I don’t remember the first time I saw the water rise. There is no moment in my memory that stands out as a shift; the water has always been impossible to ignore. I spent my teenage years in Charleston, South Carolina, floating on paddleboards down roads turned to rivers, wading through floodwater to reach my car. There was joy and then fear as school would be canceled for days at a time due to incoming hurricanes, all the businesses on the peninsula boarding up their windows in preparation. All the while, it seemed normal, an essential facet of life in the coastal South. The water was always there in the background, rising and then falling. I did not think to worry, or wonder, or wait for the places I call home to sink.
Now, as I have grown older and the water has grown closer — and higher — I worry. I pore over statistics about how long these places have, imagining life without them. Every time I am home and I walk along the wall that holds the coastline below, I wonder how long it will be before this path is gone, before this street is gone. Before this whole place is gone, and me with it. Because, whether I like it or not, there will come a day where we will not be able to hold the water out. It might be in 20 years or it might be in 80, but it is inevitable.
How do you cope with that reality? How do you love a place that is sinking? I spent my entire life waiting to leave the South, thinking I would only find happiness away from here, but now that it is disappearing I find I cannot look away. I am desperate to find ways to archive my home. To preserve it. To create a memory of a place that can last beyond it — a memorial of sorts, I suppose.
But that memorial does not have to overcome; it cannot — and should not — be the only story we tell ourselves, even in the midst of it. There can still be celebration, appreciation, and hope existing at the same time. There is, of course, pain in these places, dark histories and troubled waters, but there is newfound joy, too. There is love and hope and a belief in resurrection being poured into the modern South by the artists, writers, musicians, documentarians, and individuals who call it home. It is beautiful, and it is redemptive. These stories show that force; they are at once both love letters and critiques, memorials and memories, creating an archive of a common place.
Under the Wave (Lauren Groff, The New Yorker, July 2018)
This story from Lauren Groff about a climate refugee and the aftermath of a wave that wipes out a whole coastline in minutes is beautifully done. Groff has written candidly about her home state of Florida, but this story speaks in descriptive prose about an experience bound to become more frequent as natural disasters increase:
Then she stood and the two held hands and picked their way over the sleepers and went out the door and into the dusty yard, first to the ad-hoc showers, while the water was still warm. The woman put powdered soap all over their clothes and stomped the filth from them with her feet, then wrung them with her strong arms until they were almost dry. When they went back into the yard, the girl trotted behind her, a good dog. They visited the porta-potties, then they went to the men who were solemnly unloading boxes of food from a truck at the gate. No, the men said, looking away. They couldn’t take the woman and the child with them. They had to be registered, they had to wait for the Red Cross to come.
Atchafalaya Mud (Boyce Upholt, The Bitter Southerner, January 2022)
At The Bitter Southerner, Spencer George reflects on how artists in Charleston, South Carolina, are responding to climate change. Read “Common High Ground.”
The Bitter Southerner is one of the best publications right now, truly. Much of their journalism focuses on climate and nature in the modern South. I love this piece from Boyce Upholt about the largest river swamp in the United States, which is slowly sinking. He poses a great question that I find especially relevant for today’s South: How do you preserve a landscape when the only constant is change?
The Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana is a floodway that protects the entire South from rising water levels. In this piece, Upholt reflects on the history of the swamp, the mythology of the region, and learning to live with change — a lesson especially important as time goes on. As he says:
The first people to live in these swamps knew it was a place of constant change. They expected to move at times to accommodate its flow. Now modern scientists are finally catching up to this idea: Ecosystems are dynamic. Restoration, then, is always arbitrary. We have to decide what conditions to restore. The fight in the Atchafalaya is not against nature, but among humans who disagree about what to build next.
Belle Boggs writes about how we tell stories about our world, especially in regard to how we process a changing climate. Through a reflection on parenthood and raising her daughter in rural North Carolina, she looks at our communal role as unreliable narrators who want to be both honest and optimistic about where our future with climate change stands. She also examines the education system and the ways we teach climate change in the rural South, if we teach it at all.
I appreciate — and agree with — Boggs’ view that one of our roles as artists is to become documentarians, chronicling this specific moment in time. Art movements such as The Dark Mountain Project often discuss how our art must begin to engage with the new world around us rather than living in a fictional past, and I think Boggs does a great job of showing that intersection of documentation, reflection, and cautionary hope in this piece.
I’m also aware that we are documenting a moment in time that may well be gone too. Not the last snowstorm in our area or the last hatch of leopard frogs, but the time in which we still had time to mitigate the damage, and “avoid the worst consequences” of climate crisis, as youth climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted after the most recent climate report from the United Nations. In 2030, the year by which we must halve greenhouse gas emissions to prevent unlivable future conditions, Beatrice will be seventeen years old, still too young to vote or have any meaningful say in what happens to her future. My hope is that what we are doing now is a tribute to the potential beauty of that future—not only for kids, but also frogs and squirrels and beavers and snakes and spiders and trees.
In moments of crisis, art is a force that can help us process. When we cannot find the words ourselves, we turn to the words of others, whether those be in music, poetry, fiction, or film. For Scalawag, Sergio Lopez reflects on the history of music in response to coastal flooding, tracing it back to the Great Flood of 1927 that washed out the Mississippi and the Black musicians who poured out music testifying to the destruction. Then and now, music has helped us to bear witness, and from that, to ask for change. But Lopez also warns of the consequences of separating these songs — which he compiles in a playlist including everything from Eric Clapton to Lil Wayne to Charley Patton to Led Zeppelin — from their historical and intended meaning, asking:
Nearly a century after the flood, hurricanes from Katrina through Ida continue to leave their own indelible, mud-stained mark on popular culture and the Southern landscape. Lil Wayne, Big Krit, Jay Electronica, and other Southern rappers from cities devastated by horrific storms have continued to respond with songs of grief and anger, just as gravel-voiced Charley Patton and his 1920s counterparts did. But will these songs be remembered anymore than their predecessors’ when the pain Black folks faced during the Great Flood of 1927 has long receded from national memory—like floodwaters after a storm?
Writer Meghan Mayhew Bergman reflects for The Guardian on the disappearing highways in her childhood home of coastal North Carolina. As she drove along Highway 12 — a road along the Carolina coast’s barrier islands — she ruminated on change, and the inevitably of it.
There is a precarity to loving places that we know will disappear, a tenacious joy in finding home in what we are bound to lose. It has been one of the core facets of my own Southern journey as I grew up here, left, and returned, only to learn what I returned to could never last. Beyond climate, coastal towns thrive on tourism, and in turn have suffered the effects of rampant gentrification; the places I once used to find familiar are at best changed and at worst gone.
The main theme I have found in all the writing of the coastal South I have pored over the last few years is that change is inevitable. Whether in the form of climate disasters, rising floodwaters, or small towns falling to development projects, it will come. The point to stop it is long past us. What is important now is how we learn to live with it — how we learn to make homes in all of this ruin. How we can even learn to love them.
Around here, change is non-negotiable: the highway lies atop a series of barrier islands – dynamic mounds of sand designed by nature to shift.
Delilah Friedler looks at Louisiana and the Gulf Coast as a test ground for a Civilian Climate Corps, a program being debated in Congress. Similar to Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, a Climate Corps would mobilize following natural disasters, building a more resilient, prepared South along the way. Friedler follows families who have struggled to get relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast season after season, a process failing everyone, but especially families of color.
“‘They need to start paying us for the work we’ve been doing just to survive,’” Friedler quotes from Rogelip “Rojo” Meixuro, a student who marched with the Sunrise Movement in Louisiana, ‘For too long we’ve seen environmentalism be about conservation. That mindset is over. We can no longer conserve what we have completely damaged. We need to innovate.’”
Hurricane Watch (Eileen Elizabeth, Joyland Magazine, November 2021)
So much of our work with climate in the South is related to memory — what we remember now, and what we will remember when the waters rise, when the fires burn, when the hurricanes and earthquakes flood and shake. Eileen Elizabeth reflects on her relationship with her father, Appalachia, coastal Florida, and their varying approaches to climate safety in this beautiful story.
One morning this summer I heard the news about a hurricane coming up the gulf coast. I asked my father, as usual, if he would evacuate. He said he wouldn’t, that he was ready for the rain. He wrote back to me like some kind of solem prophet:
“For me water is everything needful yet hiding the wrath of God. Quench my thirst, yet I can drown in 2 teaspoons full; cleanse my body, there could be a deadly virus lurking. Leap or dive into the sudden cold embrace and smash my spine or head on a rock; the undertow, the river current, the giant wave, the hurricane all can take me away.”
He speaks about water in a holy language I can understand.
Spencer George is a Writer and Teaching Artist hailing from the Carolinas. She holds a B.A. in English and Human Rights with a concentration in Creative Writing from Barnard College and is pursuing her M.A. in Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on narrative representations of the rural South and has been published in The Bitter Southerner, The Adroit Journal, and Medium, and once received a shout-out in the The New York Times. Spencer was the 2019 recipient of the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. She is the creator and writer of GOOD FOLK, a weekly newsletter about the people and stories of rural America and the American South. She currently teaches creative writing in North Carolina public schools as a Senior Fellow with ArtistYear. In addition to teaching, she is the Special Initiatives Assistant at Girls Write Now and is at work on her debut novel, Loblolly, which tells the story of two young women as they travel across the Southeast in search of a mysterious man who appears only in dreams and the individuals who worship him.
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