Radford University Professor of English Rick Van Noy has released the region’s first new work of the new year. Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate Changed South (University of Georgia Press, 2019) is an exploration of Southern coastal and mountain communities adjusting and preparing for what might be considered ‘the new abnormal’—shifting and unexpected weather patterns resulting from a changing climate and rising sea levels.
An investigative travelogue, Van Noy’s 200 pages recount climate research and scientific models. But that and our overly politicized context are just a background for his primary subject: what forward-looking individuals, organizations, and communities are doing to adapt.
It’s an approach similar to Beth Macy’s look at the opioid crises in Dopesick—focus on those frontline leaders making a difference where they can. Otherwise, complex and impending crises can render a sense of powerlessness and futility, leading to further inaction as trillions of dollars in long term investments, in communities and homes, wash away, sink, or are abandoned because of saltwater intrusion.
To mark the release, Van Noy gave us a little background in a BOOK CITY Q&A.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Your body of work centers on the natural world. What about our region inspires you to write?
Rick Van Noy: I’m a longtime paddler, bike rider and hiker, so the Roanoke and the New River Valleys can be pretty inspiring. My previous book, A Natural Sense of Wonder, was all about what you can do in the area with kids outside. It features hikes on the Andy Layne and Appalachian trails, paddles on the New, and a search for swimming holes, including at the Cascades. But for this book, I wanted to explore much beyond this particular region and what they are seeing in terms of climate change.
BCR: What else fuels your creativity?
RVN: Writing time for me is also taking a long walk with the dogs on a nearby hill, drinking in the forest. I read a lot and I teach young people, who inspire me. Creatures too—inevitably, something outside arrests my attention, and I have to learn more about them, share in that discovery. Gardening fuels creativity, as does all kinds of movement. I’ve lived in the South for 20 years, but I hadn’t seen many historic cities, including Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans—all threatened by sea level rise. In part, I had an urge for going.
BCR: And you went, often taking family members along with you. The new book largely follows a geographic path, beginning on Virginia’s Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay and traveling the coastline south and west. Within the chapters there’s a fairly linear recounting of what you experienced on site. Was this just the natural structure or did you consider several options?
RVN: I didn’t necessarily go to them in that order. And I went back to some several times. For instance, I went back to Charleston after Hurricane Mathew, where I rescued a fish that came in over the Low Battery wall. And I used that in an opening to help communicate urgency, and then I went back to material I had already gathered to give more context. But I suppose the trips themselves and the interviews I set up do provide some of the structure, with lots of asides I could dig up in research. Generally, there was a series of interviews with experts and officials, then someone random to talk to on the street or in a bar or restaurant, and then there would be some excursion often with unplanned event (such as seeing an alligator or sea turtle), and those got folded into the overall theme of the chapter.
In North Carolina, after seeing an alligator, the theme became the way climate change fails to activate our reptilian brain. In South Carolina, fish rescue, it was the upside down nature of things and religion (which tries to explain the upside down). In Georgia it’s ghosts of the past, surreal in Florida, and resilience in Louisiana. But bringing others along helps tell the story, makes it more lively. Much writing about nature is from the point of view of a solitary consciousness, and I wanted people to help tell the story. I wanted the focus to be on the issues and not so much the person telling.
BCR: The title, Sudden Spring, does a lot, immediately suggesting Rachel Carson’s watershed 1962 work, Silent Spring. Your title refers to the shifted weather patterns of false and early springs, and it can also convey our reaction, that springing back from the initial realization and shock that yes, this is happening. It might refer to an ability to quickly move into response and preparedness mode, that we are a resilient people. It’s hopeful that way. At what point in the work did the title emerge?
RVN: Early on when I was proposing the book to the press that title came to me. A Natural Sense of Wonderwas inspired by an essay Carson wrote called “Help Your Child to Wonder.” And the sense of wonder was a bridge in her career between her books about sea, mostly factual, science based, and her later call to action. I felt like Silent Springwas successful in part through the images she created, of silent birds and their eggs that were harmed by pesticides. But there hasn’t yet been those images (or response) with climate change, though for me it’s probably the “ghost trees” you see in various places, dying from salt water inundation. But yes, the spring can refer to false springs, to spring tides that are flooding streets, and perhaps to the springing back people need to do after these storms and events. It will be “sudden” if we’re not prepared.
BCR: And about that shift. How close to a tipping point do you feel we are in forming local, regional, and national plans of action?
RVN: One coastal geologist, Hal Wanless from the University of Miami, who has run models that are pretty grim, especially for low-lying Florida, turned to my son and said, “If you get this, and plan for it, things will be alright.” The “you” refers to my college-aged son’s generation, but the responsibility falls on all of us—what kind of future do we want to leave our kids? One planner told me that the reason they can’t get public transportation bonds passed in Florida is because the older voting bloc won’t be around to use it. The effects of climate change used to be rather slow moving, but Hurricanes Florence and Michael, their increased rain and intensity (record rain in Roanoke), tell us it’s not some far off data projection or model. It’s here and now.
I was encouraged in talking with the officials in communities I visited. They don’t always engage in causality, and may call it “nuisance flooding” or something else, but they are planning and aware of what’s going on, no matter their politics. The issue is no longer an ideological one for them but one disrupting their constituents’ ability to get to school or the store. One city official said to me that at some point the federal government will come around to planning and funding for communities to get ready for the changes that will inevitably come. Those places that have the design plans ready will be poised to lead. It’s just that, without a coherent national strategy, they are resilient isles in a threatening sea.
BCR: Ideally, what effect would you like to see this book have?
RVN: That communities will be even more committed, that we change the conversation from disaster response to preparedness, and that we focus our attention on different kinds of walls. That we really take stock of the future we are leaving our children, and the damage we are doing to natural systems. That way pay more attention to experts in the field, and that we come together not as individuals but as citizens of a larger community. That we use our big, adapted brains for good.
BCR: That’s a book worth writing. For a really specific craft question: I was struck by the work of the last sentence in this paragraph on your interview with John “Crawfish” Crawford at the Marine Education Center on Georgia’s Skidaway Island. The placement within the paragraph of the details is doing something interesting. Can you tell us what’s at work here?
I’ve seen it happen in my lifetime,” he said, referring to climate change. Crawfish called up images on his computer, places he would visit by boat, little hammocks or islands of trees that are now skeletal, their spiky forms still visible by satellite. To demonstrate how those islands formed, he shook a jar of red clay, feldspar, and sand, which is quartz. The sand settled to the bottom then the silt layer, with clay on top of it, and finally organic material resting on top. With rising seas, that process reverses. He had a tube of marine epoxy on his desk and a picture of knots hung on the wall: reef knot, anchor bend, bowline, half hitches.
RVN: Crawfish was one of the many naturalists I had the pleasure to talk with, and I love talking to them, because they know so much, and are often such colorful characters. I suppose I was trying to add details to show character and setting. He’s a man who can not only give you ten names for different kinds of wetlands (in the next paragraph below that one), but he has a kind of enthusiasm found among boaters too. He’s a man who knows things, like knots (I just wish more would listen to him). And he’s a natural teacher, bringing physical processes down to scale, even in a jar. And he was zeroing in on images of those spiky trees, which were drowned. And then zeroing in again with the display in his hand, as if we were getting down to finer and finer pixels or particles. And the tying of knots reminds me of the kind of “how to” practical guides we need right now. Also, a writer I admire is John McPhee, who is fascinated with the naming of parts.
BCR: There’s great power in the naming of things. That’s part of your work, of the work of all writers. You allude to a number of authors and literary characters in the work. How do you see some of these as a model for how we could live today?
RVN: I use Thoreau’s ice-out dates of Walden pond to compare to now as one indicator of climate change. I sometimes felt like the father in The Road—casting a watchful eye, dragging myself to the coast. The grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a good example. The Misfit shoots her, saying she “would have been a good woman if it had been someone to shoot her every minute of her life.” The point is that we act the way we should only when under the gun. We are under it.
Whitman on the beach, chanting pain and joy.
So put Thoreau in an apocalyptic setting, somewhere on a beach with a rising sea, Planet Ape style, throw in some Southern Gothic and pinch of humor to stay sane—add some prehistoric creatures—alligators and sea turtles and oysters and ospreys—and you have a book on climate change in the South. The mayor of Coral Gables also showed me an altered poem by Robert Frost: some say the world will end in fire. Some say in melting ice.
BCR: A piece of ice on a hot stove. It’s an illustrative response to the question you were asked: why’s an English Professor writing a book on climate change? Sometimes a little poetry can help us see get unstuck from the way we see.
RVN: I love that image. The first book I did was about literary cartographers and how maps functioned in their writing. They couldn’t just map a place but had to map it in words, because words stimulate the image-making faculty, they valorize, delve into connections in ways the map couldn’t. We have graphs and data and charts that warn of climate change, but they fail to stir something deep inside us that stories and words can.
BCR: You’ve got several local appearances scheduled this winter. How are you structuring your talks?
RVN: Locally, I will probably talk about my journeys away and back to home, to emphasize how we are connected to these places. With the Sierra Club, since they are founded to save Yosemite by John Muir, I’ll talk about some of the impacts to national parks, including the Everglades and Cumberland Island, and some of the many conservation organizations that are doing good work. If a college audience, probably the impact on young people, and how they might plan for the future. Whenever possible, I’ll try to talk about how the community I’m in might be impacted, and to answer questions. I’ll have pictures of these places too.
BCR: We’ll look forward to it—to the pictures and the words. Thanks for your work on this.
Rick Van Noy lives in the New River Valley and is a professor of English at Radford University. He’s the author of Surveying the Interior: Literary Cartographers and the Sense of Place and A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons.
Catch Van Noy at on one of the following local readings.
- Jan 30: Radford Library
- Feb. 8: Sierra Club, Roanoke Chapter’s Earth Friendly Friday ★