For the past several weeks, I’ve been searching for a way to describe what I’m feeling: the sorrow, the fear, the sense of impending disaster. Then, a few days ago, I came across an article about Venice and its famous acqua alta—high water. “That’s it,” I said to myself. “That’s how I feel—like I’m going under.”
Venice has had to contend with acqua alta since it was founded in 421 by the Veneti, a Celtic people who lived along the Adriatic coast in what is now northeast Italy. Originally, the Veneti were Roman citizens but when Attila the Hun appeared on the scene, many Veneti fled to islands in the nearby lagoon and proceeded to build a defensible community there. Today, that community, Venice, is one of the true wonders of the world, a labyrinth of canals and waterways and neighborhoods and islets, beloved by artists and tourists and wanderers from around the world. In fact, in the summer months, there are more tourists in Venice than residents and the city feels too crowded and somewhat soulless. But come October, most of the tourists are gone and Venice is gifted back to the Venetians. A peaceful calm falls over the sestieri—the six districts of the city—and life resumes its distinctive, watery pace.
But October is also the beginning of acqua alta when high tides and full moons and sirocco winds out of the great African desert push the Adriatic into Venice’s lagoons and the city floods. It’s not that the city is sinking—it’s not; today, subsidence is less than one millimeter per year—but rather because sea levels are rising and sirocco winds are stronger, both unmistakable evidence of relentless climate change. Left to its own devices, the acqua alta that annually besets Venice would gradually inundate the city, making it inhospitable, if not downright uninhabitable.
Fortunately, however, Venetians are fighting back. In 2003, work began on the MOSE system, an ambitious engineering project that, if it works, would literally hold back the sea. MOSE is a series of mobile steel gates that can be raised or lowered on command. When activated, the gates would theoretically block the three main inlets into the Venetian lagoon, effectively cutting it off from surging Adriatic tides. But theory is one thing; practicality another. Hold your breath: just last week, on October 3, to be exact, the MOSE barrier was raised for the first time to stem the first strong surge tide of the season and low and behold, Venice and even its famous Piazza San Marco, the city’s lowest-lying area, remained essentially dry! There is hope!
Which brings me back to where I started: my feeling of existential dread caused by the concurrent floods of Covid-19: political chaos, climate change, private militias, systemic racism—all the surging forces that have threatened to overwhelm me (and you, too, I bet) since 2020 came rushing in on a flood tide. While I have yet to build my own personal MOSE system, the very fact that human ingenuity can construct something with the potential to hold back the sea gives me hope. In fact, I’ve already begun construction on my own MOSE project: a few days ago, I dropped my 2020 ballot in the big box behind the library, my first step on my own long journey back to a better, drier place.
Of course, acqua alta is not only a problem for Venice and its fortunate denizens. Even as I write this, poor, sodden Louisiana is getting battered by gale force wind and drenched with rain, this time with as much as fifteen inches of it, “thanks” to Hurricane Delta. I feel for all the folks down there; they’ve taken one hit after another and there’s no protective MOSE in sight.
Anyway, I hope you find a way to stay dry and safe. But please be careful: there’s a lot of acqua alta out there.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com