A flooding tide on Tangier
Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place. But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle. It’s there in the title. He believes the island is not long for this world.
I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does. On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories. On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.
Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco). He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.
Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region. Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces. When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are. He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.
They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant. Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation. Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.
None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017. Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.
The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)
By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly. He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it. The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.
Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there. He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail. The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.
But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told. In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective. Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change. Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.
The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book. But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259) Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)
Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem. Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said. He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)
That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier. They are no strangers to loss. Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past. Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.
But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian. It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t). But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.
I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier. Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.
Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss. I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it. He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”