'Chesapeake Requiem' explores a cherished site perhaps doomed by climate change

Journalist Earl Swift weaves a masterful narrative of place, people, and nature, supported by the best sort of on-the-ground journalism.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen on Vanishing Tangier Island By Earl Swift Dey Street Books 448 pp.

Tangier Island, a dwindling pancake of land surrounded by the unruly waters of the Chesapeake Bay, has long existed as a curiosity for mainlanders. 

Travel writers journeyed there as early as the 1800s – and a journey it has always been, without bridges or reliably calm passage – to chronicle what they have repeatedly described as place stuck in time. It was (and is) a community without cars; without telephones until the 1960s; one so isolated that its residents still talk with the brogue of their colonial ancestors.For those of us who lived elsewhere on the Bay, who knew how to pick crabs and shuck oysters well before we could drive, Tangier was the slightly mysterious, mystical center of the crabbing industry. Soft shell crabs came from there. So did many of the blue crabs whose likeness graces the flags and posters of the region, and oysters. The island was a heartbeat distant but still acknowledged, somehow essential to the lifeblood of our region. 

More recently, the 1.3-square-mile island has prompted a new sort of fascination among outsiders. It is now attracting reporters because it is disappearing, widely considered to become one of the first US communities eliminated by an increasingly warmer earth. The journal Scientific Reports in 2015 published a study saying the citizens of Tangier Island “may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA.” 

It was this report that helped attract the attention of Earl Swift, a journalist who had visited the island on assignment some 15 years earlier.  Wanting to know more about what the rising waters meant for Tangier, he rented the second floor of a house on the island’s western ridge and moved in. His plan, he writes, was to “spend the six-month peeler-crabbing season, and months beyond, on Tangier – joining its watermen on their boats, absorbing its odd and longstanding customs to discern what we’d lose with its demise, and plumbing its collective anxiety about what the future holds.”

He accomplished those goals, for sure, but leaving it there would undersell Swift’s marvelous new book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen on Vanishing Tangier IslandFor Swift not only weaves a masterful narrative of place, people, and nature, supported by the best sort of on-the-ground, in-depth journalistic reporting. He goes further, bringing to the fore the nuance and ambiguity of Tangier, and the environmental crisis it confronts. In his hands, the erosion tearing at Tangier takes on more than its ecological meaning and becomes, as imperceptibly and definitely as the waves eating into the shoreline, a story about all of us.

“In the vast sea of styles and experience that constitute American culture, Tangier is an island both literal and metaphorical,” he writes near the end of the book “We must decide whether such cultural outliers are as worthy as salvation as the mainstream, whether a circle’s circumference is as essential as the middle.”

By then the reader has met, and come to love, characters such as Ooker (nobody calls him by his given name, James Wyatt Eskridge), a lifelong waterman and the mayor of Tangier, a man who spends his days on boats, feeds stray cats, marvels at the beauty of sea birds and believes, like most Tangiermen, that climate change is bogus.  We have gone to church, and onto crabbing vessels pre dawn into the shockingly tempestuous Chesapeake – the two central activities of Tangier. We have come back to shore to sit in the “Situation Room” with the island’s old guard who drink coffee out of styrofoam cups and talk about how the wind is blowing, or whether the crabs have gotten too savvy.  We have been there when the island’s residents are bitterly disappointed by those within their community, and when the town mobilizes to save one of its own, exhibiting the sort of bravery and loyalty that today seems like its own sort of fairy tale. 

After all of this, the answer to Swift’s rhetorical question may remain intellectually challenging, but it feels emotionally clear.  This is because in “Chesapeake Requiem,” Swift does what only the best environmental writers can do. He reveals the complications and multiple storylines that underly an environmental crisis.  And he builds compassion and connection, if not complete understanding, between readers and those who see the world quite differently.

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