Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South
by Rick Van Noy
University of Georgia Press, 2019
Reviewed by JULIE DUNLAP
A fast eroding coastline baffled author Rick Van Noy on a recent drive through Louisiana’s bayou country. Where state maps on road signs depicted terra firma, Van Noy encountered floating wetlands and open water. That alluvial plain has long been starved of replenishing sediment by flood-control levees on the Mississippi River, and soil loss from wave action is exacerbated by nine thousand miles of canals dredged into salt marshes for oil and gas infrastructure. Now rising sea levels conspire with the tides to leave any map of Louisiana’s coastal zone obsolete the day it is drawn. Without his traveling companions, a college-aged son and friends, and their prowess with a cell phone compass app, Van Noy might have become hopelessly lost.
Wayfinding is a common and fertile theme in Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South. Van Noy, an English professor at Radford University, a father and naturalist, is increasingly alarmed by the consequences of climate change already unfolding for the people and places he loves. Equally troubling to him is widespread public resistance to evidence that the peril is “not just a future threat but a present reality” (3). Despite the Keeling curve and the hockey stick graph demonstrating connections between rising carbon emissions and global temperatures, too many remain unconvinced, or at least unmoved. The author warns, as he explains his book’s purpose, that “it will surely get worse, unless we can change” (3). Van Noy believes that stories can help catalyze the needed shift. In a previous work, Surveying the Interior: Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place, Van Noy explored how surveyors and mapmakers in the past used narrative to evoke deeper meanings and values for the landscapes they delineated on paper. In this new book, the writer undertakes a journey himself, a search for place-based stories of adaptation that offer strategies and innovations, cooperation and confrontation, hope and solace in response to rapid, unprecedented change. The result is both an eloquent guide to action and a cautionary tale—a pleasure to read, yet also deeply unsettling.
Van Noy launches his peripatetic investigation in his home state of Virginia. By car, bus, bike, and ferry, he travels the margins of the Chesapeake Bay to inspect receding shorelines, wade flooded roadways, tour oyster farms and green buildings, and interview watermen, engineers, politicians, and homeowners. On Tangier Island, “a dot of mud and marsh in the bay” (22), a seventh-generation islander steers a boat with Van Noy aboard to a beach where arrowheads recall an ancient Pocomoke campsite, and human bones reveal where Superstorm Sandy washed away part of a family cemetery. Denial of the immediate problem, land loss, is rare on Tangier, which now claims only a third of the acreage recorded on maps from the 1850s. What the author calls “social erosion” is rampant, too, as the human population shrinks and average resident age climbs each year (24). “It makes me sick,” says Van Noy’s host, who complains of inaction that imperils nesting shorebirds, the soft-shell crab industry, and a unique island culture that emerged over centuries of near-isolation. Distrustful of climate science, the boat guide and many of her Evangelical neighbors attribute the island’s depletion to storms rather than rising seas, and advocate barrier-style protections such as concrete barges, to be sunk strategically across Tangier’s busy harbor. Engineers caution, however, that a patchwork approach might aggravate erosion overall. A tentative but more holistic plan to protect the island involves segmented stone jetties, revegetated wetlands, dune replenishment, and elevating or abandoning select buildings. But what cannot be designed, notes Van Noy, “is how to pay for it” (24). The town manager has set up a crowdfunding campaign for a seawall, and the mayor has asked President Trump for help. But tiny Tangier is competing for funds with other crises and more prominent places with ravaged coastlines of their own. In a world wracked by troubles, laments Van Noy’s guide, “We’re just not important enough” (26).
Prospects appear brighter at another stop near Savannah, Georgia. The tourist hub of Tybee Island, says Van Noy, is “on the front line of sea level rise adaptation” (84). Thanks to a strategic plan crafted by an environmental scientist, storm water management, open space preservation, and public awareness have all improved. Yet the single access road to Tybee, a narrow causeway, still floods with unnerving frequency. The Army Corps of Engineers could raise the route, for an estimated 110 million dollars, but the current solution in case of emergency is a helicopter. Norfolk, Virginia, boasts more comprehensive goals, backed by a “Coastal Resilience Strategy” and a billion-dollar budget. Working with Dutch engineers, the city is striving to prepare for three feet of sea level rise by 2100. Van Noy, though, points out that their engineering plans are based on a low-end sea level estimation, and officials continue to avoid addressing the underlying issue of carbon emissions, or what Norfolk’s deputy city manager brushes off as “the politics of causality.” Instead, the manager highlights a local history of resilience to shocks and chronic urban stresses. “Norfolk was bombed by the British,” he tells Van Noy, “bombarded by the Yankees, and survived two yellow fevers. We’ll bounce back” (17).
Van Noy also looks beyond planners and engineers to innovators who work with nature instead of against it, not surprising since Sudden Spring’s title is part homage to Rachel Carson’s masterwork. In North Carolina, he finds a Nature Conservancy refuge restoring oyster reefs to buffer wave energy and stabilize barrier islands, and in Florida, he tours a nature center that nurtures red mangroves, which filter salt from the seawater that is intruding upon the state’s freshwater supply. Yet the ecological adaptation expert accompanying Van Noy on that trip struggles to remain optimistic. “It’s going to be interesting to watch,” he asserts, but also cautions that you “can’t fortify yourself against the ocean permanently” (108).
Literary perspectives, from Shakespeare’s to Wallace Stegner’s, also guide Van Noy’s travels. On Georgia’s Sea Islands, a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved recounts that escaped slaves once found refuge there, and heightens the poignancy of the low-lying sand’s present vulnerability. At Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favorite bar in Key West, Van Noy chats with a patron who rejects the possibility of climate change, arguing, “It was too cold last winter,” and a server who shrugs off worries: “People just accept storms and floods as part of life.” (126). Another customer, Alex, chimes in that he should sell his house before a hurricane takes it, “But it’s just so beautiful here” (126). Deep attachment to place comes up often in Van Noy’s conversations, and readers will wonder what information, argument, or ethic might alter such mindsets. Is there anything the author could say that would jolt Alex and others to retreat to higher ground, sacrifice their cars and motorboats, or vote for carbon taxes? The chief flaw in the book may be the writer’s periodic omission to order another beer, and ask another question.
Yet Van Noy’s clement approach is a welcome contrast to some recent climate change polemics, replete with human starvation and disease, ravished rainforests and acidified oceans, and other anthropogenic miseries on an uninhabitable Earth. Stories of hope abound in this book; reports of foresightful planning, creative problem-solving, and especially persistence in the face of long odds spark optimism, or at least relief. Like a good mapmaker, however, the writer makes clear the scale of the amplifying assaults on our coasts and climate. Adaptations described often seem out of proportion—too small, too slow, too late—to attenuate the danger. Fear remains a dominant theme, and takes many forms. A realtor dreads falling home prices, a politician frets over electoral risks, and an ecologist worries that a lifetime’s conservation efforts will literally wash away. There is even fear of fear itself, from a climate expert who sometimes withholds information from clients to forestall panic. But Van Noy insists the imperative to comprehend our peril must quash our preference for comfort. “If we act quickly and boldly,” he writes, “there is a small window of opportunity to prevent the worst” (9).
Toward the end of Sudden Spring, to restore himself for the work ahead, the author repairs to West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness. He wanders off trail and becomes disoriented, then is startled by a crash—was that a bear? Without a cell phone or companions, he turns to his senses and judgment for rescue. Familiar birds call from the aged trees, calming him, and he follows contours of the hills and the flow of a stream to safety. Revived by wildness, by ancient ecosystems and timeless processes, Van Noy says he can still imagine “a deep future” without unendurable losses (189). Reading Sudden Spring can help each of us understand the dangerous path we are on, and the rising urgency of finding a new course.
Julie Dunlap is co-editor of two nature anthologies, Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet and Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, and an award-winning children’s book writer. She teaches about wildlife ecology and environmental sustainability for the University of Maryland University College. Her forthcoming children’s book, Janey Monarch Seed, will be published by Green Writers Press in fall 2019.