As the Water Rises

A cedar waxwing almost brushes my forehead, drawn by mosquitoes who are drawn by my warmth and my breath exhaled into the evening. I am standing at the edge of the water on our land. The sweet bright air seems absurd against the backdrop of floodwater rising in Houston and Miami, in the St. Martin and Barbuda, in India, Bangladesh, Nepal. So many people waist-deep in the streets. Islands destroyed. I feel acutely aware of my dry feet, dry home.

Across the wetland in front of me, common gallinules shout to each other. They are new here, with their purple-black bodies and red-orange bills voicing raucous sounds—clucks, whinnies, cackles, squawks, and yelps. I am glad they are here, drawn by our cattails and wetland expanded this spring by beavers. I welcome the beavers, too, but they are aggravating the neighbors and the township that clears their dam from the culvert to keep water below the road.

Like us, beavers engineer water movement and levels to suit themselves. Effects on others simply happen. Some species, like the cattails and gallinules, share the beavers’ priority for more open water. Some, like our human neighbors, require dry land for roads, hay fields, and one guy’s private landing strip.

I consider the widening wetland-now-pond in front of me. Drawn by gravity, water moves downhill until something blocks it. Both beavers and humans spend considerable time helping water defy gravity. We stopper flowing water, backing it up into reservoirs that spread over previously dry land. Or we guide it away from low wet places, draining them into livable, workable landscapes. When our engineering is destroyed, we rebuild it the same.

Humans not only rearrange water, however, we also rearrange carbon, dragging from deep in the earth and burning it, releasing it. Beavers’ activities change the landscape; our behaviors have changed the entire planet.

In this changed world, water misbehaves. A year’s worth of water falls from the sky in a few days. Water surges from the ocean. Having been so tightly reined into unnatural riverbanks and reservoirs and gutters and sewers and channels, all of this extra water no longer absorbs into wetlands or flood plains or deltas or shorelines. Water rises, now seeming to defy gravity on its own.

One more stride from where I stand, and I will be calf-deep. Do I deserve to sink into the wetland, being unprepared for this moment, having walked towards the water wearing only my worn leather boots, not quite paying attention? None of us has the right shoes on at all times. I do not deserve misfortune, even for my mistakes. I do need, however, to pay attention. My actions have consequences, and not just for myself.

My actions and my lifestyle have contributed to what seems like a tiny shift—just one degree of warmth in an ocean. It’s not tiny though. Even a small change on a large scale can have big consequences—melting permafrost, epic storms.

Standing at the edge, I am lucky. I have the option to step back onto dry ground, to return to a dry home. We work hard for our home, but we would not have it without both help and luck, neither of which I earned any more than I earned the nose on my face. Help and good fortune mean that I am more buffered than some people from the consequences of our actions on this planet. Many people live in vulnerable places. Many people do not have options.

The evening here is so calm it is hard to believe there are catastrophes. It is hard to believe that those catastrophes have anything to do with me. But I am not separate or alone. I am here with the beavers, gallinules, and cedar waxwings. And with my neighbors—that is to say, our neighbors—Houston and Miami, the St. Martin and Barbuda; India, Bangladesh, Nepal. Now is not the time to struggle with believing what is abundantly evident—we are creating disasters. Now is the time to stop changing the climate. We are all here together.

 

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