As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, author and Radiolab cohost Lulu Miller (Why Fish Don’t Exist) spoke at the celebration of the Reed Award for Environmental Writing presented by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Miller’s remarkable book—part biography, part memoir, and part scientific adventure—offers a wondrous fable about how to persevere in a world where Chaos will always prevail.
The program also recognized two recipients of the 2021 Reed Award, given for excellent writing on the Southern environment in book-length nonfiction and journalism.
In the book category, former Georgia state legislator Paul Bolster received the Reed Award for Saving the Georgia Coast: A Political History of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act. In the journalism category, Tony Bartelme of The Post and Courier in Charleston received the Reed Award for his in-depth reporting on South Carolina’s coastal environment, including communities where the damaging impacts of climate change are happening now.
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“Lulu Miller moves gracefully between reporting and meditation, big questions and small moments. This book is a magical hybrid of science, portraiture, and memoir — and a delight to read.” —Susan Orlean, New York Times-bestselling author of The Library Book
“I want to live at this book’s address: the intersection of history and biology and wonder and failure and sheer human stubbornness. What a sumptuous, surprising, dark delight.” —Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
ERIN MALEC: Hello, and welcome to the presentation of the Phillip D. Reed Environmental Writing Awards. And welcome to “Lulu Miller Dives Into Curiosity,” a program of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, presented by Virginia Humanities. I’m Erin Malec, communications director for the Southern Environmental Law Center, and I’m very pleased to welcome our writers and guests today: Lulu Miller, Paul Bolster, and Tony Bartelme.
Each year, SELC has been honored to present the Reed Environmental Writing Awards to recognize the best environmental writing about the South. These awards celebrate our region’s unique natural treasures through the power of stories. May the awards today inspire us all to reflect on the value and vulnerability of places throughout the South—places and communities that SELC has worked to protect for more than three decades. I hope you’ll all visit our website, southernenvironment.org, to learn more about how we are leading the fight against climate change in the South, protecting the basic right to clean air and clean water, and working to provide a healthy environment for all.
Now I am delighted to introduce our featured speaker today, Lulu Miller. Lulu is a Peabody Award–winning science journalist and a very familiar voice to public radio listeners. She is cohost of Radio Lab and cofounder of Invisibilia, an NPR podcast about the invisible forces that shape human behavior. She’s also the author of Why Fish Don’t Exist, a nonfiction scientific thriller and memoir. It was published to wide acclaim last year and was listed as a best book of 2020 by The Washington Post, NPR, Chicago Tribune, and Smithsonian. Just this week, it was announced that the book was nominated for an LA Times book prize, and it will now be translated into six more languages to bring Why Fish Don’t Exist to many more readers around the world.
Lulu is based in Chicago, but she has ties here to Charlottesville, where she earned an MFA in fiction writing at the University of Virginia and was a fellow at Virginia Humanities. Lulu, welcome, and thank you so much for being here with us.
LULU MILLER: Erin, thank you so much for having me. Thank you all in the audience for being here. It is too bad it’s virtual, but we were just saying I guess it’s good for the environment that we’re not flying anywhere. And thank you to the SELC for the work you do. That is the really important thing here. I think we’re all in attendance so grateful. And it is my delight to congratulate Tony and Paul. Their work is so incredible. And to kind of kick this off, I’ve thought a little bit about nature writing—why it matters—especially in a moment like today. So I’m going to just read a little bit about that, and then we will get to hear from Tony and Paul. So thanks, everyone, who’s there virtually. Grab your coffee. Let’s go.
So on a fall day, in 2013, a couple humans looked up into the lichen-covered branches of a tall tree alongside the Mississippi River in Fulton, Illinois, and saw, contrary to centuries of scientific wisdom, three bald eagles sitting together in a nest. Raptors were said to be monogamous—one male, one female, mating for life ‘til death do them part, and yet three little white heads popping out of that nest. A webcam was set up, and hundreds of people watched for years as the eagles remained a threesome.
One female, two males living side-by-side in that nest, incubating the eggs, taking turns searching for food and sticks. Apparently, the males would bring back the sticks, and the female would huffily rearrange them. And curling into each other at night to stay warm. Until the female died about half a decade into their throuple. Everyone assumed that that would be it. But as the nation watched on the webcam, the two males continued to live side by side in that nest, caring for the brood of chicks, fighting off attackers, and finally helping their children fly away.
Around the time that the eagles were first spotted, halfway across the globe in the woods of France, a team of scientists began wandering around with ultrasonic microphones pointed at tree trunks, microphones that could pick up sounds inaudible to human ears. And what they heard at first in France and then in forests all over the world is that trees emit a kind of scream—a rapid popping beyond the range of human hearing—when they are thirsty for water. The sound is a clue given months before there’s a way to visually see that the tree is in dire need of help—of water.
On Neptune, it was recently discovered by a team of German scientists, it rains diamonds. Time and time again, the world, when we actually observe it, does not line up with our expectations for it.
Despite the widely-held belief in Darwin’s vision of a world where creatures are programmed to viciously compete with each other, there are bees and ants and trees and dolphins that have been shown to cooperate or even sacrifice themselves for the common good.
Those who wish to preserve a belief in the biological underpinnings of greed call behaviors like these that look altruistic kin selection. The theory goes that you sacrifice your body so that your genes, still alive in your family members in some approximation, can continue on. It’s still selfish, these thinkers claim—still in the name of your genetic survival. But eighteen months into raising our son, my wife looks at me with turquoise eyes so inviting I swear you can sometimes see ducks landing in them, and assures me she loves him more than I do. With no genetic incentive to care for him, she reasons, what she feels for him is purer, somehow larger, more profound—a love that I, his biological mother, can never know. Bless evolution for building a brain that can think a thought like that.
Bless evolution also for building Schistostega pennata, or goblin’s gold, a moss which opts out of needing sunshine to live. This glowing green moss breaks most rules we believe apply to plants and blooms lusciously in the backs of dank water caves, making do with just the refractions of light that bounce off of waves. Paltry offering of light, these reflections, which contains just one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy of direct sunlight. But still, the goblin blooms into something literally more luminous than the rest of the mosses.
Just as we think we’ve captured the world—understood how her organisms and laws work—she dodges our grasp. We had the pulses down of a certain firefly species in the American South. For a set number of seconds, they’d go dark, silent. But in recent years, they’ve been going darker for longer between flashes, and no one can figure out why.
A physicist I interviewed once whispered at the end of a very long line of questioning about the mathematics and physics that underlie flying bird patterns and formations that, when you get down to it, scientists don’t actually understand how a bicycle works. While we thought we had codified all the colors of the rainbow into their precise wavelengths and frequencies, we’ve recently come to understand that mantis shrimp and butterflies and even the humble goldfish perceive a range of colors we can’t even dream. We literally can’t even dream them.
For a long time, we believed we knew what our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great—many greats—grandmother looked like. The bodily vision of the progenitor of all vertebrates we were sure looked like a baby lamprey, the tiny eel-like link between bugs and beasts. Until about two weeks ago, a paper published in science revealed we got it wrong.
I am, obviously perhaps, dazzled by factoids like these. They light me up. The sense that our world is not known is thrilling to me. Addictive. Like a deer to a salt lick, I return again and again to sources where I might find the substance.
The thing about the fireflies going darker, I learned in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book World of Wonders, which quieted my chaotic head a few weekends ago when I sat down to read it. Read feels like an inaccurate verb for what transpired there between me and that book. It was more like I was pulled down into it. Like going through a car wash, I was rattled and warmed and emerged somehow scrubbed clean.
Nezhukumatathil’s book is filled with examples of how nature does not work as we thought it did. Like the case of the blue-faced cassowary, a massive bird that everyone thought was silent, which all the while had been emitting a powerful boom just beyond the range of human hearing. Just too low. I guess more of a boom.
But wonder—wonder. It gets such a bad rap. It is so often eye-rolled into the corner with children and the naïve, discounted as trivial or twee. The word itself, wonder, comes from the proto-Germanic Wunder, whose root is mysteriously and maddeningly and fittingly unknown. But if you look to its synonym, awe, you will discover that the root of the word is terror or dread. Meaning that that feeling we all covet and crave so badly, that we search long and far for, that we bemoan not feeling enough of, that we stop and blink our eyes and feel a kind of hallelujah when we do touch it—that feeling that many of us feel most readily when we turn to nature or when we turn to Rumpelstiltskins like Paul and Tony, who can spin observations about nature so beautifully into words, is at its core a kind of terror. A feeling small before the world, of being reminded of our own stupidity.
So why do we do that? Why do we crave a feeling that is usually followed by a rush of shame, feeling stupid? Or a shock of discomfort. And why, especially today as we are reeling in the wake of two more mass shootings, one of which was a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on women of Asian descent? Why, when there are so many human messes that need our urgent attention? Inequities in healthcare and education and policing and housing—inequities that are stealing lives by the day, that need our intervention now—why turn to the trees? Is it a form of denial, of escape? Of placing not just our feet but our heads in the sand?
Maybe. Honestly, maybe.
But maybe we are in part going to nature to chase a hit of that feeling of stupidity—that reminder that we barely know how things work. That our minds are limited and small because, in the context of just how much we have messed up our world, it is oddly freeing, sustaining, powerful to be reminded that there are so many things out there we don’t yet understand. Not just colors and sounds and species we have yet to perceive but entire laws, patterns, strategies for living.
Maybe this is why we are seeing the rise of what Adrienne Maree Brown calls emergent strategies in the Black Lives Matter movement. Activists like Brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs have begun to look to nature for new ways of organizing, resisting, dismantling systemic racism. As history has shown, the path to progress might not be located in the human mind. Our lusts, our drives, our best-laid plans seem to keep returning us to violence, to oppression, alienation, destruction.
Eternal recurrence is what Nietzsche called it: the sense that we move in circles, that we keep returning to our same messes and evils, that progress is not linear or guaranteed. And left in our hands, the truth is it might not be. Perhaps we have to look to other creatures, other organisms, other ways of being to break free from our vicious cycle.
This is something engineers, of course, are not shy to do. MIT and Stanford and NASA all have entire divisions devoted to the study of biomimicry, ripping off nature’s designs to solve human problems, to innovate. Velcro was modeled on the exact structures of burrs, high-speed bullet trains were based off the aerodynamics of a kingfisher’s beak, and robotics labs are studying flies’ wings, which are somehow able to flap—and just consider this—at a pace faster than the electricity of their nervous tissue can pulse. I don’t understand it, but the engineers are looking into it.
In Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s new book, Undrown, she cites, among many examples of marine mammals that she looks to for instructions on how to live in a world that is trying to kill you, a case of a pod of dolphins that was observed to stop singing in the last weeks that a mother dolphin was pregnant. And this allowed the baby inside to learn the voice of its mother as opposed to the rest of the chatter of the sea. And this allowed the baby to emerge into the water knowing language and belonging.
Gumbs then turns to the human world and shines light on a rare case of people utilizing the same strategy to profound effect. She tells the story of Debbie Africa, a woman who gave birth in prison and was shielded by her pod of fellow women prisoners, who in a sonic inverse of the dolphin strategy, raised their voices so that the guards could not hear the cries of the mother and baby during labor. For three days afterwards, the pod kept their voices up, singing and coughing loudly and shielding Debbie from the guards, affording her time with her baby, before the guards finally discovered him and, accordingly to laws that we all have complicitly agreed to, took him away.
When we look to nature—her marine mammals or trees or reeds or insects—we are reminded that there may be other strategies for surviving and even thriving in the face of the world’s most crippling forces. And yet, as fruitful and urgent as it is to turn to nature and listen—with ultrasonic microphones if we have to—to try to hear her messages, her secrets, her ailments. The great paradox—the puzzle and masochistic draw, perhaps, of doing environmental journalism—is that it’s really hard to get people to read it.
Human stories sell, our editors tell us. Where’s the sex, the drama, the stakes, the betrayal? And privately we mutter, “Aren’t the stakes of our imminent destruction on both the planetary and societal level high enough?” And then many of us give up, and we pitch a human interest story, and we collect our paycheck, and we return to bed, worried that we will never get out of this mess.
But these two writers, Tony and Paul, have pulled off the trick. With expert reporting and careful wordsmithing, they have turned our attention to the rich and brackish landscape of the coastal cities and marshes and made us feel rapt. They’ve made us care.
Tony often casts an eerie, almost surreal light on the consequences of climate change—or climate speed as he urges us to call it—highlighting surprising indicators, such as an increase in military deaths from heatstroke. Or making our world seem new with mysterious occurrences like a sunny flood.
And Paul sets out in a kayak and somehow is able to spin a lengthy and complicated technical political history about preserving marshlands into nothing short of a thriller. It is my pleasure to congratulate them today and now let you hear some of those very words.
Clapping on Zoom is so sad. It’s so lonely.
ERIN MALEC: I’m joining you, Lulu. I’m clapping for them and also you. Thank you. Those were just words so full of wonder and just incredible. Thank you for being here and setting us up so nicely to honor our two winners today. It’s my pleasure to officially now recognize Paul and Tony and to just tell you a little bit about the Reed Environmental Writing Awards, which were established in memory of Phillip D. Reed, a pioneer in the field of environmental law and a founding trustee of SELC, with the intention of honoring some of the finest voices for the South’s environment.
And this year is certainly no exception as we salute these two writers who have focused their powerful storytelling on the stunning and beloved yet imperiled Southeast Coast as well as the everyday people working to protect it.
In the nonfiction book category, we are pleased to present the award to Paul Bolster for Saving the Georgia Coast: A Political History of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, published by the University of Georgia Press. Passed by the Georgia legislature more than fifty years ago, the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act remains the most comprehensive protection of marshlands on the Atlantic seaboard. It’s an important tool in our organization’s work and for many others working on behalf of the Georgia coast.
Paul’s book recounts how citizens, scientists, and intrepid politicians banded together to enact this landmark state law. In thriller form, as Lulu put it. And it looks at how the lessons learned back then could help us address issues facing the Georgia coast today, from unrelenting growth pressures to the effects of sea level rise and climate change.
Now a freelance writer and historian, Paul served in the Georgia House of Representatives for twelve years and taught American history at Clark Atlanta University. Among other interests, he has been a tireless advocate for affordable housing, ran a healthcare for the homeless program in Atlanta, and served on the governor’s council on criminal justice reform.
And in the journalism category, this year’s Reed Award honors the work of Tony Bartelme, a special projects reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier. In his stories about the natural riches of the South Carolina coast, whether it’s the Santee River delta or the habitat of a rare marshland bird, Tony displays a remarkable skill for linking science, history, and sense of place. He also captures the human impact of our most pressing environmental challenges. This is particularly true in his reporting for the Rising Waters Project, a series documenting how Charleston and other low country communities are contending with the effects of climate change or climate speed from wetter hurricanes to flooding high tides.
We are not the first to recognize Tony’s work. He is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and has won some of the highest honors in journalism. His investigative reporting has exposed government corruption and explored subjects ranging from changes in ocean plankton to the global shortages of doctors.
Paul and Tony, I’m sorry we can’t present these awards in person, but we’re so glad you’re with us virtually and very excited to celebrate you. And I’d now love to ask each of you to give a reading from your award-winning work. So, Paul, may I turn it over to you first?
PAUL BOLSTER: You can. So I’m going to read about my introduction to Tybee Island and the Tybee Island Marsh.
My kayak slipped almost soundlessly through Jack’s Cut into a riverway hidden by the marsh on either side. The marsh river opened between two sandbars to accommodate the tidal flow that twice a day services the marsh reaching behind the barrier island. The cut is a gateway to the expansive marsh that dominates the geography of little Tybee Island. It has more than sixty hammocks that protrude out of the water even at high tide, but the marsh grass captures the thick black mud. It has taken thousands of years for the sediments of Georgia rivers to build up the fertile soil of the marsh. The mud and the marsh grass cover most of little Tybee Island.
Once through the opening, I paddled the wide, deep, flowing stream through two S turns. With my view obstructed by the marsh grass, the quiet was only occasionally interrupted by the movement of birds and the splash of fish breaking the surface of the water. My peace of mind was shattered the moment I spotted a fin sticking six inches out of the water, trailing a small wake and moving quickly toward my tiny craft. My paddling stopped. A small wake. My paddling stopped, the boat slowed, my pulse increased in fearful anticipation. How dangerous were these waters?
Beyond the beauty and tranquility of the place, I knew very little about the surrounding Spartina grass and what lurked in the brownish water flowing to the sea. But then no real threat from the giant mammal that tops the hierarchy of marsh animal life. My fellow river companion was a friendly and curious dolphin with no malicious intent. I have little doubt that he or she could have flipped me easily into the water without missing a swimming stroke. It turns out that a friendly, majestic encounter that impressed me with the grandeur and magnitude of Little Tybee marsh had made me want to learn more.
The central character of this book is the marsh. My hope is that it gives you a greater sense of place as a Georgian, an American, and a citizen of the world. Janisse Ray, wonderful nature writer, says that there are four stages through which a person must pass in search for a sense of place. First, see it. Second, experience and hear its stories. Third, learn to know its natural history—what’s in it. And finally, settle down in it. To enact the Coastal Marshland Protection Act in 1970, Reid Harris, the representative, and his supporters would need to take enough Georgians through these four stages to get ninety-eight votes in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Often, it takes an unimaginable event to grab the public’s attention and the attention of the political process. And that event came from Kerr-McGee, an extraction company that put the first oil derricks into the Gulf of Mexico. They proposed to Lester Maddox that they dig up the marsh on Little Tybee Island and dig out the phosphate that was a hundred feet deep. I don’t know what they were going to do with the—well, they were going to put it up so that you’d have waterfront property.
This horrendous proposal brought together a coalition of people that I think do important work in this book. Scientists from the University of Georgia Marine Science Center that studied this for years—the value of the marsh—students from UGA, founders of the Georgia Sierra Club group, founders of the Georgia Conservancy, wealthy owners, sportsmen, members of the Garden Club who brought Jane Yarn (now you’ve got to read about Jane Yarn in this book), and Reid Harris—he was a lawyer from Brunswick with legislative experience and a passion for the coast.
The mining crisis—and I’ll tell this story because it gets long about what happened—was ended by massive public hearings, tremendous articles in the press, and believe it or not, an environment impact study before it was a federal requirement. The Coastal Marshland Protection Act required more than public hearings, though. And Harris—his passion overcame each of the obstacles. The bill turned down once on the Georgia House floor by two votes, but Harris was persistent. Let me read about how the bill got out of the House.
Each afternoon, Harris went to the Rules Committee and took his turn in line with legislators requesting bills. He received a favorable committee recommendation each day. Doggedly, each day he went to the Speaker’s podium and asked the bill to be called, but the Speaker had other priorities. There was always the possibility of opposition views being heard in the Speaker’s ears.
Finally, on March the 14th, seven days later, he heard the Speaker call House Bill 212 to the floor and recognize the gentleman from Glenn to present the bill. Harris was waiting for this all week, but it was sudden. But he had confidence he had enough votes, and he relished the opportunity to explain to the members of the legislature the value of the marsh. Here’s the final discussion after the debate was over.
The Speaker then called for a vote. Then he did not order the clerk to unlock the machine. He asked those favoring the vote to raise their hand and the clerk to count the hands. Then he asked those opposed to raise their hand, and the clerk counted. That was an unusual procedure in the final passage of a major bill. Harris didn’t know if it helped or hurt. The Speaker might have been protecting the recorded votes of members of the House who had left early on a Friday afternoon. Harris had to go along with that direction. Again, the light House threatened the bill. The Speaker announced, “The ayes are ninety-seven, and the nays are thirty.” Harris must have sunk deep in his seat and lowered his head onto his desk. Not again. Another light House. How could he have lost after more than six months working on this bill? All the people who had said they were for him. He couldn’t lose the match by one vote. Could he move it to the roll call?
Then the Speaker said, “The Speaker votes aye.” After a long moment of silence across the chamber, George L. Smith added this line: “The bill having received the constitutional majority is therefore passed.” By unanimous consent, the Speaker sent the bill to the Senate. Applause broke out in the House chamber.
So you’ll have to read the book about what happens in the Senate and many of the wonderful characters that are in this book. I really love—many of the advocates loved Jane Yarn.
I want to spend the last few minutes here talking about the last three chapters of the book, which sort of tries to give you what’s going on with the coast today in Georgia. Because there are significant issues, obviously. Sea rise and storm damage. Mining the sand ridges next to the Okefenokee Swamp, rockets that are planned to go over Cumberland Island and the marsh, and oil drilling off the continental shelf.
So one and only one road takes you to Tybee Island. That one road is impassable at a king tide, a king tide that inundates the road for more frequent regularity. The record: thirty-eight times in 2016. Sea rise today is the most significant challenge to the marshland and the barrier islands that protect them. Because of the decision fifty years ago, Georgia has the most marshland and the most productive salt marsh of any state on the East Coast. With it comes the responsibility for thousands of tiny inhabitants: the periwinkle snail, which I love, the migratory birds that congregate at the end of the island, and the four hundred right whales that come down the coast during the winter months to deliver new members of their endangered species.
The ongoing challenge is the health of the most biologically productive land on the planet. If the sea rises at the rate predicted by scientists, the current marshland will sooner or later be under the sea, no longer able to be spawning grounds and a source for nutrients for sea life. Although the cause for concern is different, the issues today are similar to those legislators faced fifty years ago. The most environmental challenges—however, there must be new initiatives to secure the coastal environmental for the next fifty years. Political and economic battles over the future of the coast will need to be won each year because decisions impacting the coastal environment cannot easily be reversed. No take backs. No take backs. Thank you.
ERIN MALEC: Thank you so much, Paul. Tony, may we turn it over to you now?
TONY BARTELME: Absolutely. Thank you, Erin. And Lulu, thank you for your lovely, lyrical introductions. I was especially taken by your thoughts about wonder and terror. It’s such a great yin-yang word. When you’re reporting about climate issues, it takes a little bit of extra work to get to that wonder world. But when you do, you provide a little bit of an antidote to the fear and hopelessness of the situation. So I’m going to read two selections here. One that is heavy on the wonder, and the second one, well, let’s just say it hits you on the head a little bit.
The first one is from a project that we called Our Secret Delta. And I’ll just begin with chapter one, “The Flow.”
The Santee Delta is a mysterious place with secrets hidden by neglect and time. It’s difficult to love sometimes, especially when deer flies hit your skin like hailstones. And it’s difficult to see, even, because the delta is so flat and wild that forests hide vistas behind curtains of brown and green.
Yet once you get a little altitude with a drone or from guides who know its past, this place opens like a grand old book. Then its pages tell of inventions that changed the course of history, of rice called Carolina Gold, of the blistered hands of enslaved people who built one of the world’s agricultural wonders, of the ebb and flow of money and want. And also stories about baseball teams and ducks, about aging alligators with names like Big Bertha and Truck Biter, about old threats and new, and water. Always water, whether the stories or new or old, tragedies or mysteries.
So before we get to the stories and secrets, let’s get our bearings. Let’s follow the water. From the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it flows towards South Carolina. It gains force as foothills give way to South Carolina’s Midlands, forming the Saluda, Catawba, and Broad Rivers, brown with loam.
Past Columbia, the land flattens, and the rivers expand like lungs into the great cypress swamps of the Congaree. The water slows at Santee Cooper’s dams, forming the shallow lakes Moultrie and Marion. Then it shoots through spillways, with some going into the Cooper River toward Charleston’s busy harbor, but most pours into the much-less-busy Santee.
With no real slopes to guide it now, the Santee meanders like a haphazardly thrown rope until it splits in two, the North and South Santee. Finally, in the flats between Georgetown and McClellanville, those strands meet an opposing force, the rising tides of the Atlantic. And this meeting place is where the delta becomes the delta, where sediment flowing from upstate fans out and makes marshes and barrier islands.
And because this soppy land is low and because of the tides, the ground isn’t always solid. It’s something in between. Swamps so quiet you hear blood rush in your ears, old rice fields with flocks of blackbirds that lift as one and move back and forth like a conductor’s hand.
All told, the Santee Delta drains an area the combined size of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Its floodplain below the Santee Cooper dams fills 550,000 acres, an area seven times larger than the city of Charleston, and most of it is undeveloped. The delta’s marshes and swamps are home to more than one hundred threatened and endangered plant and animal species. At least one plant grows nowhere else on Earth.
Despite its size and uniqueness, the Santee Delta has long flowed in the shadows of the more celebrated and smaller ACE Basin estuary near Beaufort and the Santee’s immediate neighbors, the Francis Marion National Forest and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Yet hidden in the head-high stands of the Santee’s cordgrass are some of the state’s most important historical treasures, clues to events that changed the trajectory of the South and therefore the nation. Many of these forgotten places are vanishing amid the eroding flow of time and rising seas.
And the delta faces other threats: political intrigue, neglect—even from the water itself. Utilities want to build towering new transmission lines to McClellanville. Developers are building on the area’s fringes. The Santee Delta is at once one of the least-trodden and most vulnerable places in the Southeast.
Uncovering the delta’s secrets can be a challenge, though. Witness Richard Porcher, who late one afternoon found himself lost in a place he knows better than most.
So this introduces a character, Richard Porcher, who then is our narrative vehicle into this mysterious, wonderful place. I have a much shorter selection here from our project called Rising Waters, which was an interesting project where we spent months investigating the latest findings about climate science and its effects and then we embedded those findings in breaking stories about the inevitable torrential rainstorm that would hit or unusually high tides that have been affecting the low country. So I’ll just begin with Rising Waters.
Chapter One: Faster, Sooner. A two-hour cloudburst drenched Charleston on Wednesday, turning downtown streets into swirling rivers. Nearly five inches fell over the city’s hospitals, turning the medical district into an island. Five inches fell on Johns Island, turning parking lots into lakes. It was a mess, and it’s not normal.
Set aside the notion of climate change. The climate has always changed. The real story is about speed—the pace of change. From rain bombs to higher sea levels, the impacts are coming faster. This is as real as Wednesday’s storm and the one four weeks ago and so many others in the past five years.
In the coming months, The Post and Courier will explore these accelerating forces and their many ripple effects. We’ll explore the underlying science and responses by our elected leaders. We’ll look at the winners and losers. We’ll examine potential course corrections, and we’ll do this in real time as the king tides rise, as the hurricanes gain strength, amid the thunder and lightning.
Why? Because a breaking news story only skims the surface of what’s really happening. Deeper currents can remain hidden amid the immediate need to stay dry or move your belongings to higher ground. The most pressing steering current is climate speeding, the pace of change. It’s an issue that carries particularly high stakes in places where land meets the sea. Wednesday’s midday deluge showed why.
It seemed like a normal late spring thunderstorm. Forecasters warned about some rain but nothing like this. It moved in just before noon with clouds the color of bruises: gray and laden with moisture. Suddenly, the skies erupted with lightning and thunder and wind. The National Weather Service broadcast an alert about a possible tornado on Johns Island. High winds ripped down trees on Wadmalaw Island. Hail the size of half-dollars fell west of the Ashley. Lightning struck two homes on Johns Island.
And the rain kept coming. Three inches in Mount Pleasant. Four inches in James Island. Five inches on Wadmalaw. Charleston has always had heavy rain, but as the climate warms, these storms are stronger and more intense. Why is this?
So I’ll just end there. That’s two different approaches. One kind of unfolds, and the other.
ERIN MALEC: Tony, thank you so much for those powerful readings. Paul, thank you. This has just been such an honor to be able to present these awards to both of you and to hear from both of you today. And I’m also happy to say we now have some time for questions. Because I’m sure many of the folks who have joined us today have more they want to talk about with all of you. So all of you watching—joining on Zoom—can just use the chat feature if you’d like to enter any questions for Lulu, Paul, or Tony. And those of you watching on Facebook can add questions in the comments section below the video feed.
It looks like our first question coming in is for Lulu. Lulu, this past year has shown us that public understanding of science has never been more important. How can science journalists break through the fog of politics and misinformation to give us what we need to live and act responsibly?
LULU MILLER: Oh, I’ve got the answer right here for ya. Simple question. The first thing that comes to mind is just diverse sourcing. Talk to the author of a study. Talk to people affected. If it’s a medical thing, talk to patients—people afflicted with it. Flip expertise. So certainly don’t just listen to like a political mouthpiece communications director or even a wonderful nonprofit. You know, listen to them but also, you know—so diverse sourcing. Go out, and for each story talk to ten more people than you have time to. I do think almost every conversation gives you a strand, even if it doesn’t give you the story or the ultimate fact check. But I do think—and especially for people like Tony under newspaper deadlines, it’s hard to always do that. But obviously he’s doing tons of on-the-ground reporting and being able to detect things before they turn into a crisis. That’s really important. But, yeah, I do think diverse sourcing is one of the most important things that a reporter can do.
PAUL BOLSTER: Let me add go to your local state representative, your councilperson. Talk directly. That’s what Jane Yarn did. She went directly to the halls of the Capitol and told the people making the decision. So there’s a lot of external stuff the community needs to happen, but don’t forget to go and actually talk to the people that vote.
LULU MILLER: That’s great. Yeah, I think people often think there is a divide. Like I can’t just show up; I can’t just do that. But it’s important to think about.
PAUL BOLSTER: All politics are local.
ERIN MALEC: I’ll introduce our next question. And I should also add there have been some wonderful remarks of congratulations and appreciation for the writings coming in, including a very nice, “Congratulations, Dad,” which was directed to you, Paul. So I will share that before introducing a question to you, which is how long did it take to interview people, gather the information, and to write your book?
PAUL BOLSTER: It was about two and a half years that I worked on the book, and I did about fifty interviews. The part on the end of the book, I was like a journalist. So I remember I did interviews and talked to people probably for a month and a half before I wrote the last two chapters. That was very journalistic, and I had to talk to a lot of people about it. And I still felt somewhat inferior about writing that, but I felt the readers needed to have some sense of what was going on now, so I took a shot at it. I think it’s useful.
ERIN MALEC: Thank you. Lulu, it looks like you had a question for Tony. Why don’t you just go ahead and introduce that?
LULU MILLER: Well, yeah, when you speak about the winners of climate change in that lovely lead to that piece—people profiting off it. When you think of winners, who are you thinking about?
TONY BARTELME: There’s actually a lot of opportunity, and we’re kind of beginning to experience that. The solar industry. All these alternative industries. The shifting away from a CO2 emitting economy will generate lots of winners. And then of course, on the flipside, I’m not so sure it’s that great to be in the coal business and the oil business. That’s kind of what we were hinting at.
PAUL BOLSTER: One of the keys about getting support for the bill was people were—in South Georgia and along the coast, it has very poor populations. There are some centers of wealth in urban areas, but the question is jobs and economic development. And they finally got across, I think, the idea of ecotourism. There’s more jobs in that than there are in all these other things you might plant—you might stick on a river somewhere and dump the affluent into—I think the southern tier of a hundred miles of the coast has gotten the idea that ecotourism is economic development. Winners there.
ERIN MALEC: Lulu, we have a question that’s come in for you. What are the best ways to sensitize yourself to nature? Especially coming from radio. How can sound and noise teach us to listen?
LULU MILLER: Well, sound’s the best. I love the form of radio for nature stories. Because in a way that it’s harder in print—I mean, you can hand over the story to nature for a second. You could have the birds chirping. You could have nature itself weigh in. But I think just building in time—I think the best way to sensitize yourself is to just keep spending time in nature.
And then return to it as a reporter and ask the people impacted—communities impacted, scientists studying it, of course. But I think kinesthetic learning—being in nature, moving at her pace, building that into your week as much as you can. That’s been a challenge for me, moving to Chicago. How do I do that? But there are ways. She is everywhere. Sometimes it’s a spider on the headlight of a U-Haul truck. Like stop. Look. And I think that is sort of a simple answer but the most effective.
I’ll drop into the chat—I actually just came across a study that talks about how even—I mean it’s kind of like pop brain sci. But even just listening to natural sounds—like it actually has a pretty profound settling effect, especially for people with anxiety, on the mind. So building that in. And whether that’s a meditation podcast or just being out in the world. For better or for worse, sound is a powerful tool, and it hijacks our emotional system. So being with it I think is the most important way.
ERIN MALEC: Thank you. Paul, a question for you. Someone commented that they particularly enjoyed learning about the important role that the Garden Club had. Could you tell a bit more about that and the barrel of letters?
PAUL BOLSTER: Well, the governor at the end, when he was deciding whether to sign or veto the bill, he said there are barrels of letters back there. So those letters had an impact. The Garden Club was all over the state. And to get something done in the legislature, you got to touch every single legislator. So they had a wonderful base. And they had a great organizer in Jane Yarn. She went on to Washington with Jimmy Carter later on. But she had a connection to all those garden clubs. So they were sort of the shock troops, if you will.
One senator was contacted in the halls of the Capitol and they asked him how he was going to vote. And he says, “I’ve got to go home.” In other words, he’d gotten so many letters from the ladies from the Garden Club, he was afraid to vote against it and still go home.
ERIN MALEC: I love that. Thank you. And Tony, one more question for you. As the impacts of climate change become too obvious to ignore in South Carolina, do you see any softening of resistance to climate action?
TONY BARTELME: I think on the coast especially we’ve been just hammered by these high tides and storms. So I think for the most part, there is a softening of resistance. That said, are we moving too slowly? I don’t know. In certain parts of South Carolina—the city of Charleston—they’ve been a little more aggressive in dealing with CO2 emissions and things like that. But it’s been an uphill battle for sure.
ERIN MALEC: Thank you. And one question that came in for all of you, and I believe it is coming in from previous Reed Award–winner David Haskell, also an amazing writer. How do you see new technologies changing or not how we write and communicate? In particular, what are promising new ways of storytelling that integrate great writing and other forms of creativity and expression? And that’s for any of you, if you have thoughts on that.
TONY BARTELME: I’ll take that briefly. I think there’s a tendency, especially in newspapers, to climb on various trends and fads and get excited about the new technological gimmicks that you can do. So in the end, I think a great story is a great story. It takes work to make a great story. However, I think there are some really interesting potential technologies when it comes to integrating digital, video, and audio in a story—in a regular written story.
And I had a good chance to do that with a story I did about the eastern black rail, which is a rare, rare bird that hardly anybody has ever seen or even heard. And it’s one of these places over here. And we were able to get the first video imagery of this bird, and we embedded that very high up in the story really to capture our reader. So that integration is really a wonderful new thing that’s happening, but in the end, a good story is a good story.
PAUL BOLSTER: There’s a lot of technology. We only have one storm gauge in Georgia, and that’s in the harbor in Savannah. That’s not enough because the storms are affecting things differently, and the water levels are different. So we need to be monitoring those very precisely.
There’s one interesting example of the technology that I found after I published the book. Emory University has this map, and you can go to this map, and you can pinpoint different places, and up pops a guy standing on the beach in Darien or standing on the beach at Sapelo Island, talking about Sapelo Island. So it’s a wonderful communication mechanism that is a very precise map. You can exactly tell where the person’s standing, and they’ve filmed all those stories to be able to understand what’s going on in that precise place. I thought that was a wonderful example, like you talk about, of integrating technology and good writing and good speaking.
LULU MILLER: I’ll just do another vote for sound. Okay, here’s a random. I don’t know if anyone saw the movie The Revenant. This is going to connect. But The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio. Whatever, it was a weird movie. But there was very little dialogue. It was so gorgeously filmed. It was a nature movie. It was about the water. It was about the land. It was about the cold.
And I remember watching that and just thinking like how could I make a radio story where truly—you know, as you have done, Paul, as both of you have done—where the main character is the land. And I think that’s a challenge. I mean, just really rethinking just as fast cutting in radio and that kind of stuff—just as the technologies are privileging that, how can we push back against it? Because for everything that’s popular, that is the negative image of what we are craving. And how could we slow down? How could we really work with the technology—again, I’m obsessed with sound—but of sound, of video to bring nature as more of a lead character into real reporting? And whether the technology is transmuting—that’s the wrong word—but adapting sounds that the human ear can’t hear to tell us more about our world. There are people studying what soil sounds like. You know, playing with that kind of stuff. That’s something I find really fascinating and an eager frontier.
PAUL BOLSTER: I would urge the professional historians out there that are listening—maybe there aren’t, I don’t know. But tell the stories. Go back to narrative kind of history. I think the average person is hungry for the story, and sometimes the historical analysis is great for your colleagues, but it loses the rest of us when we get past the first chapter. So tell interesting stories as historians. Be narrative historians.
ERIN MALEC: That is probably a wonderful point to close on because I want to share some information for everyone who joined us today—how you can read all of our wonderful panelists’ writing more. If you would like to purchase Lulu’s book, Why Fish Don’t Exist, or Paul’s Saving the Georgia Coast, or Tony’s latest book, A Surgeon in the Village: An American Doctor Teaches Brain Surgery in Africa, you can order them from the bookseller for our program, New Dominion Bookshop at ndbookshop.com. And to read more of Tony’s excellent reporting, you can find that at postandcourier.com. And please visit the book festival site, VaBook.org, to check out the full schedule of the Virginia Festival of the Book and to watch other events.
PAUL BOLSTER: And thank the center for giving this award. It gives a chance for people to know enough about it so they get interested in reading the story. I’m anxious for people to read it so that Georgians and other people in the country know this wonderful story blending environmental work with legislative work.
ERIN MALEC: Thank you, Paul. I want to say what a pleasure it’s been just to have the last hour talking to the three of you and just a chance to celebrate your amazing work and to have this incredible discussion. And also thank you to everyone else who joined us today. So thank you, wonderful writers. It was a really lovely time all being together. I appreciate all your great work.
LULU MILLER: Thank you.
PAUL BOLSTER: Thank you.
TONY BARTELME: Thank you all.