A watery way of life

‘A Chesapeake Requiem’ takes the reader inside the endangered world of Tangier Island

There’s a romance that lingers around certain places in America. Usually they are places that to outside observers have been “left behind” by modernity. Those of us frantically trying to keep up with the blistering pace of technology fool ourselves into thinking that the “good old days” represent some platonic ideal of how life should be lived. Reality, of course, looks different when viewed from inside the bubble,

Such is the case with Tangier Island, a seemingly idyllic throwback to a simpler time when men supported their families by working the land (or in this case, water), when everyone in a small town knew everyone else, when the attractions of nature, board games, and books outweighed the allure of instant messaging, video games, and social media. Every summer, tourists flock to this Chesapeake Bay island (only reachable by ferry, and navigable on land via bicycle or golf cart) to briefly gawk at people whom time has seemingly passed by.

The subtitle of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island (Harper Collins, 2018) offers the reader a clue that not all is what it seems, and as the pages turn the dilemma faced by the people of Tangier becomes more and more clear: Rising waters in the Chesapeake (caused by a number of factors including coastal erosion and climate change) have swallowed two-thirds of Tangier’s land mass in the past two centuries. The best-case scenario, if no man-made intervention is made, is that the island will be uninhabitable within 50 years. The math is not promising: The current population is fewer than 500 people. The cost of shoring up the island is measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Swift, a longtime journalist in Virginia, who had visited Tangier earlier this millennium while reporting a story, felt compelled to return in 2015 and chronicle life on the island in depth. By living for a full year on the island, he was able to earn the trust of the islanders, who opened their lives to him in really moving ways. Swift shares with the reader not only the scientific and political ramifications of the island’s disappearing land mass, but the essential humanity of the people whose families have lived and worked on the island for generations. We learn about the island’s past glories as a preeminent source of the coveted blue crab, its difficult present as the watery bounty in the Bay and the land under their feet both become ever more scarce, and its grim future as its young people graduate from high school and most of them move off-island, never to return.

Whenever a reporter embeds themselves into a place there can be a temptation to over-identify with your subject matter, resulting in journalism that fails to cast an objective eye on the situation. Happily, that’s not the case with Swift. While it’s clear that he feels affection and respect for the people he meets and lives among on Tangier, he doesn’t shy away from detailing their shortcomings. In particular, the near-universal refusal to believe that climate change is real, let alone playing a role in their island’s peril, is frustrating to read about, as is their hostility to the environmentalists who want to help save the island but who are mistrusted as also wanting to regulate the fisheries that support the islanders. I felt the same about the people’s baffling passivity in the face of their problems; at one point, several of the old watermen are sitting around talking about a meeting on the mainland where decisions will be made that could seriously impact their ability to earn a living from crabbing. “Somebody should go down there and represent the island,” they all agree. But no one is willing to actually do it, and so the meeting takes place without any representation from the people whose lives will be affected.

Beyond the science and the politics, however, I found myself enthralled by Swift’s pellucid descriptions of everyday life. I felt as though I was on board the crabbing boat of Ooker Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and hard-working waterman, as he pulled up his catch and sorted it into pots of jimmies (males), sooks and sallies (females), and peelers (those about to shed their shell and become the coveted soft-shell crab). Late in the book, a sudden storm blows up and puts the lives of father-and-son crabbers in peril when they are caught in the squall far from shore. I could feel the sleet lashing my face and the desperation of the men as they fought to save themselves and their boat. And when word reaches land that they are in trouble, fishermen who had just fought through the same storm and thankfully reached the safety harbor don’t hesitate for an instant before turning around and heading back into the dangerous waters to try to save their friends. 

I didn’t come away from A Chesapeake Requiem with any brilliant ideas about what should be done. Should millions of dollars be spent to save what’s left of the island and its few hundred residents? Would the money be better spent to re-locate the people of Tangier to the mainland? What do we as a society lose when we lose places like Tangier — what value do you place on that sort of community benefit when you are calculating what saving the island is worth? Swift doesn’t pretend to have the answers, either, but his moving and enlightening work helped me understand just what’s at stake on this small patch of land so far away from me.