What the south is losing
Twenty-six writers from all over our region tell us how climate change has come home to them.
Scientists say they have found “ground truth” when they can make conclusions based on direct observation and measurement—when they no longer have to make inferences based on a bunch of different observations. For decades now, scientists have told us there was ground truth enough to prove that our climate was changing. But maybe the rest of us—laypeople—couldn’t see it.
Now, we can’t avoid it. Witness photographer Benjamin Dimmitt’s work, dramatically documenting the very real havoc climate change has wrought on a once pristine network of Southern creeks and swamps.
As the effects of climate change come to bear, all of us increasingly live in its aftermath. That can bring trauma, both personal and collective.
The psychologist Samuel Gerson, in his studies on mourning for survivors of the Holocaust and other traumas, refers to loss and absence as a “dead third.” He proposes that mourners, in working with grief, need a “living third,” meaning a witness who responds with compassion and exists in the absence. The live third can be a person, an institution, or a culture.
In the climate crisis, the dead third is the earth itself—including our knowledge of what has been lost and our memories of beloved environments that have been radically altered.
It was this idea of a living third—engaged witnessing—that Janisse Ray was exploring when she offered a series of online sessions earlier this fall for journaling grief. Her goal was to give people a chance to explore inner landscapes and process thoughts, ideas, and feelings about the unfolding climate crisis.
The collection of stories that follow began in Ray’s online sessions. In them, writers name the changes they have seen, ponder how to nurture the environment, and explore the emotions that arise from our relationships to the planet—and to each other. These short essays (and one poem) grapple with the “dying third”—our region’s ecological loss—and display a resolve—a uniquely Southern sort of stubbornness—to address the crisis. Because, as Ray says, now is not the time to give up.
—Chuck Reece, editor-in-chief
Today’s News and Weather
By Franklin Burroughs
Hope is an illusion without a future. The hottest September on record is about to be followed by the hottest October. These records will have a short shelf life: one year.
Abnormal heat begets electrical storms beget forest fires—sure as shooting. Out of despair, by way of apology, or in hopes of atonement, we could all drop dead at the end of this paragraph. It wouldn’t change anything: next year, more fires, more atmospheric CO2, fewer trees to absorb it.
Sunny-day floods are common all along our low-lying coasts, in old cities—New Orleans, St. Augustine, Savannah, Charleston, Baltimore. Ruinous hurricanes and superstorms are ever more severe, ever more frequent. Insurance rates rise, but so does the price of coastal real estate. We still want to live there. I still love the sight and sound of the sea. So do you.
Do this. Go out in the cool of the evening or before the sun rises over the sea and plant trees: tough, local, salt- and wind-resistant ones. Seed dunes with native grasses, sea-oats. It will not help. When the heat of the day overcomes you, do not retreat into air-conditioning. Lie on a cot or hammock in the shade. Close your eyes. Meditate, read, pray, or remember. This world, this world, from this day forward and neverafter.
Born in Conway, South Carolina, Franklin Burroughs taught English at Bowdoin College in Maine from 1968 to 2002. His books include Billy Watson’s Croker Sack, Horry and the Waccamaw, and Confluence: Merrymeeting Bay, which won the John Burroughs Medal in 2007.
12M > 22M
By Jeff Dwyer
When we moved for half of each year to Cedar Key, a tiny island a dozen miles south of the outflow of the Suwannee River into the Gulf, our Florida days were magical. We learned about an alien land, discovering that geographically the land on which we walked every sun-shining day was a sponge of limestone and not the dense granite of our native New England.
The Florida peninsula literally floats on salt water as it sticks out like the tail of our country. The tail ends at Mile Marker No. 1 of Route 1 in Key West. Cedar Key is sometimes described as a quiet Key West without the party-seeking tourists. Once you’ve visited both communities, you know they have different cultures. One is Conch, the other is Cracker.
Both are going to disappear eventually and be erased except as memories because of the predicted sea-level rise. Sea-level rise is much slower than humans can comprehend. Nothing can stop the inevitable warming and melting cycle that feeds sea level rise. Coastal communities; the two-feet-above-base-flood-elevation military bases; and cattle-grazing pastures are going to slide underwater.
First, the flooding is described in silly terms like “king tides,” when the land becomes impassible because of the moon cycle. It happens occasionally for the early generations, then soon, regular and predictable flooding becomes the norm. Those folks truck in lime-rock boulders for the coastal breakwaters to slow the crushing storm surge during more and more frequent hurricanes—Category 2s, then 3s, and the soon-routine 4s.
The answer nobody wants to speak aloud is “retreat.” Move away from the fragile dunes and beaches. Move to higher ground and let the mangroves and sea grasses return. Pick up the building debris and grade off the piles of concrete foundations. Let nature reclaim and repair itself. Stop selling federal flood insurance to artificially support a fantasy real-estate industry. Those days are over. We shat where we ate, and it’s time to clean up after ourselves and leave.
Jeff Dwyer is a retired bookseller and literary agent. Now he reads, thinks, and naps. Occasionally he’ll write something.
By Sasha Ree Wohlpart
The tide is high as my kayak glides above an architectural wonder constructed over centuries by understated engineers. They lack the charisma of dolphins, the thrill of crocodiles, and the beauty of roseate spoonbills, yet I’m smitten with oysters, custodians of the coastal realm.
Oysters may not seem the racing type, but don’t be fooled. Theirs is a relay to keep pace with a rising sea, a race that’s been neck and neck in southwest Florida for over 3,000 years, with oysters accreting, one on top of another, to stay perched in the intertidal zone of a modestly rising sea. We rely upon these reef-builders to keep our coastal communities protected and prosperous. What are the consequences when the competition suddenly and dramatically ups its pace in the presence of a warming climate?
Next to a glistening bay, people at Oh, Shucks! slurp raw oysters on the half shell with chasers of tequila and watch the setting sun make cotton candy of the sky. The scene feels gaudy and irreverent. Maybe the price of admission should be a show of gratitude for our molluscan neighbors. Or, since we’ve thrown the race, it should be a confession of complicity in the degradation of the estuaries that protect us from our own transgressions.
My hand lowers into the water where oyster shells graze my fingers.
Sasha Ree Wohlpart is an environmental educator and advocate who finds great joy and inspiration in wild spaces. She holds a master’s degree in Environmental Science from Florida Gulf Coast University. She lives with her husband and dog, Leopold, in the rain shadow of the Cascades.
Ode to Pea Island
By Jan DeBlieu
I see online that it’s seventy-one degrees this morning on the North Carolina Outer Banks, the slender sea islands where I lived for thirty-two years. Light winds off the ocean.
I sit at my desk in Maine, 800 miles distant, and dream about walking the broad, beautiful beach of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, barefoot and in shorts, the floury sand smooth beneath my feet, except where shelly gravel has been swept by waves, making me wince with each step. It’s a good pain, an “I’m outside” pain, sharpened by the crisp air. Shorebirds skitter before me. Fat mole crabs swarm in the ocean wash, and tapered coquina clams surface like jewels. White-faced dunes line the beach. There is nothing before me but a wide, wild island and foaming, roaring, midnight-blue surf. I could walk for hours and see nothing human-made.
I go often in memory to that lost, ruined place, where for the sake of a road to bring in tourists the island was halted in its wave-driven roll to the west. A line of even steeper dunes was built. When the ocean knocked them down, bulldozers remade them. The ocean responded by cutting into their bases and washing their sand out to sea.
The ocean rose; the beaches narrowed. The very island narrowed. Sand scrapers took up permanent residence, ready to be called into action as needed—which was, and is, every few days. This is not a game we will win.
Jan DeBlieu is the author of books and essays about nature, people, and landscapes. In 2018, alarmed by climate change and overdevelopment, she and her husband moved to Maine. She is at work on a book about the meaning of home from the perspective of a climate migrant.
My Sinking City
By Kelly J. Hardy
She tangos with the vibrant moon and yields with graceful surrender as tributaries overtake their banks to swallow streets whole. This divine warrior rose from the ashes of Lord Dunmore’s 1776 bombardments. Years later, she silently wept as she watched countrymen face off against one another in civil war on the shores of Willoughby Spit. She gave birth to the world’s largest naval station. She shelters guided missile destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers, and amphibious assault vessels. She safeguards those who protect her citizens. But who safeguards her?
She tangos with the vibrant moon and yields with graceful surrender as tributaries overtake their banks to swallow streets whole. She gifted me plump, juicy mulberries on morning treks to Ocean View Elementary School. She taught me to treasure the sweet summer scents of honeysuckle and gardenia on hot August walks to the Chesapeake Bay. She comforts me through the grief of loved ones lost and generously shares the energy of their memory. But who comforts her?
She tangos with the vibrant moon and yields with graceful surrender as tributaries overtake their banks to swallow streets whole. Her foamy shores welcome working-class heroes for weekends of respite. She is Pachamama, mother to Eastern Virginia Medical School, a leader in reproductive medicine. She cradles Sentara Heart Hospital, consistently one of the nation’s top-ranking heart programs. She bestows wishes and offers second chances upon those who have lost hope. But who gives her hope?
Who will save my beloved Norfolk?
Kelly Hardy is a healthcare professional who enjoys adventures with canine companions, Beau and Bella, at her home in Norfolk. She strives to live in the present moment and calls upon the ancient practices of yoga and mindfulness to help ground her.
Lowering My Shields
By Kathryn Kyker
On a road trip, my husband and I diverted from an interstate traffic jam to a country highway that GPS stubbornly refused to route for us. The reason was soon apparent: this route took us through an area in western North Carolina decimated by a flood.
Now flowing placidly, the Pigeon River went rogue when a recent storm dumped an astonishing amount of water into it. The flood took homes and vehicles, smothered fields, toppled trees, and killed people.
Traveling through the community of Woodrow was like being inside a story, a tale I’d heard once upon a time. Along the winding road we saw clothing, toys, boats—the detritus of lives—tossed into treetops and flung on the newly scoured riverbanks.
To be curious about lives hit by disaster seemed crude to me. I didn’t want to gawk at misery. But as natural disasters increase, who is protected when I don’t look and listen to stories of devastation? Being curious doesn’t mean we care, but if we care, if we want to care, don’t we need to be curious?
I put emotional distance between this flood and my life, away from my fears of what could happen to me and my loved ones. I thought I could choose when to care. To some extent, we all choose when and how much to care.
Sometimes, thankfully, our shields of detachment fail.
This essay is excerpted from Kathryn Kyker’s memoir in progress, Surprised by Nothing: Surviving the ER World of Worst-Case Scenarios, in which she explores the impact of working for twenty-nine years in an emergency room.
Higher Tide in Beaufort
By Susan Schmidt
When northerly wind opposes a north-flowing current, the Gulf Stream is a raging maelstrom. The ocean is the warmest ever, causing Arctic ice melt, frigid winters in Europe, Southeast drought, and bigger hurricanes.
The Gulf Stream flows narrow, deep, and fast, pushing water higher in the Sargasso Sea, so when the Stream slows, my coast has anomalous high tides, and I kayak atop marshes to see terns, plovers, oystercatchers. In thirty years sea level will rise one foot, this century up to seven feet.
When earth, sun, and moon align, “king tides” show what waterfronts will look like as sea level rises. The highest king tide ever flooded town dock, shops, and Front Street a foot or two deep for two miles. Downtown will flood a third of the year in ten years. My house at 14 feet above sea level should stay dry.
When the West Antarctic ice shelf collapses, Thwaites Glacier, size of Florida, will slide into the sea, and global sea level will rise two to three feet, maybe in five years. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current, flowing south under the Gulf Stream, will slow by 2050, or as soon as 2025, raising the sea level five to ten feet.
Haunted by Thwaites, I dream I pack in an hour whatever fits in the car to leave home forever. No books, no art, no furniture. Camping gear, eyeglasses, food for me and the dog, computer, clothes. Kayak, bike, dog crate on the roof. Great-grandmother’s compass necklace. I’m homesick while still at home.
Writer, professor, and editor Susan Schmidt has had a Coast Guard captain’s license for forty years. Her three poetry books, novel, and nonfiction book tell stories of water. She is at work on a book on sailing the Gulf Stream and climate change.
Here in the Mountain South
By Thomas Rain Crowe
I live here in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina and so don’t see and experience the changes in sea level and high tides during storms.
But I see extreme weather. Longer periods of dry weather. Longer periods of wet weather. More extreme and frequent thunderstorms. Hotter weather with more intense direct heat coming from the sun. Colder weather and hence more firewood for my woodstove. Longer winters. Almost daily dense morning fog all year long. More river-rise and flooding from the Tuckaseegee River that runs in front of my house. More forest fires—like the one a few years ago that had the entire mountain behind where I live on fire for two days.
Change in bird migration patterns. Fewer birds at my feeders and in the trees. Fewer honeybees working the blooming flowers. Hummingbirds arriving later and staying longer at the feeders. Fewer birds nesting in my birdhouses. Fewer butterflies. Fewer wild animals coming into my surrounds. Extreme growth of vines and invasive species of plants. Certain foods that struggle to grow in my garden.
Need I go on?
That’s just the local picture. On a global scale, the examples and proof that our climate is changing are even more extreme.
It is time for us humans to wake up and go about the work of remodeling our personal behavior and our communities to reverse these patterns to something that will be sustainable for the indefinite future.
Thomas Rain Crowe is an author, editor and translator of over thirty books, including the award-winning memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods. His most recent book is Starting From San Francisco: Beats, Baby Beats & the 1970s San Francisco Renaissance.
Gone With the Tides
By Gail Krueger
I became an aggressive bike rider in 2012 after death tore my world apart like a hurricane. My husband died. Day after day, I hit the six-mile McQueen Island bike trail with ferocity on an old blue Cannondale mountain bike. Built on the 1887 railbed of the long-defunct excursion line between Savannah and Tybee Beach, the crushed gravel trail parallels the South Channel of the Savannah River, a major shipping route and entry point to the Port of Savannah, one of the busiest container ports on the east coast.
Each day as I rode to chip away the pain and grief, rising waters eroded the trail. Ship wakes atop high tides atop rising sea levels lapped away soils once solid enough to support cabbage palms, cord grass, yaupon holly, and coastal cedars.
The palms fell first. Gaps opened in the gravel, exposing the riprap underneath.
A front tire caught, pitching me off the bike in a helmetless heap and destroying the wheel the same year rising sea temperatures fueled vicious tropical storms that shut off access to the trail. A new bike and a $1.5-million trail stabilization project didn’t help. A failing sea wall, more heat-fueled storms, more erosion, and ever-rising sea levels pushed the cost up to $2.6 million. A timber bulkhead and more riprap enabled the trail to reopen this May. But for how long?
Grief does not end. It changes. The baseline shifts. The stabbing, burning anger ebbs like the tides. But the water keeps rising.
Gail Krueger spent many years as an environmental reporter in Savannah. While she now lives in the Pacific Northwest, her heart remains pinned to the 100-mile Georgia Coast.
Pelican Island NWR
By Rick Van Noy
We left Pelican Island thinking about the farsighted investment a hundred years ago to set aside wild places, an asset entrusted to later generations. And we thought about how important were such places of refuge. Some places, like Florida, can seem too large for damage.
Needing to head for home, we drove on. I slept, only to wake on a windy road as my son Sam hit the brakes. A white-tailed deer, twice the size of a Key deer, leapt the road in front of us, disappearing out of our lights like some mythic, winged horse.
Part of me was still in the Everglades. Just the day before, I was in a Key West bar, and I was half there again, wanting to finish my drink with Alex. I wanted to tell him there was something we could do, little things, big things too, if we planned for what was ahead. Now I was glad a young person was at the wheel, while us old folks were lost in a dream.
When we woke, we barely recognized the place before us. It had all changed. And we might have done something about it.
Rick Van Noy is the author of several works of environmental nonfiction, including Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South, and the forthcoming Borne by the River: Canoeing the Delaware from Headwaters to Home. He teaches at Radford University in Virginia.
My Sorrow for the Earth
By Mary Katherine Creel
It sits on my chest the way
our Australian shepherd
when trying to comfort me.
I think he wants to be
as close to my heart as he can.
Grief also wants closeness
but it weighs too much,
crushes the sternum
and takes the breath,
like the time I jumped
and fell backwards onto
the neighbor’s trampoline—
nothing came in or out
of my mouth or lungs for
what seemed like a minute.
This is what grief does,
paralyzes and leaves you
gasping while entire forests
flare up like matches.
Mary Katherine Creel lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she has worked as a journalist and counselor to children and families. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poetry chapbook Every Note, a Lantern is forthcoming. You may follow her writing on Substack at a small spectacle.
Gift and Glory
By Sandra Poucher
Morning walk around the neighborhood exercising dog and thoughts, our reverie interrupted by the thumping music of a megachurch a mile away obscuring the birdsong, we wonder to each other how people who call themselves children of God can be so distinct from the beauty surrounding them? Wrapped in noise, sterility, and exclusivity, can’t they see the glory in shifting light, the shadows of a flock of ibis lifting as one to draw an arc around us where we stand breathing the morning’s mists, while the neighborhood bluebirds and crows call to us their good news? I can’t hear the birds; I hear the beat.
We coat the land in concrete and asphalt in the name of generosity; cull live oaks and native vegetation without regard to form and function; and fill subterranean voids without understanding the role of karst topology to drinking water. To study and understand nature is to get an inkling of exactly how incredible a gift is the life of this planet.
Can they sing praises with their voices lifted among the pines? Raise their eyes to the silhouette of a swallow-tailed kite soaring on high? Is our responsibility to one another’s human souls exclusive of and paramount to the appreciation of all other living things? Are they able to receive the gift? Must worship be so painfully intrusive, like fists lifted against the glory of the rising sun?
A native of Florida’s Gulf coast, Sandra Poucher lives in Ocala with her husband, son, and a menagerie of animals. A writer and illustrator, she publishes extensively on Florida springs. Her most recent book is Wildlife of Florida’s Springs: An Illustrated Field Guide to Over 150 Species.
The Well Runs Dry
By Laurie Roath Frazier
Jacob’s Well, a popular swimming hole in the Texas Hill Country, is actually an enormous cave entrance and artesian spring that is the source of Cypress Creek and the lifeblood of surrounding communities.
Peering down over a limestone ledge, I spot its opening. Shaped like an enormous eyeball, it stares back at me from beneath clear, cool waters. Long strands of lime-green algae surround the hole, which is about four times larger than a manhole cover. The submerged tunnel beneath the hole descends vertically for thirty feet, so deep I cannot see the bottom. I see it narrow as it disappears into the depths, and the water darkens from crystal blue to midnight blue, the color of the sky before a storm.
Investigations by professional divers reveal that after plunging straight down into the hole—a feat that requires tremendous effort because of the powerful flow—there are two tunnels, each almost a mile long and fourteen stories underground. It takes five hours round-trip to travel through one tunnel. The passages are dark and often impossibly narrow. At the end of one underwater room is a challenging passageway appropriately named The Birth Canal.
The Hill Country aquifers are home to many unusual species, both terrestrial and aquatic. Tiny cracks, tunnels, and larger voids provide a unique habitat. Texas blind salamanders, for example, with their see-through bodies, tiny limbs, tadpole-like tails, and crimson gills, were once believed to be juvenile dragons. Snails, with delicate, translucent shells smaller than grains of rice, thrive here, along with catfish the size of my little finger, shrimp, and other invertebrates that lack eyes and pigmentation. They swim like watery ghosts through the limestone chambers. Here, life adapts to darkness.
In 2000, for the first time in recorded history, the artesian spring at Jacob’s Well ran dry. This has kept happening—five more times in the last eleven years. More than a hundred private wells in the region also ran dry. Then, during the summers of 2022 and 2023, Central Texas experienced extreme heat and intense drought. The spring was at zero flow, and the iconic swimming hole had to be shut down.
Climate change is upon us. Like us, the natural world needs time to heal.
Laurie Roath Frazier is a naturalist, educator, and science writer. Her book Navigating Rocky Terrain: Caves, Karsts, and the Soul of Unseen Spaces is forthcoming from Trinity University Press in early spring. She lives in New Braunfels, Texas.
By Laura Terry
Healing will not be simple. Nothing worth it ever is. Good deeds take time. But time is funny, sometimes quick and flirtatious, flitty like goldfinches. Joyfinches, I call them. For years now, I have kept a list of collective nouns for birds. Did you know a group of goldfinches is called a “charm?” I planted sunflowers, zinnias, and echinacea for them, to nurture them through the last hot days of summer. Their wings are canary-bright then. But August is like a slow death. Sweltering heat steals my breath, and radiating sun bakes the ground dry. We have had no measurable rainfall for weeks. I sit watching a charm of joyfinches feed on sunflowers. I understand I am the one in need of nurture. And Earth. Fake fall has twice teased us. The rhythms and patterns of Earth remind us we are not in control, but we still have the potential to damage, to disrupt. Do we also have the potential to heal? The sunflowers bow their heads in suffering, in mourning, perhaps in prayer. Joyfinches find refuge under their shroud-like leaves, their feathers dull olive now. I admire their resilience, their steadfast spirits, their charm. I ask, “If the joyfinches do not give up, why would I?”
Laura Terry is an artist and an associate professor of architecture at the University of Arkansas. She received an MFA in Painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her work explores the relationship between the natural landscape and an idealized or abstracted one.
A Place Called the Ten Thousand Islands
By Frances Bistline Stephan
Let me tell you about a place called the Ten Thousand Islands.
Watch an osprey: spread wings, black mask, vivid beak, legs outstretched, pushing back the wind with his descent. He catches a meal of fish amid a flash of black water and glittering talons. To watch an osprey is to feel the islands in your heart.
Lumbering manatee cruise these waters with wide-set eyes and whiskered faces that speak of soul searching. For hundreds of years, native people hunted these gentle sea cows for meat, bones, and hides, yet they do not fear us. Pole these waters and watch for a quiet swirl of water. To see a manatee is to feel the islands in your soul.
Fish live here in incredible diversity: mullet, redfish, snook, sea trout, sheepshead, and tarpon. Fish babies hatch among the tepid shallow estuaries, then, when larger, swim onto oyster bars. Later, they among the mangroves and finally swim into the clear Gulf waters to meet their destiny. To go fishing among these islands is to feel in your bones the strength of nature.
Insects thrive here. The whine of mosquitoes at dusk is like a plane coming closer and closer, louder and louder. There are tiny sawtooth no-see-ums, welt-raising horse lies, and biting, crawling ants. Over 200 species of insects thrive in a mangrove forest. To feel these insects is to be reminded that humans are weak.
Only fierce hurricane wind can get its fingers through the dense mangrove trees. As climate change increases the strength of hurricanes, mangroves strive to adapt and protect, but it takes time. The stillness among mangroves is so quiet it hurts. One gets lost among them instantly, blindly, completely. Find your way out before dusk if you are a timid soul. But if you stay, sunsets are nature’s rewards for life’s travesties. To stay a night in the islands is to feel peace of mind.
God help us if this wondrous place ever goes away, for our souls will go with it.
Frances Bistline Stephan is a fourth-generation Floridian. She is a Master Naturalist and Master Gardener. Frances publishes nature articles in such publications as Gulfshore Magazine and Mangrove Review and has worked at Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades.
Tidal Wave Terror
By Deb Bowen
It’s Fourth of July. The scorching strand, packed with people, chairs, and coolers, shimmers. Music blares over the lapping waves. My feet, blistered from running across the sand to the high-tide line, cool as I rush into the azure water. A sucking motion beneath them makes me almost lose my footing as water is pulled far out from shore. A towering wave, taller than any I’ve ever seen, builds at the horizon line. I face it, transfixed.
People scream, grab children, race across the sand toward the parking lot. I watch the wave push closer. It crests, a wall of clear, crushing water. I know I will die if the wave breaks over me, so I take a deep breath and dive into it. Minutes pass, it feels, as I swim through the wave. I struggle to the surface, sputtering, gasping for air, on the back side of it, into calm water. I float and turn to face the shore, where I watch the wave crash far inland, destroying everything and everyone in its path.
A reoccurring, terrifying dream, but not as terrifying, or as real, as the way sea-level rise occurs every day: stealthily, a few inches or feet each year. I hardly notice the rise until a hurricane or nor’easter dumps feet of water onto North Carolina shores and into marshes.
Mourning the Texas Coast
By Ryan Brownlow
My family made regular trips to Galveston when I was a kid. We were too poor to afford “real” vacations, but my Aunt Sharolyne, an ER nurse on the island, had a one-bedroom apartment on the Galveston Seawall. She would let us sleep over while she worked night shifts at the hospital, and during the day we’d steer clear so she could rest and have some privacy. This was, of course, no problem. All we had to do was cross the road, descend seawall steps, and approach the ocean. There on the shore, the day would break open. There I encountered the living facts of jellyfish, blue crab, seagull, and dolphin for the first time. It was another world—of sand, blue-stem and sea-oat, foamy tides. The whole place grabbed my imagination and never let go.
I haven’t lived in Texas since I was 18, but my heart is still there, bobbing in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I love that place and know it is in trouble. This summer the ocean vomited tons of dead fish upon the Texas shoreline, tens of thousands purged from an ecosystem that could no longer support them. Warming water temperature, I’ve learned, affects the ocean’s ability to hold oxygen, and this was a major contributing factor to the mass die-off in June. I have been thinking of those fish, literally suffocated in their own home. Even far away, I’m strung out, mourning as the ocean boils.
Ryan Brownlow is a writer and volunteer land steward. He grew up in rural Texas and now lives in Chicago with his wife and cat companion.
Not So Blue Tides of Sapelo
By James Murdock
While beach walking with a few friends—two biologists and one history teacher—on a sunny afternoon on the south end of Georgia’s Sapelo Island, we came upon a boardwalk, the end of the Nanny Goat Nature Trail, which looked like it had been ripped up from the sand by some giant hand and twisted on its side like a pretzel. The boards ran like a wild roller coaster, planks standing vertical in the sun like sails, half-covered by the dune. The stairs of the boardwalk had been dragged twenty feet from the primary structure. This was at 3 p.m., low tide. We all decided this must be the result of last year’s hurricane.
Later we drove through Hog Hammock, Sapelo’s tiny residential community, where the roads were flooded and the ditches looked like small ponds. Down by the post office, we struck up a conversation with one of the island’s full-time biologists and brought up the boardwalk, assuming openly that a hurricane had done the dirty work.
“That was no hurricane,” he said. “That was high tide.” He explained that “blue events,” like super-high tides, which had once been random and occasional, were happening more and more.
That evening I strolled through the dunes to take a gander. At the foot of the south-side pavilion, where sea oats sway, I felt the rush of water over my feet. I wondered what it was saying, the ocean. I wondered what it would take next.
James Murdock is a writer, naturalist, and a native of southeast Georgia. He holds an MFA in Narrative Nonfiction from the University of Georgia.
By Dylann Turffs
I grew up by the water with no understanding of property lines, just dense oaks and saw palmettos. Only red mangroves separated our neighborhood from the bay. We’d paddle across the bay in the dark of morning, then walk a path through sea oats and railroad vine to the Gulf. I’d step cautiously and still end up crying out in pain, the sharp pinch of a sandspur or sometimes a cluster of them catching in my foot.
Growing up on Florida’s Gulf Coast felt like coming up in Eden, a childhood scored by the chirps of eagles and scented by humid foliage, salty air. We’d mark the seasons by the changing of cloud patterns, by the varying congregations of birds singing from the green canopy. This reverence for nature felt like a secret I’d been let in on. On long summer days, my mom would pack a cooler with sandwiches, pasta salad, and fruit, and we’d boat across the bay to the beach. We’d swim and eat and watch for the sun to approach the horizon, everybody pausing what they were doing as it dipped down.
Quiet and facing the sun, squinting to avoid closing our drying eyes, we’d hope for a flash of green. Sometimes one of us would think we saw it, but the rest would insist it was imagination.
I moved to the east coast for college and remained. My parents still live on the same idyllic street, but now houses have crowded it. I used to pass cow pastures for miles on the way to the highway; now, subdivisions and malls and hospitals fill the space. Returning home is always bittersweet. The changes that occur even between visits only months apart make each visit an opportunity for grief.
Still, spots of magic remain. The mangroves host an occasional otter or bobcat. Bald eagles now perch on the house across the street, picking flesh from fish. On every visit, we paddle across to the beach in the darkness of morning, and in the summer months, dinoflagellates agitate the water blue, lighting up each stroke and highlighting passing manatees and fish.
One cloudless evening, when the sun dipped below the horizon, we finally saw green, unambiguous and hovering for one second, then two. We lingered in the joy and satisfaction for a few moments before turning home.
Now when I cross over a dune, I don’t walk cautiously. There are no longer any sandspurs. I’m not sure exactly when they disappeared, or why, but in the last two decades they’ve gone. I don’t miss them, but I wonder what does.
Dylann Turffs is a naturalist and educator based in Miami, Florida. She is inspired by the natural landscapes of South Florida and loves to share them with others. She spends her free time paddling, free diving, reading, and baking sourdough bread.
By Jody McCracken
I know something of the Atlantic Ocean. Memories live deep in my bones. Effortlessly, I conjure up the thunderous roar of breaking waves and the tickle of surf around my ankles. My feet remember how it feels to run on a hard-packed beach and to bury myself in soft dry sand. I recognize the smell of something deep and old that I have no word for. I flash back to watch myself age from five to sixty-five. Some years I loved the water, being tossed and carried by waves. Other years, it was the sunlight on my skin while I walked the coastline to some internal finish line. I could hardly wait to guide my own children into the ocean for the first time.
I return to the beach now as an aging woman. I stand boldly in the sun. I delight in the damp, salty breeze that curls my hair. As I bring my attention from past to present, I notice the beach looks ragged and broken down. Trash is more eye-catching than seashells. To my horror, I see caution tape and yellow signboards that say “No Swimming!” Tears blur my vision as I skim the finer print. “Warm,” “toxic,” and “bacteria” are recognizable words. I stumble back to my towel and collapse, but not as I had imagined, in the warm sand.
Jody McCracken lives on a small farm in northeast Georgia. She works to live in community with nature and writes to share the vitality and wisdom of her life.
Seeking Safer Ground
By Tom Kimmerer
When the ocean is rising and storms are eating away at beaches and homes, where do you go? When the rains stop, rivers dry up, and crops won’t grow, where do you go? We read about climate migration as if it is something far away in space or time. But it is here. It has begun.
An older couple sat next to me at West Sixth Brewing. We talked, as people do in this friendly place. They had fled from Florida to Kentucky. The man said, “We had a house on Miami Beach. We wanted to sell it while it was still worth more than a nickel.”
I now know of at least thirty families who are climate migrants. Some are from the East Coast. Storms, sea level, and loss of insurance drove them out. Others came here because they need water. A horse farm—horses and staff—arrived from Oregon, where there was not enough water to grow feed.
Kentucky is still little affected by the climate crisis. It rains more than it used to and we have more wind storms, but so far, life is pleasant. This is a middle-class climate migration, so far, of people who can afford to flee. A larger migration of the less-well-off may come later.
It is not too late. We can end the climate crisis by rapidly shifting to renewable energy and by restoring forests. But that will take time.
Tom Kimmerer, Ph.D., is a forest scientist and botanist based in Lexington, Kentucky. He is the author of Venerable Trees: History, Biology, and Conservation in the Bluegrass and is currently working on a series of books about relationships between people and trees.
Resilience and Rebound
By Peter Peteet
“Resilience” and “rebound” are so related you could conflate the two if, say, you had been dumped and went out drinking. Nobody would be fooled except yourself. Here on this beach, with fallen houses strewn across the sand, that is the case also. The passion of rescuers morphs to support more beach “renourishment,” insurance, and sea walls. The ocean is our mother, and she loves us, but she will not tolerate abuse. She’s risen and fallen through ages uncountable—on escarpments at the edge of the coastal plain and out at the continental shelf. She remembers Pangea and long ice ages. We are rebounding as a continent still from the last ice age, a mere 12,000 years ago. The rebound rise has obscured the ocean’s rise. Our glaciers, which are of scale to cause rebound, are long gone, and the ocean’s rising has just begun. We are willful children, pumping carbon into her thin atmosphere, although we have long known there will be consequences. The slaps of hurricanes come stronger and more frequently. The resilience that we crave and need can only come after actual self-awareness, which is a product of work, confession, and control. The cost to end fossil fuels use is huge—in terms of money, of course, but also in political, religious, and philosophical changes. All our relations wait and watch, and on a deep level they wish us well.
Peter Peteet is a writer and photographer published in Flycatcher, Eyedrum Periodically, and Rhyme and Punishment. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Ana, and keeps many hybrid cars running.
Long, Long Thoughts
By Andrew Bellacomo
I learned to love sunrise by going into the marsh with my grandfather. In the soft light of cool summer mornings, I am back there in an instant. He and I are riding bicycles down a path through the marsh, stopping often for signs of life, movement. Sunrise is when the marsh is most alive. My memory shimmers with evanescent glimpses—a great egret taking flight against a rose-blushed sky, a raccoon staring, stock still, through a jet-black mask among wax myrtle and sea oxeye daisy, river otters undulating, disappearing, into tea-stained waters, the ground alive with fiddler crabs, an osprey riding silent on the sea-wind.
Now my grandfather’s joints have stiffened, and his heart has grown weak and tired. On the other side of the island, my grandmother’s ashes have been swept away by an outgoing tide. I spread them there when my mother couldn’t. The shards of bone mixed with dusty ash startled me, like white shells broken against grey-packed sand.
And the sea has carved a groove into the marsh. Bike tires sink into powder-soft sand, a tiny dune network is forming, smothering the grass, choking back twisting tidal creeks. Where once there was a tree line, now it’s clear straight out to the blue horizon. The Atlantic. The sky.
Youth is built on an eroding beach, and the sea is ever rising.
When I go back, I drink in the clean air off the ocean, watch an osprey cut through the sky.
Andrew Bellacomo is a writer, video director, and student living in Athens, Georgia. He appreciates long walks outdoors, the music of Townes Van Zandt, and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.
The Ticks Are Here Waiting
By Jim Minick
Four to a pinhead, that small; pile them together into tick nests, tick blooms, tick swarms; step off trail into one of these just hatched masses—then spend hours picking them off yourself or your dog—losing count at 300; counting the days to cold weather, knowing that only slows them; to kill them takes negative twenty degrees—so we stop counting.
When we moved to these Virginia mountains thirty-five years ago, we had dog ticks, just dog ticks, just in the summer. Twenty years ago, deer ticks arrived and still do every fall, winter, and spring, so now we have ticks year-round. Summer 2023, two new species appeared, Asian longhorn and Lone Star—new species thanks to old climate change (as in discovered-in-1896 old).
New ticks mean new carriers of multiple diseases: at least two of our dogs have had anaplasmosis, while five have had Lyme; one morning, our biggest couldn’t use his back legs—just wag and fall over—because of Lyme. The dogs get a Lyme vaccine—we can’t. Between my wife and me, we’ve had Lyme five times, plus a nasty skin infection. The Lyme will lay you out and burn you up. The Lyme will inflame your whole body, including your brain, bringing on eleven days of migraines. The climate crisis lives inside us. We are afraid to go for a walk.
I’ve seen maps saying where we live is a refuge from the rising seawater and increasing heat of climate change. The ticks already figured that out. The ticks are here waiting.
By Susan Cerulean
I remember following the turtle’s tread up the beach, parallel ridges with a tail drag down the center. Her nest was number ninety-two, laid on July 11.
We’d had a record-breaking summer in the northern Gulf. Highest temperatures. Most sea turtle nests laid. Highest number of green sea turtle nests ever.
I remember: it was my turn to locate the eggs. Probing with gloved fingers, armloads of sand hauled to the surface. Careful, careful. No chatter, praying to the green mother. There they are. Nestled, faintly glowing, like moon drops. Cover them quickly. Trench and bury a protective cage.
Eighty days pass. Again, I’m digging. This time, to document the eggs’ fate.
But between the lay and the hatch, Hurricane Idalia’s record-breaking surge, fueled by the overheated Gulf, washed over fifty nests on our island, even with landfall over 100 miles south. Idalia left behind a concrete beach.
Whatever you pull to the surface, you sort by fate, in lines of ten. My hand hopes hard for thin skins of shed shell.
Instead, limp bodies: ten. Almost made it out. Drowned. Then a layer of the nearly hatched. One hundred and two embryos, half emerged from their shells. Drowned. All those eyes, dessicated.
“I’m sorry,” I say, ferrying them one by one into the air. “I’m sorry,” says the biologist.
Nothing can clean the stench of wrongful death from my fingers.
On Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island
By Kimberly Coburn
The tide was out. Seawater pooled where wood touched the sand: dimples of reflected winter sky. We threaded our way through the tangle of wrecked trees, scrawling cursive footprints on the damp beach.
We hoisted ourselves onto the ruin of branches, sovereigns of our driftwood realm. The bleached, furrowed wood was a ship’s prow and you the figurehead. It was an ancient beast that I saddle broke. It was Tolkien’s elven kingdom in the trees.
But it wasn’t any of that. It wasn’t even driftwood; the tide had not carried it there. It had grown stubbornly and resolutely in the island’s sandy soil—until it hadn’t. It was the twisted skeleton of a maritime oak forest upended by the rising sea.
Its branches were the petrified arms of a boy from Pompeii, reaching out from an impending apocalypse. Its naked, splayed roots were dendrites demented by salt water. It was a drowned library: stories of nesting plover and the lacework of Spanish moss silenced by silt.
We smoked a joint and talked about xylomancy, how maybe we can see the future in wood grain the way a persimmon seed foretells the oncoming winter by fork, knife, and spoon. I watched you walk to the edge of the shore, flanked by unmoored trees, and wondered what shape these gnarled prophets held within them: cradle, boat, or coffin.