As rising sea levels threaten Florida, Jesse Wilson worries about the fate of her hometown of Sanibel. Stashing away her personal blame and guilt, she heads to Sanibel to embrace the simple act of saying goodbye, as she would for anyone she loved.
Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is The Marjorie‘s contributor series featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state.
In the car, on a walk, in the early, unfiltered hours of the morning I’m hit by unstoppable waves of grief. In 20 to 40 years, my childhood home of Sanibel Island will not exist as it does now.
Visiting the coast is bittersweet for me as I watch the coastline slip back into the sea. At times I am completely overcome by the enormity of the climate crisis.
As a Gulf Coast barrier island with an unusual east-west orientation, Sanibel Island is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and hurricanes. Forty-eight percent of the island is already water, and the rest of the island never rises much more than three feet above sea level.
As I watched Irma hit South Florida, I realized how limited my time was to find closure with my place on earth. Would it be this storm, or the next one, or simply the steadily rising seas that would lead to the final, irreparable damage?
In the case of a loved one dying, there are recommended steps for emotionally processing what is happening. It is blindingly scary to acknowledge death or chronic illness in a loved one. To ignore or downplay the tragedy and inevitability of their situation is a way to protect ourselves. Being honest about the outcome and facing it head on and respectfully is important, if daunting and painful. As with the death of a loved one, we are told that we shouldn’t wait until the last minute to say goodbye, if we can help it.
Eco-grief is no different.
Stashing away my personal blame and guilt, my activist’s heart and my biologist’s brain, I head to Sanibel to embrace the simple act of saying goodbye, as I would for anyone I loved.
I first bike to Woodring Pointe, between Tarpon Bay and Pine Island Sound. Growing up, this was our preferred kayak launch point and the beginning of many adventures into the mangroves. Today, I bike along the old road, which is steadily eroding into the sound. Mangroves grow on the now narrow strip of sand between the road and the sound, protective guardians. This feels like a natural place to say goodbye first, as it is a step ahead in its progression back to the sea.
Water here is expected to rise 0.3-0.5 feet in the next 20 years. But the direst of the NOAA predictions, a full foot or more of sea level rise in the next 20 years, puts this land well under water, along with much of the low-lying northern coast of the island. In both scenarios, this place will be underwater.
I rent a kayak at Tarpon Bay in JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and launch into clear waters, the seagrasses shifting lazily just below the surface. I nose the kayak into the cool mangrove tunnels, searching for a place to quietly reflect. Colorful sponges cling to the bases of the red mangrove prop roots, barnacles sweep just below the surface as the tide comes in. Underwater, the crisscrossing roots act as nurseries for small fish that dart in and out of these botanical caverns, busily feeding. Fiddler crabs balance on the roots over the water, almost unnoticed until they all begin to move. In silence, I can hear the chorus of legs and claws clicking through the forest. Gnats dapple the slanting sunlight. It feels like a cathedral, full of amber light.
Will there ever be anything like it again? This place specifically, but also this island as a whole. No bedrock or topography, just a pile of sand held together by willful plants.
Dead leaves litter the bottom of the mangrove canals, bright oranges and yellows under amber tannic water. This decaying material is the bottom rung of the food web, feeding the estuary nursery ecosystem that replenishes the Gulf with fish such as mullet, snapper, snook and red drum. White ibis feed, delicately moving branches with their twig-like beaks. Searching. I watch as a raccoon travels with agility through the mangroves. She climbs a tall tree all the way to the top to look out. I have to imagine her desire for that view goes beyond practical navigation.
Given time and space, mangrove ecosystems could adapt to rising sea levels. However, in most areas of Florida, there is no longer room for them to move inland, and sea-level rise may happen too quickly to allow for the necessary shift. To save these coastal forests, which in turn drastically lessen the impact of hurricane winds and damaging surf, we would have to designate space for mangroves to move inland.
I can imagine this space remaining unchanged for a time, even as the seas rise inches in the coming years. The ibis will still stalk through the arching roots. The egrets and herons will flock to nest on these protective islands. These creatures, so used to a life spent hovering above the water, will continue to cling to the mangrove branches, in the dappled sunlight and out of harm’s way. But I can just as easily imagine one hurricane destroying most of what’s left. This place feels at once resilient and fragile.
The Gulf Coast
On the southwestern Gulf Coast, where Sanibel and her neighbor Captiva Island meet, I get a preview of the slow actuality of rising seas. The beach is gone. The waves beat against the dead and fallen trees. Their leaves fall, burnt by salt and hassled by waves. The trees’ skeletons linger, first retaining their skin of bark, some of the attributes they had in their past life. Sea grape. Australian pine. Mangrove. Then the bark tumbles into the waves, scab-like, piece by piece.
It is familiar here: the same plants, the same salty smells, the same feeling of wind whipping sunburnt skin, the same sounds. As I sit on the beach, it’s easy to imagine the incremental shift in the tides, each low tide being slightly less than each high tide, day by day.
This place will not flood gently; it will be torn back into the sea. The strip of land along the beach may be one of the last things on the island to go underwater as the coastal ridge reaches four feet high in some places. But this doesn’t account for the steadily pounding waves, the coastal wind and the shift in erosion we could expect to see with increased hurricane activity.
The sun slivers below the horizon until its reflections are larger than its whole and scattered across the surface of the water. The way the waves catch every imaginable color as the sun sets – teal and purple and gold – this will remain through rising seas. The deep rumble of shells being flipped and turned under by heavy surf that fills my ears while I float in the Gulf – this will remain. I still want to claim the things that may not change, hold onto some hope that I can return to this place somehow.
One spot called to me most. I return to the 200-acre preserve that backed up to my childhood home and am surprised by how easily my feet remember how to get me to a damp swale filled with camphor daisy that I’ve returned to hundreds of times in my life. I arrive in time to watch the afternoon clouds boil into the sky, occasionally getting caught in the onshore winds. The sweet-stinking mud puddles shiver in the breeze. A bumblebee gusts through the yellow camphor daisies while dragonflies swarm in uncountable numbers through the heat-miraged landscape. Dead, headless cabbage palms stand as sentinels, canvasses for lichens and full of woodpecker holes. Salty, bulbous purslane leaves, pink and red and green, creep like snakes across the damp sand.
The island has been covered by water before, and the occasional inundation is tolerated by most of the island’s plants and animals. These ridges are old dunes, left behind as wind and waves deposited the shifting sands of the coast. Slowly the island accumulated, just barely above the waves’ lapping reach, coming into existence only 6,000 years ago after human civilization was well underway.
A temporary land mass at best.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the first tongues of tide reaching into the forest, first among the strangler figs and buttonwood and gumbo limbo trees, then down through the towering leather ferns, spreading out into the swales, filling the deep silent recesses of gopher tortoise burrows. Depositing salt. Inundating roots. The first shallow inches will push snakes and lizards and ground-dwelling creatures upwards and inland.
I imagine the rush of animals as if before a forest fire, the marsh rabbits flushed from their hiding, swimming with webbed feet, raccoons scrambling to safety, bobcats pushed out into the open. On days of heavy surf, the demanding Gulf will push through the old dunes, small channels opening, sand being pulled back to the sea. The change will be relentless, but unhurried. Water only wants to fill space; it is patient.
But what will happen the first time the water doesn’t recede?
The seas will rise over these old dunes between 2060 and 2100, based on NOAA models. How soon depends on what we, as a civilization, accomplish in the next 10 years.
The earliest prediction shocks me because the gopher tortoise that I see here today, slowly eating the rough grasses of the firebreak, could still be here. It is not a distant tragedy marking distant beings and their descendants, it could impact this creature before me and the residents of the island that live here today. It is a crisis of now.
The tortoise moves her leg forward, slowly, and takes another bite. She has nowhere to go, and no way to hurry there if she did. Her fate is the fate of the island.
One day, this will not be a place I can walk to. I will not be able to trace this familiar path; I will not see the trees that I have watched grow over the last 20 years. The sounds that grace this space – the bird calls and incessant hum of insects, even the simple sound of lonesome wind through sparse branches – will, one day soon, cease. I make the space to hold this place with me once it’s gone. I’m unsure of how to say goodbye.
Holding Out Hope
This is where I have come for renewal and comfort at some of the best and hardest moments of my life. As a child, it was a haven for creative play. When dealing with teenage bullies, it was my refuge and a place of replenishment. As I grew older, it became a place of solitary reflection. As I chose a partner, loving this place became a sort of “test.” I felt strongly that I needed someone who could appreciate this swampy forest in order to appreciate me fully and understand why I was always going to prefer hot, swampy Florida to any other place. One man passed, 10 years ago. He’s my husband now, and we’re expecting our first child. It’s all tied here – people are their places. It is very likely that my own future children will never know this place as it is today.
I take a few photos. I lay my back on the hot, wet earth and sear the sensation and the smell into my memory. I duck into the open understory beneath the buttonwoods and a large strangler fig, laying on the dry leaves, watch the busy work of ants. The idea of the whole of this place gone or, at least, never the same again.
My grief finally finds me here. It feels like my breath has been pushed from me after falling into cold water. I cry until I have nothing left. I cry for a thousand reasons, big and small, but mostly I cry for the simplest reason in the world. I am sad, and I will miss this place in the deepest spaces of my heart.
The story of Sanibel is a story repeated across the state – from the Panhandle to the Keys and up both coastlines. Florida has over 4,500 islands along its coast, second only to Alaska in the United States. Seven-hundred miles of Florida’s coast are protected by barrier islands.
I imagine that steps will be made to protect the coastal communities that can pay for it, installing seawalls and dikes and water control structures, building protective living shorelines. Some of Sanibel may remain, but it will be fundamentally changed. I can’t help but question the act of saving a shifting pile of sand with expensive man-made structures – it seems, in many ways, an exercise in human futility. Other places in Florida will not fare so well. We only need to look at the lasting impact of Hurricane Michael in the panhandle to see that firsthand.
Before my trip, my feelings jumped between denial, anger and depression. In the process of saying goodbye to my heart’s home, I have reached something like acceptance.
Our time is limited to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5°C (2.7°F). This will require “urgent action,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We have 15 years to achieve net zero CO2 emissions. Even if this incredibly challenging goal is met, which can only happen with extreme political will, seas will still rise over 1.5 feet globally by 2100, and here the impacts may be worse.
Reaching acceptance doesn’t mean I accept the climate crisis, as it stands, as a given. I’m holding out hope, and I’m going to fight like hell. Reaching acceptance means that I recognize there are certain tipping points we have already passed, and that I can’t let myself lose hope each time we lose (literal) ground.
No matter how much we lose, there will still be more to save. We still have each other to save.
Recommended tools for looking at climate change and sea level rise in your home:
- NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer
- UF GeoPlan Center’s Sea Level Scenario Sketch Planning Tool
- NASA’s Climate Time Machine
- Climate Interactive’s En-ROADS Simulator (launched later this year)
- Carbon Brief’s Breakdown of 1.5 vs 2 degrees of warming
- Sea Level Rise.org’s State Specific Information
Jesse Wilson is the Youth Gardens Program Coordinator at Working Food, a nonprofit that cultivates local food resiliency in Gainesville, Florida. She also makes Florida-inspired linocuts as Watkahootee Print. Her life revolves around a large vegetable garden and a flock of free-range hens that she lovingly tends with her husband and two dogs on their rural North Florida property.
Credits: Photos courtesy Jesse Wilson. Map courtesy University of South Florida.