On most mornings in the salt marshes of Hempstead Bay, interlocking islands of emerald grasses flower with life. Egrets inscribe the marshland with white Ss, and osprey wave Ws across the sky. The air shrieks and rattles with wren and sparrow song, and murky waters churn with fish and bugs. There are underwater fissures and hard blossoms of oysters and scallops. But belowground, the salt marsh is sick, so on this day a scientist who loves it has carried a clump of it away from the coastline and into a hospital waiting room.
Dr. Nicole Maher first tells me the story of this unusual patient in the buffet line at a conservation conference. Nicole is my favorite kind of person to talk with—she’s spellbound by our world and obsessed with protecting it. By the time we reach the miniature dessert assortment she’s revealed her waiting-room mission: to save Long Island’s salt marshes—and the universes of creatures within them—from pollution and climate change. To do so she’s using medical technology typically reserved for human patients, CT scans, to peer into the marsh’s delicate interior landscape for clues that will help identify the right course of treatment. As someone who has logged some hours in hospital waiting rooms, I’m intrigued.
I ask Dr. Maher what it felt like to escort a piece of the natural world into this clinical environment. “Exhilarating,” she answers. I picture her on the edge of her seat, clutching her bag of roots and soil like a spy with a briefcase of secrets. Then she tells me how her buoyant mood changed as her focus shifted to the human patients in the room, who were there under much different circumstances. I picture them—flipping magazine pages, scrolling screens, imagining their futures. There’s a rhythm of quiet voices, soft typing, and heavy doors opening and closing. I contrast the images and sounds with those of a salt marsh: ripple of eel, crunch of shell, the occasional hollow thump of a bittern. Both are places where life and death coexist, where unwritten stories wait down branching paths. Climate change creeps closer to the places and people I love, and I imagine sitting with them, waiting on the rim of catastrophe.
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On the way to my first imaging appointment, I stand at a bus stop in a howling Boston nor’easter, staring in a panic at a watercolor blur of routes and times. The wind snatches the directions from my hands, and a small old woman lunges into the street for them. Her image smears across the windshield of my vision, caught somewhere between my brain and my eyes but I manage to thank her. I search for the name of my hospital amid a swirling sea of state-of-the-art buildings.
In the waiting room, I watch a clock face float above itself as if its spirit is leaving its ticking body and begin to acknowledge that my episodes of double vision and disorientation are likely more than stress and computer eye strain. This appointment has followed several others, which followed a white-knuckled business trip in which streetlights and road stripes did not stay in their places.
A nurse leads me in. It is dark except for the ambient light of the MRI machine, which is glossy white with clean, soft curves and a hole in the middle that looks like a portal. I imagine a designer somewhere yelling: “More spaceship! Less coffin!” Eventually, I’ll get used to the metal detector, the head cage, and the panic button (they don’t call it that)—but not today. As my body slides into the tube, the sounds are louder than I expect. The first series recalls those of the TV test of the Emergency Broadcast System.
“This is only a test. If this were a real emergency…”
It feels like a real emergency. There are monotonous, monstrous sawing sounds and blaring air horns. Now the sound of a phone banging around in a washing machine, ringing endlessly. Now someone mashing the same letter on an old typewriter again and again. Each sound is more horrifying than the last—demon beats of the world’s worst DJ. I discover that if you laugh at this fact, the low muffled voice of the tech will tell you to “please stay still,” which at least reminds you that you are still there.
While CT scans use radiation to create pictures of the body, MRIs use high powered magnets and radio waves. The machine creates a strong magnetic field that calls each hydrogen proton in my body to attention. The whirling particles each have north and south magnetic poles, and they spin like little Earths on their axes. Billions of these protons—stardust confetti of the Big Bang—are scattered randomly in our bodies. But when placed in an MRI scanner, they align themselves like compasses with the machine’s magnetic field. Add radio waves, and the tiny aquatic planets resonate. Different parts of my body respond as various frequencies are applied, and the signals are translated into cross sectional images of my interior geography and stacked upon each other like a topographical map.
The tech says there will be several more rounds of sounds, so I close my eyes and swim to islands of silence. He clicks on again and assures me. “You’re doing great. This one will last 15 minutes.” I take note of him when he glides me out midway through the exam to add contrast dye to my IV. He has tattooed arms and the skinny-strong physique of skateboarding boys I knew in other days. He asks me if I am a runner. My face feels warm: “Sometimes I run.”
Back in the tube, I close my eyes and wonder what he can see as the radio waves spin together pictures of my brain and spine. My body is still but I course through landscapes like a river, wondering where I’m going.
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As I wait for the results, my symptoms wane. I fly to D.C. and stand in front of a room of scientists with green and red markers and a flip chart, helping them consider how to talk about climate change and their work to stop it, slow it, cope with it. The room is windowless. The lights are florescent. The air conditioner roars. There are little glass bowls of candy on square tables and large pitchers of water. The words taste like granite in my mouth. Adaptation. Sequestration. Mitigation. Resilience.
We examine marbled maps of the Appalachians, an ancient swath of mountains, wetlands, lakes, and rivers stretching from Alabama to Canada. Because of their varied geology and elevation, these ecosystems are forming passageways for plants and animals fleeing from the future. From craggy forests to coastal plains, river floodplains to limestone valleys, the Appalachians have options when it comes to surviving. They are not yet too hot, not yet falling into the sea, not yet on fire, not yet… My cell phone vibrates in my pocket, and I wait for the break. When facing an uncertain future, escape routes are essential. But where do you go when there’s nowhere left to run?
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The first neurologist looks at the wall behind me and delivers the sentence with words like progression and decline and disability. He turns over a heavy stack of binders describing the available pharmaceuticals. He tells me there are tiny mice in my nervous system chewing on the wires. I don’t waste time finding a doctor with better metaphors.
The Good Neurologist has tortoiseshell glasses and wears the cheerful sweaters of a middle school science teacher, a simple silver wedding band, nice shoes. It doesn’t hurt that the lab shares his name. Like a sea captain, he guides me through my brain and spinal scans, pointing to lesions circled with halos of light. I try not to think of them as brain holes. He smiles and navigates my little eroding islands, talks about living with the ebb and flow of a relapsing and remitting condition. “Keep working, keep moving,” he says. Pausing for a moment he adds, “If you are thinking of having a child, do it.”
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After my diagnosis, I take the subway to a scrap of salt marsh and climb an old fire tower. A tern is flung into the scene as if by an invisible bow, piercing the rolling water. My heart feels stung. I love these marshes—the way the grasses whisper to each other and absorb our best and worst secrets. Some call salt marshes “engines of life” but you might also think of them as arbiters between land and sea, righters of our wrongs. Their tidal breath feeds everything. They strip pollutants from water and eat carbon for breakfast. They shelter us from rising seas. Seen from above, a salt marsh is a vast green puzzle of sinuous pathways resembling the patterns of the human brain.
Salt marshes can look deceptively healthy on the surface. But within many marshes, pollution and sea level rise are changing how plants hold themselves together underground, stripping away their ability to resist erosion and sequester carbon. In a polluted marsh, disintegration happens in stages. For the first few years, the grasses at the edges grow taller and greener from the infusion of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from septic and sewer systems and fertilizers. But under the surface they put down fewer roots and rhizomes. Eventually, the weakly-rooted grasses collapse as twice-daily tides tug at their edges. Along highly developed coastlines, marshes crack and calve like glaciers before falling into the sea.
Multiple Sclerosis also erodes. Like a papery sheath enveloping a blade of grass, a substance called myelin protects the body’s branching nerves so they can spark movement, vision, and language. With MS, those thin shields are attacked by a different kind of pollution— one that comes from within. Like the marsh, the body becomes a place of constant decay and repair, one of myriad, unending scars. For me, the abrasions reveal themselves through disorientation and slowed speech, the feeling of ghostly hands around my legs, electric pulsations like miniscule smoldering fires. Immune disorders like MS are mysterious manifestation of the modern age—some combination of genetic and environmental causes. Stress, past trauma, runaway viruses, and the fact of being female likely play a role. As with climate change, you bear the knowledge that you are wearing yourself away.
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In the room that Dr. Nicole Maher enters with her veinous bouquet of cordgrass, a CT technologist smiles. She positions the patient on the bed of the scanner, lowers the lights, and calibrates the machine to the setting used to examine a person’s lungs. The scan will allow them to peer into the interior lattice of roots, rhizomes, peat, and soil particles—a botanical network that resembles the branching bronchioles in human lungs.
Marsh grasses incite their own growth through death and rebirth, giving organic matter back to the soil where the next generations can grow and expand. Because they can grow beneath shallow, salty water, they expand and build up coasts over time. While good at synchronizing with sea-level rise, marsh grasses can be drowned if waters rise too rapidly. They must grow in step with the ocean as it rises. A healthy marsh can migrate inland, providing homes for fish and birds and protecting people from floods. A marsh weakened by pollution might not.
Diagnosing marshes usually involves a painstaking process of cutting thin slices of the sediment core; washing them through a series of sieves; sorting, examining, and weighing the particles; then reconstructing the core mathematically. At the imaging facility, the tech produces a spinning picture of glowing green strands in a matter of minutes. Her art is in revealing what’s hidden to help point a way forward. The two women tread similar ground. Both deal with the sick and the dying. Both help imagine what’s next.
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Six months after my diagnosis, my husband and I leave Boston and head 300 miles west.
We are driven by probable climate collapse and the possible collapse of my now questionable body. Will the changes be exponential? Or will we slide into a more gradual decline? Inland migration is a conservation strategy for salt marshes, and it feels like that for us, too. We head away from the ocean to a heart-shaped cluster of lakes. I take the Good Neurologist’s advice and trade MRIs for sonograms.
One clear night on the cusp of a super moon we sprint up a hill to the local university’s observatory. Keyed up silhouettes point high-powered telescopes and massive binoculars to the sky. They stand on the roof of a white building shaped like a folded moth with one red eye. I ask an astronomy student about a sweeping gash on the moon’s surface with rays like finger smears through clay. He tells me it’s Tycho, one of the moon’s youngest craters. When it formed over 100 million years ago, plumes of material splashed out and fell back to the surface. I see them as lunar lesions, ancient moon scars.
We wander into the lobby where a small crowd circles a stocky man in a star-covered t- shirt interpreting Hubble images thumbtacked to a bulletin board. He names the cat-eye nebula, explains colliding galaxies, and blows our minds with stories of infinite past. I ask about a photograph that reminds me of Christmas tree lights hung haphazardly in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Star man tells us that in 1995 astronomer Bob Williams wanted to point the Hubble Space Telescope at a narrow slice of sky near the Big Dipper’s handle—an area known for nothingness. As director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, he had 10 percent of telescope time to look anywhere in the sky he wanted. For 100 hours, he pointed one of the world’s most powerful telescopes at a blank space. A waste of time. The other scientists were pissed.
For ten days, Hubble stared into a sliver of space 1/30th the width of a full moon, taking pictures through filters for ultraviolet, blue, red, and infrared light. When combined into a single color composite picture, thousands of surprise galaxies came tumbling out—spiral, elliptical, red, blue, and yellow—stretching back toward the beginning of time.
A few days later, I stumble across a poem by Adrienne Rich in which Tycho whispers:
“Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”
And the poet says:
I am an instrument in the shape of a woman trying to translate pulsations into images
Am I the instrument or the image? Where do I point my body to discover the answers? What if we look at the holes, and in them find whole galaxies?
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A few months later, we walk into a fertility clinic. The green eyes of another couple’s success story greet us. An airbrushed baby gazes out from a photograph that hangs above a fine selection of herbal teas and a pitcher of cucumber water. Nothing says “everything will be OK” like smiling baby eyes and cool, crisp cucumber water. The furniture is jewel-toned and sumptuous. There are meditation books and yoga videos. There are also flyers for a high-end
condo the doctor is selling. Nevertheless, the appointment is exhilarating. He practically sings my follicle count, pointing to the screen where my body is a night sky. Like an astronomer seeking stars, he calls my galaxy good, for 36, as his swishing wand rings planet Uterus. “Your lining is triple striped!” he exclaims (this is good I discover), and he prescribes acronyms and instructions. I beam in my blue paper gown, proud of my most hospitable cosmos, certain it won’t be long now.
Months and moons go by. We wax, we wane, and drive to appointments though seasons and years. Each time the nurse lowers the lights, we are riveted. We are rapt lovers pulled close around a café table. The stars are aligned; the moon is low. But I sit in quiet, in wonder.
Think: What if it’s all just dust and aurora? What if the stars form no constellations?
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When I see Nicole again, I ask her about her field work, and she tells me of banding saltmarsh sparrows with her young daughter. Banding a bird is like holding a beating heart in your hand. Once you untangle the bird from the mist net, you make a cup around it with one hand, letting its twitching head poke out between two fingers. This leaves your other hand free to record what you can—weight, length, sex, approximate age. These are fragments of its story, but you take the notes in case someone can stitch them together, maybe even predict the future. Maybe even sway it one way or another. After you clip a small label on its twig of a leg, you open your hand and feel it absorb back into the wind. You close and open. You hold and let go.
In those days, I braced myself at any mention of a child, let alone the image of one with a bird in her hand and a mother who looks and listens closely. Then Nicole tells me the species may be gone by the time her daughter is her age, and I realize we are pulling different threads of the same sinking sorrow—hers for a wild thing lost, mine for one that may never be. Somewhere in the atmosphere between us are imagined futures of girls and birds grown and untethered, floating in the wind like wished-upon dandelions.
Saltmarsh sparrows inhabit a tiny niche of time and space. If all goes well, they mate; lay eggs; and incubate, feed, and fledge their young in 26 days, before the month’s highest tides, which come every 28 days. Now, because of climate change, the floods come more frequently. Entire nests are often drowned. We’re approaching a threshold in which the highest tides will come too often for the species to survive.
Imagine a mother sparrow guarding a woven cup of marsh grass with three hungry nestlings, their red mouths open like waiting targets. She’s right where she’s supposed to be. But she knows, as birds do, what the full moon whispers to the sea. I make myself watch a video of the moment cold saltwater rushes in, soaking their flightless feathers. In the infrared light the birds look like tiny robots. They don’t seem real.
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One July morning, I hold a plastic stick to the light of a bathroom window and see a second blue line. Pregnancy washes over me like a beam of sun. Instead of degrading, my body builds layer upon layer. Depositing detritus and sediment I make a green room inside myself and decode all the signals I’ve ever received into braided roots that reach down and grab on for life. Not unlike a marsh, a womb is a place where the world is made.
Our child arrives on the last full moon of winter—the worm moon—a time of beginnings, of life emerging. Time of red-winged blackbirds. Time of sap. Time of thaw. To find her, I must enter a place blacker than mud. It feels like digging in soil for fire or diamonds or coal. It feels like playing in the dirt where things are buried—things like bodies, things like bulbs. It feels like primeval gardening, like searching in the dark for something essential. And from this place we emerge, together.
In the tender first months of life, doctors want a closer look at her spine. She’s born with a “sacral dimple,” a little valley in the skin at the base of the vertebral column that can either mean nothing, a gap in the bones of the spine, or a tethered spinal cord. I nurse her by the light of my phone while she spirals her tiny hands in my hair. I scroll past words like fairly common and usually mild to others like defect and neurosurgeon. When my husband and I take her to her first MRI, she’s three months old. Only one of us can go in. There’s no discussion about who it will be.
Both techs that day are women, mamas or aunties who clearly love babies. Their faces are lit by the soft glow of the tube, and I’m relieved when they say I can hold her during the test. I swaddle her in a muslin blanket and climb aboard the conveyer belt. “Two for one?” I joke, imagining the magnets drawing a portrait of our spooning spines. I don’t remember a sound, just the feeling of talking to her body with mine, synching our breathing as if with the tides. Our bodies share the dark space and tell unspoken secrets. The techs take the pictures, say nothing.
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Sometimes you get the news you hope for—the child arrives, and her body is free and unbroken, at least for the moment. The scans show a marsh can recover if you cut off the flow of pollution and slow the rise of the sea. Lesions can appear and disappear like ghosts, occasionally eating language but maybe just words that don’t need to be said. The world is wounded but not gone. Saltmarsh sparrows still sing the sun down.
I suspect it won’t always be this way. One day the phone may ring with hell on the other side. That scent of campfire may be a wildfire. Slight slopes could become steeper declines. But for now, I’m entwined in the wild wet hair of a marsh, looking for birds with my daughter. Only sometimes, when the days drip with heat, are my legs mired and immovable. We navigate Earth together with our little unseen holes, but they do not devour us. Still, we will be shown all the ways we are broken.
Is it a coincidence that our nerves fray and our bodies inflame while waters rise and forests sear? Or do our bodies align from the inside out—each little molecule a moon, each little scar a crater. What we do to nature, we do to ourselves. You can make maps. You can make pictures. But what do you do with the information? Is it possible to confront our brokenness and imagine a different way? Surely there’s more we can do than clutch the hands of our own ailing pieces of the planet, hoping our children fledge before high tide.
The lesson of the salt marsh is to keep moving. This works if there is somewhere to go, and you don’t lose too much ground. Retreat is a form of protection, but only for some and only when there’s time to run.
I stretch my buzzing limbs in my bed and picture my daughter growing longer in hers. The windows are open, and fireflies are turning on and off in a bottomless blue night. We can grieve, and grieve we must, but we can make a nest anyway. We can be submerged and come out on the other side. We can map invisible places and sometimes heal them. In the salt marsh, it’s easy to think that it is possible—that anything is. And that somewhere in a tangle of roots underground, earth holds the answers.
Kate Frazer lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York with a daughter, husband, two cats, and seven pandemic chickens. She writes about climate change, motherhood, conservation science, and the innumerable marvels of our world. You can find her on Twitter at @katelfrazer.