- October 7, 2020
When the pandemic began, I packed up my fourth-floor city apartment on the bend of the Charles River, carried my belongings down four flights of stairs, and drove a U-Haul 45 minutes north to my suburban hometown. Home is on the northern Atlantic, where the granitic coast overlooks the sheltered harbor and low-elevation sandy beaches.
The town, colonized by British fishermen in 1629, was designed to face the sea, with the first houses clustered around the harbor, slowly reaching inland as paved roads replaced ocean passages. A map of nearshore shipwrecks dating back to the 1700s shows the codependent, often tragic relationship between the town and sea.
In winter, the granite outcroppings are slammed by whitecaps that lick the rocks clean of moss and lichen. During gales that blow in from the northeast, fishing and pleasure craft alike sometimes escape their moorings, only to be salvaged from the depths next spring.
This summer, the causeway connecting the mainland to a wealthy peninsula was regularly overtopped. Walkers weaved through seaweed and rocks tossed onto the road after August storms; king tides flooded basements and one of the last salt marshes preserved from development. The town hired a consultant to host a series of virtual presentations to address climate change. The one climate change denier on the call protested that we don’t know what might happen. In the same breath, he expressed concern about recent storms tearing up the planks at the public fishing pier – as a fourth-generation resident, he couldn’t recollect a storm of similar strength in town.
Each presentation began with a town map, with red circles drawn around the most vulnerable areas. The black building footprints on the map are homes occupied for ten generations, businesses, or lobstermen’s shacks. The consultant offered solutions that they acknowledged could only be temporary: shutters for oceanfront buildings whose windows are regularly shattered by storm surge and elevated bridges to nearshore islands currently accessible at low tide. And then came the awkward silence – made longer in the virtual space. If these solutions are temporary, what comes next?
It seems the insurance companies may know more than the consultants. Flood insurance premiums, both freshwater and saline, have begun to drive middle-class residents to retreat from the sea informally. But as Liz Koslov writes, managed retreat entails “not just relocating a group of people but also unbuilding land and returning it to nature in perpetuity.”1 Unbuilding is not simply abandonment. We cannot leave our homes and roads for storms to deconstruct, letting the tides redistribute the debris along the coast.
Instead, we must orchestrate our retreat with the same care with which we coordinate construction. Moving will take place twice. The first move is routine. The kitchen junk drawer is dumped into a cardboard box, while mattresses and furniture are stowed into trucks. The second move is optional. In the past, before power lines and public utilities made it prohibitively expensive, coastal New Englanders were famous for shifting whole structures. Wide loads resplendent with front porches were a common sight on narrow town roads. In the next twenty years, we townies will need to relearn these motor skills and operationalize retreat with equitable funding from the state and the federal government.
Otherwise, as a community, we will pull out floorboards warped by the sea air by their rusty nails. We will strip and repurpose copper wiring. We will remove patios brick by brick, perhaps to rebuild a chimney somewhere inland, away from FEMA’s flood projections. The coastal elite will excavate their personal sea walls; while they were once a hallmark of wealth, they are now a public show of vulnerability. As perfectly mowed lawns of kelly-green grass blanch yellow and mat under storm surge, we will compost maple trees and oaks, or burn them to biochar to nourish the marsh grasses we plant in their place. We end unbuilding by rebuilding from the roots.
We start to rebuild with salt-tolerant species. Plants that do not need to be fertilized. Plants that hold onto the soil against the tug of the tides and accumulate mud where they touch the ocean. Oyster and clam shells, having supported roads as a substrate aggregate for centuries, sink to the ocean floor. Eelgrass grows over former lawns in homes we never expected to lose. The coastline will be remade, with or without our consent. The only choice we have is to retreat. Retreat entails losing our land with intention. Our ocean-facing town must become seaworthy.