You live on an island. You have lived there all your life, for decades now. You notice that the water has been rising steadily, year after year, and the island is shrinking. Although you aren’t subject to the same media and mass-culture bombardment as the mainlanders are, you’ve heard of climate change.
But do you attribute the disappearance of your home, visible and demonstrable and unavoidable, to that climate change? Not, not if you’re a Tangierman—a man or woman or child resident of Tangier Island, in Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay. If you are, then you say it’s because of “wind-driven erosion.”
Earl Swift first went to Tangier Island in 1999, when he was a journalist working for the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. As he recounts in his new book Chesapeake Requiem, it wasn’t climate that first took him there, or fishing, or the island’s renowned round-voweled accent, which had long excited amateur dialecticians as a supposed holdover from Elizabethan English. (It’s not quite that simple.) Instead, it was the fact that Tangier was one of the very few places in the commonwealth to reject the Virginia Lottery and ban the sale of tickets in town.
That decision spoke to the Tangiermen’s strong religious conservatism, to their unhesitating willingness to close doors to the ways of outsiders if those ways were deemed wrongful. Those traits in turn led Swift to return soon after, reasoning that if there were going to be a Y2K meltdown in the larger world, Tangier would likely be unaffected, what with what Swift calls its “old-fashioned, analog ways.”
Speaking from his home below the Blue Ridge, far inland from the Chesapeake, Swift tells Kirkus that his latest return was prompted by reading a December 2015 paper by three scientists working for the Norfolk District of the US Army Corps of Engineers that projected that Tangier Island was “the American town most likely to produce climate change refugees.” Swift traveled to Tangier with a photographer and, over the next few weeks, compiled an impressive body of evidence to show that the island was indeed, as the locals would say, “getting drownded.”
The scientists give Tangier 100 years at the outside before it will disappear under the waves. By Swift’s account, the end will likely come much sooner, and though the Tangiermen continue to insist that the “drowning” is caused by localized erosion caused by waves caused by strong winds that are tacking a different course, their home is at the leading edge of rising seas that will soon inundate vast chunks of real estate, mainland and island alike, around the world.
Chesapeake Requiem is not just about the stubborn hold of tradition, denial, and wishful thinking on our ideas, though it is certainly about all that. It is also a closely observed portrait of a place that plainly cast its spell on Swift, a place whose people work the waters for a living, surrounded by shorebirds and preternatural beauty. Swift writes with undisguised affection for a people who, though supposedly clannish and backward, are plenty aware—and who have showed him unhesitating hospitality over the years, for all the, well, insularity of island people. “I came to love the people of Tangier an awful lot,” he says. “They do not live an easy life, and they’re all in it together.”
Things have changed on the island, and the efforts of its people to ward off malign outside influences have had mixed results: Drug abuse, alcohol addiction, and even social media have found their way to the island. And the crabmen and oystermen of Tangier, the Tangiermen, have always known that their home is vulnerable; it’s just that, as Swift writes of a climate regime past, “during years when the water didn’t freeze and storms didn’t pound the shore, they put the matter out of their minds.”
That regime is changing to something that’s harder to ignore, and now the people of Tangier are left with a hard decision that other communities elsewhere in the world are facing: Absent the construction of a seawall to ward off the rising water, they’ll almost certainly need to pick up and move to higher ground. Will they go as a body, or will they calve off into little islands of their own? Will there be any Tangiermen left in a generation? That remains to be seen—and it will, and probably soon.
Meanwhile, and even though other communities do indeed face such choices, Earl Swift emphasizes that Tangier is a place apart. “Climate change is forcing us to make a decision about what’s important, about what towns we save and what ones we surrender to the water,” he says. “Tangier is so unusual, so one-of-a-kind, that it’s really kind of good that it’s the first decision we’re going to have to make, a decision that will inform how we act when we face this crisis from here on out.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.