Chesapeake Requiem, Earl Swift. New York: Del Rey Books, 2018.
Summary: A journalist’s account of nearly two years on Tangier island, the tight knit community organized around watermen harvesting blue crabs, and the likelihood that it may disappear within the next century.
I first learned about Tangier Island nearly twenty years ago when I heard one of the people mentioned in this book, Susan Drake Emmerich, speak about the Watermen’s Covenant she helped facilitate, rooted in the strong Bible-based beliefs of the island’s watermen, that helped ease tensions over state and federal laws and fostered care for the island environment as well as the crabs and the Chesapeake Bay that provided their livelihood.
Earl Swift chronicles a different threat to the very existence of the island. Throughout the Chesapeake, there are shoals that were once inhabited islands. Over the last two centuries, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its land. The northern part of the island, called Uppards, once was inhabited. Now its graves are washing into the sea and most of it is a patchwork of marsh and open water. The west end of the island’s shipping channel has widened to over 75 feet. A seawall protects the landing strip on the south end of the island. Residents are hoping for a jetty off of the shipping channel, and a sea wall around the island. The cost is over $30 million, and most consider that it would be cheaper to relocate this community of under 500 to the mainland. The most obvious cause is coastal erosion, evident after every major storm when more coast is lost and parts of the island are inundated. However, geologically, Tangier is slowly sinking, and the Chesapeake is slowly rising. It’s possible that all or most of it could be submerged within 50 years.
Swift, who first visited a much bigger island in 2000, returned in 2015 and spent the best part of two years researching his account of the island. It is not only an account of what is happening to the island, but an account of the community that traces its origins back to 1608 when John Smith mapped it and the Revolutionary War, when it was settled. Many of the current residents trace their lineage back to these early settlers and most are related.
Swift joins in every part of the island’s life from sessions of the island’s elders at “The Situation Room” to attending both of the island’s churches. He eats at the restaurants, endures the insects, and attends the funerals. He describes town services from the sewage plant to the local grocery, the school, and the visitor center (a place representing a painful memory). Most of all, he spends time with the watermen on their boats, especially James “Ooker” Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and the town’s spokesperson when the media come calling. Up before dawn, we get a sense of how hard the work of crabbing is, and how precarious this existence always has been, even before declining catches.
Perhaps the most riveting part of the account is that of Ed “Eddie Jacks” Charnock and his son Jason, who are stranded on a sinking boat during a blinding, gale force storm on the bay, and the urgent rescue efforts mounted by the other islanders who hear the one distress message they were able to send out. It is a story that represents the tightly knit character of this community as well as the deep biblical faith that undergirds their life.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Swift is his ability to portray the islanders on their own terms. There is no deprecation of their religious faith or their avid support of President Trump and denial of climate change (islanders attribute all the loss of land to erosion and dismiss evidence of island subsidence and water level rise.) He even affirms that Ooker Eskridge bests Al Gore in a discussion with his straightforward assertions that he has seen no water level changes at his crab shack.
At the same time, he describes an island that is slowly dying, no matter what the islanders believe. Youth are moving to the mainland, and the elders are dying and the population continues to decline. Properties are abandoned, and despite the religious rectitude, there is evidence of drug use among a portion of the population. There are tipping points approaching for sustaining everything from the local school to the grocery.
Swift calls his book a requiem. While Tangier has not yet died and its residents have not given up, the book helps us to appreciate on a small scale what it would mean to this beautiful place and its tight knit, beautiful, and productive community, to be lost. He helps us care for these people and their place.
I find myself also thinking that this might be the first of many requiems, or perhaps a more hopeful image is that Tangier is the canary in the coal mine, a warning of how much more we might lose if we fail to act. The factors that endanger Tangier are the same ones that put our naval station at Norfolk at risk, and even our nation’s capitol, as well as the coastal cities of the world. Perhaps the irony that the islanders themselves dismiss climate change and its effects is also salutary. It is one thing to have to relocate under 500 climate refugees. Potentially this could be multiplied by millions in the years ahead. Will we close our ears to this requiem until catastrophe is upon us, or take prudent steps now? If the trends at Tangier are any indication, we may know the answer within a generation.
[PBS News Hour profiled Tangier including interviews with Ooker Eskridge and Earl Swift.]