowly grading downward, crossing the threshold between sweet water and salt. Cameron tells me what he sees and also what he does not see. “These weren’t here five years ago,” he says, clomping through a bunch of coarse-toothed marsh elders that have taken over a section of the point that has become suddenly rich in saline. “I expect more are on their way, but it’s hard to keep up with.” The knee-high shrubs have pushed out a stand of phragmites, their arrival making Cameron’s job easier in this small acre. But the equilibrium they have brought is not destined to last.
“In the past, when sea levels dropped, the marsh dropped down too, and when they rose the marsh rose with them,” Cameron says as we work our way past the tupelos toward the rugosa-studded bank. If you were to take an aerial time-lapse photo of the process he is describing, it would look as if Jacob’s Point and the ocean were moving in and out together, the way desire follows the desired.
This swirling, migratory dance is primarily the result of two different physical and ecological processes. The first is called accretion. “As salt water flows in and out of the marsh, vegetation traps some of the sediments suspended in it, and as those sediments settle the marsh gradually gains elevation,” Cameron tells me. Accretion results in the building up of low-lying land; it is nature’s nimble backhoe. If accretion makes marsh migration possible, then rhizomes power the retreat. Dense, arterial, and interconnected, these specialized root systems run belowground, giving wetlands their shape. In the past, as sea levels rose and the marsh gained sediment, rhizomes would pull away from the increased salinity while simultaneously sending out new shoots, often uphill, in search of the kind of water that suited them best. As these plant communities moved up and in, the fauna that depended on them moved too. While the physical location of the salt marsh might change, its defining features would not.
But now that sea levels are rising faster than they have in the last 28 centuries, the ocean and the tidal marsh are falling out of sequence. In the Ocean State, and along the rest of the Atlantic coast of North America, the rate of the rise is significantly higher than the global average. Here accretion is already being outpaced, which means that land that once was built up slowly is starting to slip beneath the sea’s surface. On top of that, if the marsh’s upland slope abuts some piece of human infrastructure—a road, or, as is the case at Jacob’s Point, an old railway line—as the rhizomes pull away there is nowhere less salty for them to thrust their spindly roots. The marsh is squeezed between the sea and the hard stop we built along its upland edge and, like the tupelo, it begins to drown in place.
“Maybe if the old Bristol line weren’t there, Jacob’s Point would stand a chance. But then again maybe not. It’s so hard to tell with accretion rates being what they are,” Cameron says. Then he adds, “It’s a terrifying and wonderful time to do the work that I do.”
Whenever I can, I pull away from my computer screen and ride back out to Jacob’s Point. There I wander in a landscape we do not yet have a name for, a marsh inundated by too much of the very thing that shaped it. I have read about the disappearance of tree frogs in Panama, the droughts scraping across Kenya, the heat waves killing thousands in Paris and Andhra Pradesh and Chicago and Dhaka and São Paulo. I have written about communities affected by sea level rise. But my life has seemed so removed, so buffered from those events.
At Jacob’s Point I am finally glimpsing the hem of the specter’s dressing gown. The tupelos, the dead tupelos that line the edge of this disappearing marshland, are my Delphi, my portal, my proof, the stone I pick up and drop in my pocket to remember. I see them and know that the erosion of species, of land, and, if we are not careful, of the very words we use to name the plants and animals that are disappearing is not a political lever or a fever dream. I see them and remember that those who live on the margins of our society are the most vulnerable, and that the story of species vanishing is repeating itself in nearly every borderland.
In a hundred years none of these trees will be here. No object thick with pitch to make the mind recollect. And if we do not call them by their names we will lose not only the trees themselves but also all trace of their having ever been. Looking at the bare tupelos at the farthest edge of Jacob’s Point, I am reminded of something John Bear Mitchell said when my students asked him how the Penobscot people of Maine have responded to centuries of environmental change. “Our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. . . . The change is in how we acknowledge them.” His response surprised my students. He seemed to be saying: learn the names now, and you will at least be able to preserve what is being threatened in our collective memory, if not in the physical world. His faith in language clearly eclipsed their own.
And then there is the pleasure of it. I like my excursions best when I am alone. Waking early to ride to a slender little marsh that most overlook. The wild blackberries, ripe from summer heat, seemingly fruiting just for me. The black needlerush dried in logarithmic spirals, and patches of salt marsh cordgrass that look like jackstraws and blowdowns in an aging forest. Both bearing the delicate trace of the last outgoing tide.
Beyond the stand of tupelos, the marsh still hums with the low-grade sound of honeybees hunting in loosestrife. The ospreys cast their creosote shadows over cicadas and lamb’s quarters and bayberry. This tiny journey into the marsh feels like a grand field trip. Mud snails wrestle in the ebb tide, a great egret hunches at the far horizon scanning for mummichogs, and the sea balm rushes through the tree of heaven. I walk out only a fifth of a mile farther than most people go, and yet there is so much happening, so many unexpected gifts and self-made surprises.
Dropping down, I arrive at the water’s edge. I pull on my bathing suit and dive into the bay, but not before stubbing my toe on a barnacle-covered rock submerged just beneath the surface. I care intensely about being here, about coming back alone and often, and I don’t really understand why.
Sometimes the key arrives before the lock.
Sometimes the password arrives before the impasse.
Speak it and enter a world transformed by salt and blue. Say: tupelo.
Header and inset photos of tupelos at Jacob’s Point, Rhode Island, by Elizabeth Rush. Photo of Elizabeth Rush by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens.