Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island

by Earl Swift

Hardcover, 2018

Call number

639.56 SWI

Collection

Publication

Dey Street Books (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 448 pages

Description

Tangier Island, Virginia, is a community unique on the American landscape. Mapped by John Smith in 1608, settled during the American Revolution, the tiny sliver of mud is home to 470 hardy people who live an isolated and challenging existence, with one foot in the 21st century and another in times long passed. They are separated from their countrymen by the nation's largest estuary, and a twelve-mile boat trip across often tempestuous water-the same water that for generations has made Tangier's fleet of small fishing boats a chief source for the rightly prized Chesapeake Bay blue crab, and has lent the island its claim to fame as the softshell crab capital of the world. Yet for all of its long history, and despite its tenacity, Tangier is disappearing. The very water that has long sustained it is erasing the island day by day, wave by wave. It has lost two-thirds of its land since 1850, and still its shoreline retreats by fifteen feet a year-meaning this storied place will likely succumb first among U.S. towns to the effects of climate change. Experts reckon that, barring heroic intervention by the federal government, islanders could be forced to abandon their home within twenty-five years. Meanwhile, the graves of their forebears are being sprung open by encroaching tides, and the conservative and deeply religious Tangiermen ponder the end times. Chesapeake Requiem is an intimate look at the island's past, present and tenuous future, by an acclaimed journalist who spent much of the past two years living among Tangier's people, crabbing and oystering with its watermen, and observing its long traditions and odd ways. What emerges is the poignant tale of a world that has, quite nearly, gone by-and a leading-edge report on the coming fate of countless coastal communities.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member alexezell
Swift details the history and current existence of a slice of American life that is largely invisible and will soon become even more so. What's interesting is how deftly Swift walks the line between showing how climate change is a large part of the issues that Tangier Island faces but doesn't chastise or condescend to the people of Tangier who generally don't see it in quite the same way.

There are beautiful descriptions of life on the water. There are in-depth details about the lifestyle of crabs. There are repeated details about the many familial connections between the people of the island. All of this doesn't add up quite as well as I'd hoped. It becomes repetitious through the middle of the book to the point that I couldn't sustain my interest. There wasn't enough of a sense of where the story was going or how these people might actually start to make changes in their lives. I might pick it back up from the library and flip to the last chapter or two to see how things wrapped up.
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LibraryThing member rosalita
There’s a romance that lingers around certain places in America. Usually they are places that to outside observers have been “left behind” by modernity. Those of us frantically trying to keep up with the blistering pace of technology fool ourselves into thinking that the “good old days” represent some platonic ideal of how life should be lived. Reality, of course, looks different when viewed from inside the bubble,

Such is the case with Tangier Island, a seemingly idyllic throwback to a simpler time when men supported their families by working the land (or in this case, water), when everyone in a small town knew everyone else, when the attractions of nature, board games, and books outweighed the allure of instant messaging, video games, and social media. Every summer, tourists flock to this Chesapeake Bay island (only reachable by ferry, and navigable on land via bicycle or golf cart) to briefly gawk at people whom time has seemingly passed by.

The subtitle of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island (Harper Collins, 2018) offers the reader a clue that not all is what it seems, and as the pages turn the dilemma faced by the people of Tangier becomes more and more clear: Rising waters in the Chesapeake (caused by a number of factors including coastal erosion and climate change) have swallowed two-thirds of Tangier’s land mass in the past two centuries. The best-case scenario, if no man-made intervention is made, is that the island will be uninhabitable within 50 years. The math is not promising: The current population is fewer than 500 people. The cost of shoring up the island is measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Swift, a longtime journalist in Virginia, who had visited Tangier earlier this millennium while reporting a story, felt compelled to return in 2015 and chronicle life on the island in depth. By living for a full year on the island, he was able to earn the trust of the islanders, who opened their lives to him in really moving ways. Swift shares with the reader not only the scientific and political ramifications of the island’s disappearing land mass, but the essential humanity of the people whose families have lived and worked on the island for generations. We learn about the island’s past glories as a preeminent source of the coveted blue crab, its difficult present as the watery bounty in the Bay and the land under their feet both become ever more scarce, and its grim future as its young people graduate from high school and most of them move off-island, never to return.

Whenever a reporter embeds themselves into a place there can be a temptation to over-identify with your subject matter, resulting in journalism that fails to cast an objective eye on the situation. Happily, that’s not the case with Swift. While it’s clear that he feels affection and respect for the people he meets and lives among on Tangier, he doesn’t shy away from detailing their shortcomings. In particular, the near-universal refusal to believe that climate change is real, let alone playing a role in their island’s peril, is frustrating to read about, as is their hostility to the environmentalists who want to help save the island but who are mistrusted as also wanting to regulate the fisheries that support the islanders. I felt the same about the people’s baffling passivity in the face of their problems; at one point, several of the old watermen are sitting around talking about a meeting on the mainland where decisions will be made that could seriously impact their ability to earn a living from crabbing. “Somebody should go down there and represent the island,” they all agree. But no one is willing to actually do it, and so the meeting takes place without any representation from the people whose lives will be affected.

Beyond the science and the politics, however, I found myself enthralled by Swift’s pellucid descriptions of everyday life. I felt as though I was on board the crabbing boat of Ooker Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and hard-working waterman, as he pulled up his catch and sorted it into pots of jimmies (males), sooks and sallies (females), and peelers (those about to shed their shell and become the coveted soft-shell crab). Late in the book, a sudden storm blows up and puts the lives of father-and-son crabbers in peril when they are caught in the squall far from shore. I could feel the sleet lashing my face and the desperation of the men as they fought to save themselves and their boat. And when word reaches land that they are in trouble, fishermen who had just fought through the same storm and thankfully reached the safety harbor don’t hesitate for an instant before turning around and heading back into the dangerous waters to try to save their friends.

I didn’t come away from A Chesapeake Requiem with any brilliant ideas about what should be done. Should millions of dollars be spent to save what’s left of the island and its few hundred residents? Would the money be better spent to re-locate the people of Tangier to the mainland? What do we as a society lose when we lose places like Tangier — what value do you place on that sort of community benefit when you are calculating what saving the island is worth? Swift doesn’t pretend to have the answers, either, but his moving and enlightening work helped me understand just what’s at stake on this small patch of land so far away from me.
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Pages

448

ISBN

0062661396 / 9780062661395
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