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Book Review: Houseraising by Ira Wagner

Seaside Park

In 2012, the Jersey Shore was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. In the summer of 2013, Ira Wagner, an adjunct professor of photography at Monmouth University, who is based in New Jersey and owns a home on the Jersey Shore, “noticed some of the houses along the NJ shoreline were being lifted through a rudimentary elevation system referencing the age-old communal activity of barn raising. Ranging from modest bungalows to mansions, they appeared to Wagner to be sitting up in the air on wooden supports that looked so wobbly you could push them over,” I read in the press release. And, that describes precisely my own impressions when looking at the photographs in “Houseraising”.

Why would someone decide to stay on a shore that was not only devastated by a hurricane but remains under threat from storms, erosion, and rising sea levels? I wondered. Needless to say, I can only guess. To me, this once again shows the stubborness of human beings, our inability to adapt, our refusal to change. As always, one can also see things differently and argue that the people who are determined to stay on such a shore are extremely capable to adapt – they decided to elevate their houses!

Ocean Beach

In the book’s foreword, Rachael Shwom, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology and associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, gives her personal account of how she survived Hurricane Sandy on the top two floors of a rental house. She today still lives on the Jersey Shore in a raised house that she purchased in 2017. So why does she, who is well aware of the dangers of climate change, continue to live there? Well, to start with, she has no illusions in regards to the scientific findings. “From an economic and climate change perspective, I may not be on the winning side.” More bluntly put: Given what scientists tell us, this is a stupid decision.

However, she knows from personal experience how it feels to survive a hurricane. “But I have never run my life like a business where I maximize profit (if I did, I would be a banker instead of an academic) – and few people do. Because for many, life is rarely about maximizing wealth and rather about finding a way to pay the bills while taking joy in what you can.” Moreover, she simply loves to live there.

Brick Township

“Building on the Silence: How the New Jersey Shore Responds to Climate Change without Talking about Climate Change” is another text in this book. It is by George Marshall, who “advises scientists, governments, and campaign organizations about effective ways to engage the public around climate change.” The title says it all: Even people affected by climate change do not talk about it. It is not that they doubt it, it is that they focus on things that to them feel less abstract. So they come together and support each other. Communities grow stronger. And, they elevate their houses.

George Marshall also points out aspects of Ira Wagner’s (to me somewhat surreal) photographs that many (including me) probably would overlook without being made aware of. For they also reflect “the dominance of individual property ownership over all other values.” Moreover, to a cultural outsider (Marshall is English), the “very lightness of American timber building reflects a native culture of high mobility and flexibility that creates buildings that can be rapidly and cheaply assembled, dismantled, or shifted in any direction.” In my view, this is a pretty reasonable aproach to an unpredictable life.


by Ira Wagner

Daylight Books, July 1, 2018
Available here: https://daylightbooks.org/products/houseraising-the-jersey-shore-after-hurricane-sandy

Also published on Medium.

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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