Tangier Island is in trouble — though that's kind of nothing new. The little island in the Chesapeake has been home to a small, self-reliant community for centuries, and it's been washing away little by little for just as long. But now, climate change is driving the waves higher.
Earl Swift was a reporter for the Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot when he first stepped onto Tangier's marshy ground in the summer of 1999. He tells me in an email conversation that he was "dispatched back to the dry, deeply religious island that December for New Year's Eve. While experiencing what had to be the quietest millennial celebration on Earth, I got to explore the place. What I found was a board-flat, watery little squiggle of marsh that barely cleared the tides — largely treeless, open to weather from every direction, and surrounded by miles of moody water. I had to recalibrate my senses to appreciate its beauty, which is quiet, nuanced."
Swift says the people he met there left a deep impression on him. "They were tough and self-reliant, as you'd expect in such an outpost, but also warm, loving, and full of humor. And they all were players in a true community — Tangier lived up to that label more than any place I'd ever been."
And they knew that their way of life was in danger, Swift says: "One after the other, townsfolk told me about the existential dilemma facing the place: that the waters that had long sustained the place with its fish, crabs and oysters were now poised to erase it." Still, many of the islanders did not believe in climate change (and voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016).
Swift spent several weeks reporting on Tangier, but, he says, the island was worth a deeper exploration, so in May of 2016, he moved there. His new book about the island is called Chesapeake Requiem, and we discussed it recently over email.
It's really not an easy life, being a waterman on Tangier. Tell me about an average day for you, as you were following along with the crab boats.
My days on the water started early. When I went out with Lonnie Moore, who catches hard crabs, we met at his boat at 3:45 a.m. and motored ten miles across a wind-whipped Tangier Sound to his 425 crab pots. I spent the next seven hours watching as he and his two teenaged "mates" pulled each aboard, dumped the catch, and sorted the crabs by size and sex.
I most often went out with Tangier's mayor, James "Ooker" Eskridge, who is a peeler crabber — he catches crabs that are about to molt, holds them in saltwater tanks until they do, then plucks the creatures out of the water and puts them on ice, which preserves them as soft-shells. If you've never eaten a softshell crab, legs and all, you're missing a treat.
The workday for both style of crabbers is exhausting. In choppy seas, their little boats dance around crazily, and staying on your feet is a workout. When we got back to port in the early afternoon, I typically went straight to my rented room and napped hard.
I loved all the nicknames, and the ways people found to differentiate themselves when everyone shares a handful of last names — tell me about that.
The fact that the mayor is known as Ooker, and only Ooker — no one calls him by his given name — tells you something about the place. I got to know people known as Squeals, Socks, Mooney, Hoot, Shoot, Poopdeck, Number 9, Tabby, Tweet, Teany, Tiny, Laws Sakes and Eddie Jacks. I heard a lot about past islanders with such names as Puge, Spurge, Puff-cheeks, Popcorn, Half-Ass Buck and Kisses.
How did you decide to structure the book? I feel like, as a reader, I get lulled into the rhythms and the history of island life and it isn't until halfway through the book that you really dig into how far outside the mainstream the Tangiermen can be.
The book is a braid of three narrative threads, the first detailing the island's history, the second the science of climate change and its effects, and the third a rough chronology of my time there. That last thread includes the process of catching crabs, and provides enough background on the animals' life cycle so that you can understand how Tangier, which is essentially a factory town, has managed to sustain itself for 240 years. So the story has a fairly rigid, rational structure. But if I did my job correctly, you don't notice the scaffolding.
The revelations that come along late in the book do so either because it took that long for me to recognize them, or because you have to be grounded in life-as-usual before any departures from the routine are understandable.
The role of religion on Tangier is so interesting — I had no idea it had a history going back to 1807! You talk about how the islanders can often be sort of passive, trusting in God and not really wanting to take action about anything, but at the same time got so worked up about Methodist support for a two-state solution in Israel that they caused a schism in the church. How do you reconcile that?
Faith underpins Tangier's existence — and no surprise, seeing as how the islanders are every day at the mercy of natural forces they can't control. If you must get to the mainland and the wind's blowing hard, you can't very well avoid the gale — and you're going to do a lot of praying along the way.
Time and again throughout their history, the island has seen itself rewarded for this faith — or so Tangiermen believe. Hurricanes have struck, but never with the force they might have mustered; epidemics have claimed some lives, but not in numbers sufficient to pry the population from the island; crab and oyster harvests have tanked, only to later rebound. So over time Tangiermen have come to see themselves as an anointed people, protected by the power of prayer. And while fiercely independent as individuals, as a group they've tended to place their biggest problems in God's hands.
The schism in 2012 was the culmination of years of discontent with the wider Methodist church, which Tangiermen viewed as increasingly liberal. When the church's Virginia Conference adopted a resolution backing a two-state solution in the Middle East, much of biblically literalist Tangier — which hews to the belief that Israel is God's chosen people, and that any action favoring its enemies (in this case, Palestinians) defies God's wishes — reached a breaking point. It wasn't the only reason for the schism, but it was certainly the last straw.
How fast is the island disappearing? What's your own take on whether or not it can — or will be saved?
Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land since 1850, which translates into more than 8 acres a year. As the rate of sea-level rise accelerates, you see the island shrinking not only around its edges — and in places, that's dramatic — but the so-called ridges on which the 270-odd houses are clustered turning ever more soupy. High tides percolate right up through the ground, turning yards into ponds. Land that was high and dry a few years ago has turned to marsh, and marsh has drowned to become open water. It's happening fast.
Could it be saved? Yes, with heroic intervention. But a lasting solution could well cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which will be a tough sell to the American people.
I'll leave the question of whether the island should be saved to the public policy folks who decide such things. But do I want it saved? Absolutely. It's a community unlike any other. If we lose Tangier, we lose something special — an outlier that helps define the scope of the American experience. Without the island, we're a little more homogeneous, a little less interesting.
How we choose to address its dilemma will inform how we deal with the hundreds, if not thousands, of communities that will face similar threats in the not-distant future.
Have any of your friends on Tangier read the book? If so, what have they said to you?
I did my first reading/signing on Tangier, four days after the book came out ... the islanders appreciate the truth, however uncomfortable it might sometimes be. During the question-and-answer period after the reading, they asked no questions; instead, islander after islander offered testimonials about the book and about me and about my fiancée, Amy, who came to love the place in several visits during my 14-month stay. It was incredibly moving.
I've sometimes described the island as my second home, but it's more than that. When I leave home on the mainland, I'm not greeted by name by everyone I encounter; I'm not welcomed with smiles wherever I go; I'm not made to feel part of a greater whole. On the contrary, most of my neighbors don't know me from Adam.
But on Tangier, everyone has a role to play. Everyone counts. And for 14 months, that included me. For 14 months, I was treated as a Tangierman. And that will stay with me.