Haw River at 64. Photo by Patrick Mueller. https://tinyurl.com/s7x397o.

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In September 2018, when my younger daughter, Harriet, was five months old, she experienced her first hurricane. We live near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, almost two hundred miles inland. Mature oak, hickory, and poplar trees surround our house, which stands on a steep and heavily wooded plot of land. My husband and I have lived in this house near the Haw River since 2006, and we’ve seen some scary storms, including a 2012 windstorm that took out a large pine that was home to two bald eagles. But Florence had colored almost our entire state red on the threat map I pulled up, again and again, on my phone. A friend told me, as the storm churned in the Atlantic, that she was evacuating her family out of Raleigh. Where would they go? I asked. South Florida, she told me—where she grew up and had learned to read the signs of deadly storms.

We drove west, to Asheville, staying with friends while slow-moving Florence soaked the state with rain—as much as thirty-five inches on the coast, more than eleven inches at our house. Our friends lived in a house with steel beams and concrete floors; I thought about our artist-built, wooden house, sited precariously close to massive trees. I’ve never liked that three little pigs story—so classist, I always thought. But I felt safe in their modern house, and I was grateful for the shelter.

Each morning we thought about going home, and each morning we decided we’d stay one more day. I obsessively checked the USGS Haw River gauge—an online tool I’d once used to track the best days for kayaking. Now I tracked the inevitable flood—where would the river crest? At fifteen feet? Twenty? Would it breach the bridge at Saxapahaw? Would it wash out our road? What about our bridge—that wasn’t possible, was it? I had nightmares of our car getting swept away on Route 87, my hands reaching back for my daughters.

Harriet, of course, did not notice the hurricane, which manifested only as heavy rain in Asheville—she cooed and babbled and grabbed her feet. Her sister, Beatrice, five years old and a fan of novelty, saw the trip as a vacation. She liked eating at restaurants and visiting with our friends’ son, walking their big dog in the park when the rain let up. I texted with a friend who also lived in a first-little-pig house, a few miles upriver from ours. She had a bucket on her porch that she used to measure the rainfall. Five inches, she told me, early in the storm. Six. Eight. It kept raining.

* * *

Here is the thing about the unprecedented future that keeps presenting itself to us (2016, the hottest year on record; July 2019, the hottest month on record): it is very hard to predict the extremes. That bridge has never washed out. But it has never rained so much, so quickly.

Though Florence did not damage our home, the Haw River crested at seventeen-and-a-half feet. And it flooded seven more times before the end of the year—unprecedented, in the decade-plus I’ve spent watching this river.

My daughters are miracles—twiblings, in IVF parlance, born four and a half years apart, when I was thirty-seven and forty-one years old. I was born two years before Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, and in my lifetime the procedure has become, for those fortunate enough to have insurance or money or fortitude enough, almost routine. I am grateful every day for the medical treatment that made Beatrice and Harriet possible—the same or similar treatment helped conceive the children of so many of my friends, same-sex couples and infertile heterosexual couples and single mothers by choice. Because I know the pain of infertility, I’m grateful for the treatment that’s made it possible for people born with rare mitochondrial disease to conceive healthy children, for the doctors working on uterine transplants for women born without uteruses, and for the bioethicists working to expand the definition of infertility to include LGBTQIA families and individuals.

And yet—what will any of these advances mean in twenty years, or forty? I am thinking of course of the time we live in, the age of the sixth extinction, the time of climate crisis, seasons of hottest and driest and wettest and most dangerous. My older daughters are so young that they barely understand the scope I wonder what life will be like for my daughters when they’re my age. Will they choose to have children? If they experience infertility, as I did, will they have the resources and optimism to pursue treatment?

Sometimes I think that every scientist on earth—including the IVF researchers—should be working on our climate crisis. And that every word that I write should address the climate crisis too. But these are panicked thoughts—and selfish ones, now that I have my long-wished-for children. I calm myself by remembering how lucky we all are to have our children. How lucky these children are to be alive on this earth, which is still, after all, beautiful, despite all that humans have done to it. I walk to the river’s greening banks, where the bald eagles’ new nest sits massively inside a mighty pine.

* * *

A few weeks after Florence, I took Beatrice and Harriet to a storytelling event in the nearby community of Bynum. The theme of the night was the Haw River. One storyteller spoke about becoming an environmental activist with the Haw River Assembly. Another told about the river’s ancient geological history. The last performer sang and played the guitar—a ballad about a storm that happened decades ago. In the song, a cradle gets washed down the Haw, but the baby inside is rescued. When the song was over the performer told us she’d once met an older man who approached her after a show to tell her that he was that baby in the song.

It was getting late, and Harriet was tired. I looked to Beatrice, to gauge if we should go. Tears were streaming down her face, and she turned to me with wide eyes. That scared me, she said.

I tried to reassure her: But the baby was okay, remember? The baby was rescued, and he grew up. She wiped away her tears, and I bought her a Moon Pie. But the baby was in the storm, she told me. The baby floated down the river.

She was right to be scared, outraged even, that a baby should endure such an ordeal. I’m scared too, and I’m outraged and sorry. But I’m also grateful to these young people—birthed, some of them, in unprecedented ways, into unprecedented times. They see that what we have allowed is unacceptable. It has to change.

As we left, Beatrice said that next time, she wanted to tell a story. About what? I asked her.

She wasn’t sure, she said. But she’d think of something.