Life as we know in America is at a crossroads. Now more than ever, conflicting political and social perspectives reflect a need for women to collectively define our moral imperatives, clarify our cultural values, and inspire meaningful change—especially to our daughters.
In that motherly and patriotic spirit, author Elizabeth Rush submitted the following essay to Terrain.org along with more than 130 writers, artists, scientists and political and community leaders who have come together since the 2016 presidential election to offer their impassioned letters to America in a new book, Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance and Democracy (Trinity University Press, April 2020).
“I spent a good part of last year in Antarctica, studying its disintegrating glaciers,” Rush says, “I expected that drawing close to one of the world’s most vital ecosystems in distress would impact my desire to bring a child into the world.
“But it didn’t. If anything, when I returned from the ice, the desire was even deeper. I suppose you can say I wrote this letter as a way to try to address the climate crisis and the prospect of motherhood in the same breath.”
Dear Soon-to-be Sprout
By Elizabeth Rush
Dear Soon-to-be Sprout,
It’s possible that as I write you are rooting yourself deep in my uterine walls. It’s also possible that your will-be dad’s sperm missed the rendezvous we arranged with my eggs and that we will have to try for you in another three weeks’ time. I love that phrasing: to try for someone. I suppose that is what motherhood will hold, a whole lot of attempting on behalf of another being.
As I write, I’m not thinking about what color to paint your room or what name you might carry, tender spark, I’m thinking of a letter Alexis Pauline Grumbs wrote to her past self from a changed future where society is no longer steeped in cheap fossil fuels. Imagine that.
One line of her missive reads: Now life, not exactly easier, is life all the time. I first encountered those words back in the spring after I returned from a reporting trip to Antarctica, where I’d watched a chunk of one of the world’s key glacial systems collapse right in front of me. It augmented my already extraordinary ability to conjure up endings. Though my skill, mind you, is not born of delusion.
Last year, the Spix’s macaw, a wily blue bird with a long tail that I’m certain you would have loved, went extinct in the wild. Also gone: a songbird called the cryptic tree-hunter (how fabulous a name is that?) and the Hawaiian land snail. In the year before we began to try for you, human beings—and in particular human beings from the country where you will be born—forced a few species from the earth forever.
Were I a weatherman, I would call my mind a tidal wave; a temperature gauge, broken and blistering. Which is why, I guess, I needed those words life all the time, fiercely. Sure, they gave me solace, but they also lent me something even more crucial: an alternative to work toward. Sometimes, I think, reason mixed with laziness and fatigue fills the future I often imagine with drought and famine and death. It’s more difficult to know that something will persist and that it’s our job to shape that something into something good.
I’ll admit, I fear your absence and also my presumptuousness in writing you so soon. I wake up in the middle of the night, anxious that whatever could become your consciousness might not grow in my belly. And I try to tell myself that, if that does happen, it isn’t my body’s betrayal but rather some basic biology and that I will find another way to make a family.
Which is to say when I think of you I think of all the things that don’t have to exist—your feet and clavicles and little soon-to-be eyelashes—but that might just become part of the world. I think of the nothingness in which beginnings begin. I think of the hard country where we live now and what it can, with work, become: a place where all of our energy comes in renewable forms, where high-speed, zero-carbon trains connect here and there, a home where, for the first time in a long time, living doesn’t also mean systematically dismantling the weave of life we depend upon.
Often we talk about what we’ll have to give up to turn the future livable, the sacrifices we will have to make—the flights, the single-family homes, the pleasure derived from regular purchases of things we do not need and that will not last. Some say sacrifice is something a mother makes, in particular, of her body when it becomes a place where someone else might reside. But thinking of my flesh and bone as your shelter does not diminish my own being; instead of one body I begin to see two.
Recently, Elizabeth Swain, a mother and climate organizer, recommended that we shift our focus away from what we alone cannot accomplish and toward thinking that helps us to glimpse what is possible when people come together to demand change. Instead of focusing on “your own carbon footprint (which you can never drive low enough in a society awash in cheap fossil fuels),” she writes, we must work collectively “to apply pressure so that the incentives and infrastructure investments help to lower everyone’s footprint.”
Because the keyboard I type on is made with petroleum, the plane I fly home powered by jet fuel, sometimes I feel impotent at best, ashamed at worst. As it turns out, none of my personal choices about what and how to consume can, on their own, actually build for you the world I want you to inhabit. They cannot guarantee you a home beyond my body, one that you nourish and nourishes you in turn.
Something about Swain’s words got me thinking about Staten Island again and how in the wake of Hurricane Sandy six hundred people there sold their houses to the state so that they might be bulldozed and the land returned to nature to act as a buffer against the storms to come. If one person moved away, nothing would have changed. Yet, counterintuitively, Sandy brought the community closer together. They fought as a group for a fair recovery.
When I visited five years after the hurricane, I found that the overwhelming majority of people relocated nearby, just up the hill, out of harm’s way. They still ate fried fish sandwiches at Toto’s and danced at the VFW. What had changed was their immediate vulnerability to flooding.
Rosebud, it has taken me a long time to connect what I have seen playing out along this country’s transforming shore to my own life, but with the hope of you inside of me here I finally am: the only personal action that can slow the tide of the climate crisis is to create a coalition that is bigger and more powerful than the individuals of which it is comprised.
You are an idea that I pray will become a zygote, unfurling as tendril from a seed. To prepare for your soon-to-be presence, your residence on planet earth, I’ve decided to try something new.
As the sun set last Tuesday, as I sent my prayers up into the glowing sky that you were there inside of me glowing a little too, I walked toward the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket. There I joined a dozen other people who were advocating for the establishment of a public utility in our home state. Together we drafted letters, made outreach plans, and vowed to meet again in two weeks’ time. All these actions might seem small, but when you connect them to those taking place across America, the reach of this groundwork is wide.
I want to say to you, little seed, change is the only thing that is true, and it starts when we join one and one to make more than two.