Land to Hold Us with the usual expectations we bring to character-driven fiction.
This is a book rife with historical discussions, lyric digressions, and nearly fantastical spectacles; much of the first section is
even rendered in the habitual past tense,
using the word would before nearly every
verb, which both mythologizes and distances the action. It’s not until the novel’s
final movement, when Richard returns
from a sojourn in Mexico, that we settle
into a story in which characters begin to
matter as much as landscape.
Which, perhaps, is as it should be. With
All the Land to Hold Us Bass has crafted an
extended meditation on the mysterious
power of place, on the many ways a landscape might call us, on our responsibilities to the land and, finally, to one another.
— Joe Wilkins
BY BRIAN FAGAN
Bloomsbury, 2013. $28, 268 pages.
bRIAn fAgAn’S The Attacking Ocean
gives us a fifteen-thousand-year perspec-
tive on rising sea levels, storm surges, and
the other wet and salty threats that have
killed millions of people throughout re-
corded history. In a comprehensive though
sometimes geologically paced narrative,
Fagan makes clear that while past sea level
rises, including an astounding seven hun-
dred feet in the last ten thousand years,
That’s what the hunters and clans of what
scientists have dubbed Doggerland did as
the North Sea reclaimed their marshes and
highlands between 8,000 and 3,500 bce.
From there, Fagan takes us
on a global tour of how the
seas have defined and imperiled coastal civilizations
along the Nile Delta, Black
Sea, Medieval Netherlands,
the East China Sea, Arctic
Circle, and post-Sandy Jersey Shore.
What the book (which
o=ers two tables of contents
so you can read it chronologically or geographically)
sometimes lacks in immediacy it makes
up for in the sheer scope of its geographic,
hydrographic, and anthropological vision;
one cannot question the author’s concluding concerns about our lack of preparedness for the coming calamity.
Fagan predicts 17 to 40 million people
will be displaced by rising seas in this cen-
tury —a permanent wave of environmen-
tal refugees in an increasingly crowded
world. He suggests the importance of plan-
ning today for more adaptive infrastruc-
ture, urban and coastal innovations that
may include planned retreat from Bangla-
desh, south Florida, Shanghai, and other
exposed impact zones. I once asked Presi-
dent Anote Tong of Kiribati (a low-lying
Pacific nation mentioned in the book, and
home to more than 100,000 people) what
the legal status of “submerged nations”
might be. “That’s an issue we’re now dis-
cussing in the United Nations,” he told
me, hoping his people will be able to keep
title to their two-hundred-mile Exclusive
Economic Zone as a source of revenue
after their relocation.
Reading The Attacking Ocean you
come to understand the key impacts of
climate change on our blue planet: rising seas, storm surges, and flood tides
that threaten densely populated shorelines. But at the same time, as climate
change heats the seas, it also allows the
oceans to absorb more carbon, making
them more acidic and so increasingly
di;cult places for critters
like plankton, clams, and
corals to capture calcium
carbonate from seawater
to build their living shells.
Warmer, more acidic seas
also hold less dissolved
oxygen, which is bad news
for the fish and the mammals, both marine and terrestrial, that feed on them.
As a result, our attacking
ocean is also a dying ocean.
The crucible of life on our blue marble
planet not only threatens our shores but
our food security, and given that marine
plankton generates half of our oxygen,
perhaps the very air we breathe.
What Brian Fagan’s book makes clear
is that we have enough historic knowledge
to do the things we need to do to adapt and
survive. It’s not a lack of practical answers
but rather the political will to enact them
that is our greatest challenge.
— David Helvarg
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