The Fourth River

On the Blog: Make the Coral Okay

–by Sheila Squillante, Editor-in-Chief


When we decided to dedicate a section of issue 13 to the topic of Climate Change, I knew it would raise a lot of strong emotions in our staff, our contributors and our readers. I personally wondered at what point my own response–fear, lament, anger, helplessness, panic– would switch on. Would it happen as I read through the excellent poetry submissions? Or maybe during a conversation with my staff about the overall shape we wanted for the issue? It could easily have happened while noticing the too-hot fall we had here in Pittsburgh this year. Someone said, “Soon fall will go all the way to December.”

I’ll tell you when it did happen: while on vacation in San Diego this past November. My family traveled there to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my husband’s parents. Have you been to San Diego? If you have then you know it has a truly heavenly climate. It’s almost surreal. The air is warm but not hot and smells like rosemary and jasmine. It also has the glorious Pacific Coast Highway–or California State Route 1–that we drove from Solana Beach where my in-laws live down past gorgeous Torrey Pines to visit the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on the last day of the trip.

It’s a super kid-friendly spot and mine loved sticking their hands in the tide pools and playing in the shark’s mouth. Great photo ops are usually had.


But on this trip, with The Fourth River in the back of my mind, I was struck rather hard by one of the inside exhibits–on climate change. My daughter and I walked through, turned handles and pressed buttons to answer quizzes about conservation. We peered into the tanks that showed the vibrancy of our oceans’ ecosystems:



We watched the yellow fish for a long while and my daughter was especially fascinated by the “pink bubbly thing.” I don’t remember if I sought out its proper name–it was enough that she was enjoying and enraptured. Amazing how even inside of a small glass tank the ocean is still impossibly strange and mesmerizing.

Of course, I knew we were looking at the “before” tank and that in another few steps we’d be confronted by something quite different:



“Wait. In 25 years the coral is going to die? All of it?”

She is eight and very affected by issues of mortality just now. And there I was, a mother with all the dire knowledge she is only beginning to comprehend, and I have to try to answer in a way that is both true and also not terrifyingly hopeless.

We stared at the bleached out landscape and I said the only thing I could,

“I don’t know. It’s possible. I hope not.”

She stared harder at the tank. She gets a deep concentration line in between her eyes when she’s thinking. When she’s determined.

“But we can make the coral okay?”


I don’t know.

It’s possible.

Let’s hope so.