Land and culture erode on an island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Journalist Swift (Auto Biography: A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream, 2014, etc.) spent more than a year on Tangier Island, among crab fishermen and their families, in 2000 and again in late fall 2015. In a graceful melding of history, nature writing, and perceptive cultural commentary, the author offers an affectionate portrait of the island and its “God-fearing, self-reliant,” close-knit residents—now numbering under 500. Although Tangier currently faces new social problems—drugs, alcohol (on an island defiantly dry), and loss of young people to the mainland—the island “is more Norman Rockwell than real American town, with morals intact, air fresh, and entertainments wholesome.” When Swift returned to the island in 2015 from his home in Virginia, he was particularly concerned with how Tangier was dealing with climate change that threatens to raise sea levels. Already, the island has shrunk from 2,163 acres, as documented in 1850, to 789. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that about a third of remaining acreage would vanish within the next 50 years without major intervention. Residents, however, ascribe topographical changes “solely to wind-driven waves, not climate change,” refusing to believe that accelerating winds were “a symptom of a global phenomenon.” Still, they feared for their future as crab fishermen. With hundreds of millions of crabs swimming by the island each year, Tangier supplies restaurants all along the east coast; New York, for example, pays handsomely for soft-shell crabs. Swift’s profiles of individuals are sharply drawn and empathetic, and he captures their frustration with government bureaucracy as they hope for federal financing of a sea wall. It will take a miracle, writes the author, for the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress to act “before a storm muscles up the bay and renders the whole thing moot.”
A well-rendered narrative about how one specific island’s fate stands as a warning for all coastal regions.