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Willam Rivers Pitt | Before the Ocean Comes

Heeding the messengers of the rising tide.

(Photo: Pachanatt Ounpitipong / Getty Images)

A summer night in my backyard not so long ago, deep in the woods of New Hampshire, still hot though the sun had been gone for hours, the humidity like a thud all around and the cicadas bellowing at each other from the trees. I stared into the perfect darkness feeling every open pore, and then it started. First one, then five, then fifty, then every firefly that has ever existed was dancing in the long bramble of my backyard, each blinking its own time near and far in swirling astonishment, like a galaxy came down and threw a Grateful Dead concert for me alone. Part of me is still standing there, transfixed. Every night since, I look outside, but they never come back just that way. They were there, though. I saw.

After midnight at the bar on the night Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, a good crowd of well-lubed regulars trying to shake it off, and Mariah was telling stories to cheer everyone up. “My friend had to dog-sit for this family that was going on vacation for a week,” she tells the leaned-in crowd, “this big old Lab. Second day of the job, she finds the dog dead in the den. Calls the parents, they could care less, ask her to get rid of it so the kids don’t come home to it. She’s calling vets, animal hospitals, pet stores, the city, nobody wants this big dead dog. She finally finds a place that’ll take the damn thing, but it’s like an hour bus ride away, so she loads the dog into this big wheeled suitcase and off she goes. Bag weighs a ton even with the wheels. Guy at the bus station helps her put the suitcase under the bus and asks what’s in it. ‘Stereo equipment,’ she tells him. She gets off, he gets off with her, helps her unload the bag, then punches her square in the face and runs off with the suitcase. Problem solved.”

Before dawn more than 20 Novembers ago, and my frozen toes were a few scant feet from the lip of the Grand Canyon. Kevin is out cold in the car, but I was too keyed up for sleep. Wrapped in a blanket that isn’t half warm enough, I stared up at a legion of stars. Not even the full moon dimed them, and stampedes of shooting stars sliced the dark matter in their celestial haste. Far too soon, the distant edge of the canyon grew a thin blister of red, then orange, pink, purple, I heard a long indrawn breath and realized it was me, and the sun erupted to the sudden trill of birdsong from the sagebrush. The canyon was revealed in its glory, and I realized for the first time in my life that nothing so sacred and holy as those moments could ever fit inside a church. We were in San Francisco the next night, covered in road dust and smelling like Kerouac’s tube socks, and that’s just fine.

All of this happened before the ocean came. It hasn’t for all of us yet, but it has wrought tragedy upon some, and for the rest of us, it is coming. Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria have left in their wake battered, fallen cities like Troy without its walls. Odds are better than good that you know someone who knows someone who has lost everything to the sea recently, who knows what salt tastes like in their bedroom, who can tell you all about the stench of the water when our pollution becomes weaponized by the merciless tide. Cholera has appeared in Puerto Rico. This is what happens when the ocean comes.

Everyone has their stories. They are what makes us human. Our stories make us who we are, keep us warm when These Are The Days becomes Those Were The Days. Our stories are our wisdom, our shared consciousness, our understanding of good and evil, our way of sharing pieces of our strange selves to make friends out of strangers, so we can make more stories.

The ocean is coming, and the most powerful among us don’t seem to care. Those who rule the most selfish species ever to occupy the planet have us sitting like a fly on a pork rind, waiting to be swatted. They won’t fight for any of us, for our children, our homes, our friends, our vegetable gardens, our professions, our pets, our artwork, our books, whatever — let it all drown, particularly if it exists in a place that’s already poor and under-resourced. The largest thing on the planet is battering down our door right now, right at this moment, and we can stop it if we act … but those who could take action on a massive scale, immediately, aren’t acting, and then we get wet, and we either lose everything or we die, and the TV cameras take it all in for the dwindling few who haven’t met the ocean yet.

One of these days, there is going to be a bright brutal line drawn right down the middle of our stories: before the ocean came, and after the ocean came. The stories from after the ocean came will be grim things, few and far between, just like us.

It does not have to be this way. Forget about seemingly impossible tasks like “saving the planet” — the planet is going to be just fine whether we are on it or not, thank you very much — and save your stories from the sea. Save mine. Do something to make the powerful listen, and do it today. There is much to be done just within reach of your arm. Do that, and you’ll have one hell of a story, along with, perhaps, people left to hear the telling.

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