The view from my bedroom is breathtaking. If I stand just so and peek through my neighbor’s fenced yard at the right spot on a sunny day, I’m blinded by a dazzling shimmer. Charleston Harbor. A gorgeous, expansive liquid plain, stretching from Sullivan’s Island in the distance across to historic Fort Sumter. The only problem is, this expansive waterway is, literally, expanding.
I recently heard a lively panel discussion featuring Orin Pilkey, a foremost authority on sea level rise and a delightfully crusty old geologist who taught me Oceanography at Duke. Pilkey was holding forth at a regional forum on climate change, and his message was urgent. Barrier islands have been shrinking worldwide for a century, he noted, his Powerpoint maps showing that a 5-foot sea level rise would swamp the Lowcountry’s barrier islands, swallowing the spit of land I see across the harbor. “There have been projections of a 3 to 5-foot sea level rise by 2100 in places like Rhode Island and Miami. . . Charleston would be right up there with Miami,” Pilkey said. “These are possibilities, not predictions. But they are genuine possibilities.” Even if humans got our shit together and began to reverse current greenhouse gas emissions, we’d still see sea level rise, he added, his gruff yet cheery voice sparking rising tides of memory from college lectures long ago.
What does one do with such a dire prognosis? Well, I can disregard it as pseudo-scientific bunk with some hidden liberal agenda, like Sarah Palin does. Or be stunned and immobilized, melting, à la the polar ice caps, in deep, overwhelming despair. Or I can take action, lobby my legislators for green energy policy, turn down our heat and AC and turn off the lights, and I can look on the bright side, especially when I look out my window. Just think, in a mere 40 years or so, my house might be waterfront real estate. And in the meantime, my family will be stoked, because one cohort always looking for rising tides is surfers.
The surfing wave crashed upon my family around the time of my husband’s fortieth birthday, and it has yet to crest. I’m lucky: there could be worse outlets for midlife angst than a new sport that keeps him youthfully buff, tan, and happy. All told, a surf board (or three), a wetsuit, and some wax costs far less than a Porsche, and while there are women in bikinis on the scene, my surfer dude is so busy scoping out the wave action that he hardly notices them (or so I like to think). He’s a diehard, squeezing into his Mr. Incredible superhero attire, the full body black and blue wetsuit, and paddling out for dawn patrol, even on the coldest of mornings.
His enthusiasm is infectious, and our daughters have gotten caught up in the swell as well, though they’re more sensible and seasonal about it, waiting for warmer water before suiting up. Actually, I’m not sure whether their motivation is driven by the sport itself, or by that fact that Roxy and Quiksilver are hip brands in the ever-shifting tide of adolescent fashion. Nonetheless, surfing has become a wholesome family affair, with dad and his girls out getting exercise, communing with nature, while I am the vigilant lifeguard. Yep, that’d be me, the lone Hunt not on a surfboard. A beached mom.
It’s not for lack of trying. Of course I want to hang ten, or five, or anything, with the best of them. Sure I’d like to experience the thrill of walking on water and going where the wave will take me, of looking so cool and confident in that bring-it-on crouched down position, the sun and salt spray in my face. But despite repeated efforts, I can’t seem to get up on the board. Numerous nosedives and unglamorous wipeouts have led me to my terra firma conclusion that the beach is for reading and walking. It is simply beyond me to balance one more thing in my life, especially on something as insubstantial as a surfboard and as unpredictable as a wave.
I’m at that stage of life when the wave sets keep rolling in, one after the other. Each comes with different intensity, some closing in faster than others, but rarely is the sea of middle-aged motherhood flat and calm. Three kids, a husband and household, work deadlines, church responsibilities, school concerns, after-school activities, ball games to cheer on, community causes and environmental issues to rally around, friends to try to stay connected to, parents and siblings to keep tabs on, winds from the northeast at 10 to 15 knots… you know the surf report. Some days I can barely surface from one wave in time to see the next swell approaching, much less muster the energy, strength, and balance to catch it, gracefully or not.
Balance is that elusive notion that haunts wanna-be surfers, stressed-out parents, and climate change worrywarts alike. We’re facing sea level rise because our priorities are out of whack; greed, fear, waste, and a heady irrational exuberance have tipped the scale over the last century. Earth in the Balance, ironically, was the title of a book 26 years ago, written by a very different vice presidential candidate than the one currently on the Republican ticket. Ecology, argued Al Gore in his 1992 precursor to An Inconvenient Truth, is primarily a matter of the human spirit, not just a topic for geologists at scientific forums. And the human spirit is an ecosystem that craves equilibrium. It tugs at us like a full moon dictating the equal rise and fall of the tide. Just ask my surfer-dude husband — it was the choppy conditions of middle age that drew him to the water. He surfs because his life was out-of-balance before he got out there, looking for the next wave. And if we don’t get our planet and our policies back in line, that next wave will be all too easy to find.