Once, this Virginia island was known mainly for its crab harvest and its people’s distinctive speech. These days, magazines and newspapers send reporters to Tangier because the island is predicted to be subsumed by the effects of global warming. You might get a "snapshot" of Tangier with a couple of days' reporting, but to know it truly, you’d have to follow the example of Earl Swift, whose book “Chesapeake Requiem” takes a long look at life on this beautiful, vanishing island in Chesapeake Bay.
Story by Mickie Meinhardt | Photographs by Gunner Hughes
Earl Swift and I are exiting the New Testament Church on Tangier Island, Virginia, at the end of a Sunday night service, one that was blazing enough to match the sunset over the bay all around us, when we run into Ooker Eskridge.
The mayor of the tiny island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay is getting on his golf cart, as most residents are (cars are not a particular necessity on an island that’s only a square mile and a half) when Earl hollers to him.
“Ooker! You heading out on the Sree Devi?”
“Hey, Oarl,” the tanned man says, his unusual Tangier twang quite pronounced on that first syllable. “Yeah, got to check the peelers.”
“Mind if we tag along?”
Ooker doesn’t, so Swift, the photographer accompanying us, and I pile into his cart, which he guns toward Tangier Harbor. Along the brief, two-minute ride, Swift waves at people walking home, who happily wave back. This is the author and journalist’s first time back on the island since departing in October 2017 at the end of his 15-month stay in research for his just-published fifth book, Chesapeake Requiem: a Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. Swift seems pleased as punch to be back among the Tangiermen and women whom he got to know so well.
This is no small feat. Historically, the little island has not been easy for outsiders, or “come-heres” in Tangier parlance, to acclimate to. That the sight of Swift is lighting up many a face — he was mobbed in the church earlier — makes him an anomaly; Tangier residents do not fully accept "come-heres" unless they’ve put in their time. (In Tangier’s small museum, a sign tells me you cannot be called a Tangierman until you’re a fourth-generation resident. First generation is a “come-here”; second is a “stay-here”; third is a “been-here”; fourth finally earns the label.)
Which is why, during his 14 months on the island, Swift made heroic efforts to avoid the negative categorization. He rented a room in a local’s home, an honor never afforded to strangers. (Within hours, he tells me, people were greeting him with, “Oh, you’re the one staying in Cindy Park’s house.”) He rode on watermen’s boats in seas both calm and stormy, Eskridge’s and others’. He befriended much of the community, attended a wedding and birthday parties, and, most importantly, all the church services, riding his bike furiously between the island's two churches for back-to-back sermons on Sundays. On an island whose rules and norms were defined long ago by devout Methodists, Swift's devotion separated him from the many other members of the media who have, of late, come to the island to cherry-pick the parts of its culture they wanted to “reveal” to the outside world. This immersion also allowed him to paint an accurate portrait of the place — something no other reporter has yet come close to.
And lately, many reporters have come — because the tiny island, one of the oldest settlements in America and a place of great history and culture, is slowly being reclaimed by the Chesapeake Bay. Erosion and rising water levels mean Tangier could disappear within a lifetime, probably less. And so the people of Tangier are being named as some of the first potential climate-change refugees in America — a hot-button topic, and a great headline for many a publication. But those reporters miss the humanity of the place; what it is and who its people are, not what they will stand for if (or probably when) they’re displaced. Earl Swift, however, missed nothing, literally writing the book that will serve as the true memory of Tangier long after the bay swallows it whole.
Once we’ve clamored aboard Eskridge’s deadrise, or low-slung wooden crabbing boat, he putters us out to his crab shack in the middle of Tangier Harbor. The rickety structure is essentially a wooden hut on stilts, and every waterman has one. Two uneven rows of them frame the harbor. Beyond, it’s nothing but bay in all directions.
It’s the first of July 2018, day two of a heat wave gripping the East Coast. Neither the temperature nor the humidity (nor Tangier) is new to any of us — Swift is also a Virginian, based in Norfolk where he spent 20 years as an editor and reporter for The Virginian-Pilot Newspaper; and both the photographer and I grew up across the bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But it’s still brutal, and Eskridge laments to Swift that the high temperatures are killing his soft crabs. Watermen like Eskridge store their peeler crabs — that is, those about to molt their shells and become delicious soft-shells — in tanks to await their transition, but Eskridge’s peelers can’t seem to stay alive.
“Still haven’t been able to figure it out yet?” asks Swift of the phenomenon, apparently an annual occurrence. Eskridge shakes his head.
“Every year, round this time, June ’n’ July. They die out,” he replies as he plunges a hand into his tank of busters and plops the soft, already molted crabs into cardboard pallets. He will sell them the next morning to distributors on the mainland who will take the in-demand delicacies up and down the East Coast, as far as New York’s Fulton Fish Market. Soft-shell blue crabs are the island’s main export and the lifeblood of Tangier’s forty-some watermen. If you’ve ever eaten one, almost certainly it came from Tangier. There is also a high probability Oooker Eskridge caught it.
Eskridge tosses the many dead crabs, which represent hundreds of dollars, behind him into the bay as the four cats that inhabit the shack watch mewling. The die-out is just one of the many hazards of working the water, another idiosyncrasy of the beautiful, strange life on the last inhabited Virginia island in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s this life, and its tenuous future, that Swift documented carefully for Chesapeake Requiem.
Until the recent rash of press, Tangier was unknown and nearly unimaginable to many people in America. Smack in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from Virginia’s coast, it’s the second to last of what were once dozens of inhabited islands throughout the Chesapeake, their names now synonymous with ghosts: Holland Island, Goose Island, Watts Island, James Island. (The other remaining inhabited one is nearby Smith Island, in Maryland’s waters.) Once bustling with over 1000 residents in 1900 and nearly triple its current land mass, Tangier has shrunk considerably in both population and size, with its 460-some residents confined to less than two square miles, and much of that is marsh.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the way of life. For generations, the world has known the island for the two things painted prominently on its water tower that lords over the island and the bay: A bright red crab, and a large black cross. Settled in 1778 by a single man and his family, populated profusely by his descendants to become a thriving waterman’s community and famed Methodist enclave, and now the source for the domestic soft-shell blue crab output of America, it earns the phrase “like no place on Earth.”
The shrinkage has drawn a rash of reportage over the past two years, tracing from a 2015 now-much-cited study in Scientific Reports portending Tangier’s demise by the year 2050 due to climate change. (That estimate was conservative, even in 2015; by now, it’s apparent the end will come much sooner.) That brought The New York Times, and then the local reporters, and then CNN. In June of 2017, a reporter from the network interviewed Eskridge about the island’s land loss. Eskridge, being the one Tangiermen who enjoys the spotlight, demanded on-camera that President Donald J. Trump build a seawall for the island instead of one at the border. This went viral — Tangier residents are overwhelmingly for Trump, with signs blanketing the island, a paradox that Swift doesn’t let go unexplored — and in response, the president later telephoned him to promise he would build the seawall. Like many White House promises, the wall has yet to materialize. The viral video brought more press, so much that when we visited, there was talk that a reality show had recently explored casting there.
People everywhere are suddenly paying attention to a place that has since World War II gotten precious little notice from the outside world, beyond day-tripper tourists who are in on the secret. But, like much of the post-election coverage of “Trump country,” a lot of the reportage on Tangier smarts of voyeurism: Media elite dropping in to a “different” place to report on the “unusual” lifestyle and people there. As we putter back across the harbor, Swift and Eskridge mention a piece in The New Yorker about the island that neither is happy with; they feel it just doesn’t do the place justice.
The unique — some might say backward or strange — way of life on Tangier make it a reporter’s dream. Among the things oft-mentioned: There is only one school, no pharmacy, one small grocery store, and only one restaurant open year-round. The island is dry. There’s only a mailboat and a family-run ferry to take you to the mainland, two times a day. Particular attention is paid to the Tangier accent, whose deeply rounded vowels are nearly unintelligible to some, and which some cite as a holdover from 18th century Cornish English. In reality, it’s more a mix of regional dialects made stranger by decades of isolation; Virginians and Marylanders, like myself, have no problem with it and hear familiarities in certain turns of phrase.
Eskridge is a primary vehicle for most of these pieces, the one person every reporter has access to. They talk about the Trump flag over his crab shack, and the twin symbols of a Star of David and a Jesus fish on his boat and tattooed on his arms (to show he’s conservative and religious); about the names of those crab-shack cats, Samuel Alito, Condoleezza Rice, John Roberts, and Ann Coulter (to show he’s really, really conservative); about how he got his name, Ooker (so unusual!). All wonderful details to pad a story, to give the semblance of knowing this person. But it’s all optics, and none of it serves to tell the real story of Eskridge and Tangier.
Swift gets it right because he lived here to capture it.
The sun has long set and the bare-bulb string lights come on at the crab shacks up and down the harbor by the time we motor back to shore. Eskridge laments he misses having his friend Swift on the water; Swift often went out with Ooker on his early-morning runs to hunt for peelers. They make a strange pairing. Swift is a career reporter, editor, and author, which makes him a person Tangiermen and women are not keen on; the press rank just behind Catholics on Tangier's list of distrusted individuals. And Eskridge is, well, Eskridge. But both are proud Virginians, and they are fond of one another; as they catch up and joke around, I feel like I’m witnessing a buddy comedy about a rough-and-tumble waterman and his glib, mainland counterpart. Eskridge asks me if he comes out all right in the book, and I tell him he does; the mayor is a main character and vibrant presence in Chesapeake Requiem, and you get the sense Swift would never do him — indeed, any of Tangier's men and women — wrong. We say goodbye at the dock, thanking him for the ride, and Swift promises he’ll come by the next afternoon to catch up properly.
Swift calls Chesapeake Requiem “a chronicle of the end times.” While climate change drew him to Tangier, his goal was not to report on its effects (or speculate on the future). Instead, he meant to document the island’s last days thoroughly.
To write about a place that is not your own, and to do so faithfully, requires a few things that seem in short supply these days: time, empathy, and suspension of personal prejudices or preconceptions. Time is money, and media is struggling; it’s much easier, and cheaper, to write 500 words based on a single experience than to pay a writer to spend months going back to a place over and over. Empathy is in decline as social media has us all in a bubble and inclined to read and agree with the same points of view over and over. Journalistic standards require neutrality, but in this day and age, few follow those standards to the letter.
Things get trickier in writing about the South, especially in remote places with ways of life that don’t conform to 2018-model American culture at large. Stigmas about the South still run deep, and there is a tendency for people to view it, as a whole, as racist, conservative, and/or backwater. Some of that is true in some instances, but all of it is not true all the time, or even a majority of the time. As Tracy Thompson wrote in this publication: “There’s a vast chasm between a typical white voter in, say, Baxter County, Arkansas, and his white counterpart in some in-town liberal enclave in Austin or Durham. Chances are that each will find the other culturally incomprehensible — and both of them will, in their own way, be culturally alien to the black voter in Coahoma County, Mississippi.” Which is to say: There is not one Southern viewpoint anymore.
Our nation's current polarization makes covering the South even more convoluted; the politics of a community's voters are often cited as defining characteristics in ways they might not have been before. As Thompson notes, people seem to discriminate more over politics than race these days; hence the rash of writing about “Trump voters” that has unfairly washed people in red-voting states with certain right-wing ideologies without considering that perhaps some of those people don’t feel that way, or the nuanced reasons why people who did, did. For example, it would be easy to call Tangier “Trump Country” thanks to the many MAGA signs there, so many it looks like the site of a recent rally. But that would use a very recent trait to label a very old place, reducing its nuances to the political affiliations of only some of its population as of two years ago. I could think of many other labels to give Tangier that would be far more applicable — "Soft-Shell Capital of The World,” or “The Last Virginia Island,” or “Eastern Shore Watermen Country.”
Earl Swift, however, is a writer who still does it the old way, the right way: comprehensively, and with generous understanding. A compact, genial man of 59, he has four decades of experience writing and reporting, mostly for newspapers but also magazines and books. As he tells it, he was “lucky enough to be a reporter and editor at the zenith of American newspapers, but left before it got too painful to be there.” He is a journalist's journalist, through and through. This is clear in his routine: He starts his mornings with a 4-5 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail near his Crozet, Virginia, home before settling in to write his laudable minimum of 1,200 words a day. And it’s evident in his record. For 21 years, he wrote and edited for the Norfolk daily, The Virginian-Pilot, eventually becoming a features writer, a job which would birth his first book, a history of the James River, and his career as an author. Chesapeake Requiem is his fifth book, and, like all his books (all nonfiction), it is a study in exhaustive reporting balanced out by endlessly engaging storytelling. The idea for Chesapeake Requiem came in 2015 when a heavy storm inundated the basement of Swift’s Norfolk home, and he wondered what might happen on Tangier, considering the island is two feet above sea level at its highest point. When the Scientific Reports story came out, he knew it was now or never — by May of 2016, he was living on the island full-time, immersing himself in everything Tangier to document the island’s way of life before it disappears for good.
The resulting weaves poetic stories both present and past, from the island’s beginning to its potential end, at once engaging, engrossing, funny, and heartbreaking. Though the book carries a staggering amount of research, the writing doesn’t bear that weight. Swift's sentences are smooth, concise, and clear, and you sail through the chapters thanks to brief scenes that offer stopping points. And his ability to set the atmosphere, to put you right into the life of Tangier, is unparalleled:
Mornings come early on Tangier. Hours before daybreak — in many houses, closer to midnight than dawn — bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen lights flick on, coffee is chugged, lunches are packed, and watermen straggle in the silent dark across the marsh and up the ridges to Meat Soup. In the harbor, outboards whine and diesels burble to life. The scent of four-cycle exhaust hangs over the docks. … By four on a springtime morning, the waters off Tangier are dotted with moving light — the sallow glow of boat cabins, the powerful beam the captains use to find their bouys, and blue-white LEDs illuminating open decks. They glide among the fixed green and red flashes of navigation beacons—a sight that evokes both lonesome-ness, for their being surrounded by so much blackness, and an odd reassurance, for their constancy in all but the most fearsome weather… The schedule is but one reason I’d make a lousy waterman. I’m rarely hungry for breakfast at three. At what seems a reasonable hour to rise, the workday is half spent, … By noon or soon after, we’re headed back to port. I spend the subsequent afternoons in a state akin to jet lag.
The book is a joy to read, at once funny, sincere, and informative; if single-topic microhistory nonfiction can be appealing for the masses, Chesapeake Requiem is that kind of book.
One reason the book succeeds is Swift’s careful documentation of the foundational role of religion on Tangier — the beautiful and almost bygone way its residents find joy, hope, and solace in it. Swift insists I attend a sermon to understand Tangier properly. I am happy to do it, and so, after a few hours walking and golf-carting around the island (and a gut-busting dinner of crab cakes, ham, corn pudding, potatoes, coleslaw, beets, dinner rolls, and sweet tea), I accompany Swift to New Testament, the non-denominational Christian church on the island, a splinter sect that broke from the traditional Methodist Church, Swain United, in the ’50s. Knowing the residents’ busybody tendencies from Swift's book — the island has a whisper-and-phone network that passes information and gossip faster than lightning — I knew the photographer and I would stick out like the water tower over the bay, and we do, immediately. Before the sermon, a few men come and shake our hands and bless us for being with them; tourists are common on the island, but not in its churches.
The night I attend, a man named Cook Cannon gives the sermon. Swift gleefully assures us it will be a good one. The service opens with a hymn, then a call for prayers. I’ve been expecting this: It’s one of the funnier parts of Chesapeake Requiem.
“Pray for Dawn,” a woman calls out. “She’s got open-heart surgery Tuesday.”
“Yup,” says Cannon. “Pray for Dawn.”
“Raymond,” a voice calls. (“Yup, Raymond, yup.”)
“Nicole and her baby. They got home today.”
“Remember Fern. She fell again and got a lump on her head.” (“Oh, yup, Fern.”)
“The Supreme Court nomination next week.”
Finally, after congregants have named half the town, the prayer requests cease. (“There are no secrets on Tangier,” Swift tells me later. “They’ll call you out for anything. UTIs are a big one.”) A father and daughter sing before Cook’s sermon, which, as promised, is rather fiery and runs over 30 minutes. Near the end, a point strikes me:
“Why do you think we’re on this Earth?” Cook asks after having just explained that the Earth is, in fact, pretty wicked most of the time. “Do you think we’re here to catch a sook and a jimmy and a peeler?” People laugh, but Cook is stoic. “No. We’re here to be the salt, and the light.” Many heads nod.
Raised Catholic, I feel a nostalgic stirring at their heartfelt expressions. Various members speak up about which parts of the service really moved them and why. A young couple holds hands through the entire hour. When so many terrible things are done in the name of religion these days, it’s touching to see devotion in such a pure form. Afterward, there’s a final song, and nearly every single member of the congregation comes to shake our hands, genuinely happy we were there. Then, everyone packs up to go home; the men need to rise in just a few hours to get out on the water, and it’s time for them to go to bed.
Despite Chesapeake Requiem’s foreboding subject, it is neither a heavy-handed screed about climate change nor a battle cry to save the island. In fact, Swift is vehement about his lack of motive on both those fronts.
“I did not write this book in order to save Tangier. I just wanted to be here and show the last days of it,” he says as we talk after our crab shack visit with Ooker. This late on a Sunday, most adults are in bed — the Tangier men have to be up at 3 or 4 a.m. to head out on the water. But every 10 minutes, a golf cart of teens zip by blaring music; there’s nothing else for them to do on a summer night but circle the island over and over. Swift watches them fondly.
“Of course, I am hoping the byproduct [of the book] is other people caring and waking up to the subject.”
As Swift details, those people could be the Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia government, or the federal government, all of which will soon have to decide what to do with refugees of climate change — spend the money to preserve their land, or spend less money and relocate them, sacrificing a unique spot in American history. Despite the mounting, visible evidence, most Tangiermen either don’t believe in climate change or don’t think it’s the cause of their land loss. Mother Nature is a well-respected force on Tangier, where the winds and waves claim boats, homes, and lives. Erosion has always happened, residents argue. It’s just worse now. Religious beliefs and a near uniform, conservative political climate might have something to do with that belief, too.
“It was hard to keep my mouth shut, but you get used to it,” Swift says.
Instead, Swift focuses on their stories. The book is a beautifully braided narrative of tales that take the reader through the island’s history and through the day-to-day life of present Tangiermen. Altogether, it is a vibrant portrait of the island’s entire life; the thread about the island’s erosion and its future is but one of many woven throughout. Stories of Eskridge; or Carol Moore, a friend of Swift’s who takes him on her skiff to a long-abandoned part of the island to search for relics; or Leon McMann, an endearingly crotchety 88-year-old crabber whose quips provide must of the book’s comedic moments. Some of the most vibrant scenes take place in The Situation Room, the birthing room of a defunct medical clinic where watermen, including Eskridge and McMann, meet daily for coffee and talk about the crabs that day, or whatever else is going on — often, meetings about what to do about the island’s future. The visual of old men sitting around in the late afternoon, chatting, is a staple of Southern life, and the scenes here are some of the funniest in the book; Swift does well to anchor the book with them.
Because Tangier is a closed community, most people are related or intermarried. The same names crop up often — Parks, Pruitt, Thomas, Crockett, Charnock. One afternoon in the Situation Room, they hear an ambulance outside, and the men begin speculating whom it might be for. Swift observes:
“Ooker strides into the room. ‘Milton fell on his dock,’ he says. That would be eighty-five-year-old Milton Parks, owner of the Parks Marina at the top of Meat Soup and father-in-law to Jerry Frank, first cousin to Leon, close cousin to Allen Ray and Richard.”
It’s not always easy to keep the names straight, but the overall effect is positive — like being at the bustling center of small-town life — and by the end of the book, you’re invested in this place and its people. During my visit, Swift brings me along on some house calls to visit his “allies on the island,” Carol Moore and a couple, Bruce and Peggy Gordon. Warmly, they invite our group into their living room. (“Hey there, Oarl!”) Sitting by as they catch up, I almost feel deja vu; it’s rare that you get to shake hands with and listen to people you’ve spent hours reading about.
Thanks to Swift’s book, I felt I’d not only been to Tangier but befriended its curmudgeonly residents, too.
Walking around Tangier on a hot summer day, it’s easy to see why people misunderstand the place: the graves in the front yards, the eerie quiet, the relative lack of visible people — the men off working with everyone else likely hiding in their air-conditioned homes. My first encounter with Tangier was in high school. I grew up only 74 miles away, and my high school played sports against Tangier. On game days, we were instructed not to make fun of the other team’s accents. (Upon telling Swift this, he notes that my high school must have been terrible as Tangier was very picky about who they played. We were, I admit.) But I took 28 years to visit, and most people I know from home never have. Though we from the surrounding states eat Tangier-caught crabs aplenty, there seems little desire to understand the place where they come from. Which is why Swift’s book is so vital. It brings understanding and, with that, compassion. There is a tragedy in the penultimate chapter, the death of a favorite character, and I found myself in tears, so close had the book brought me to everyone in it. In that, Chesapeake Requiem succeeds in achieving Swift's goal: It made at least this reader care very much.
One solution offered to Tangier is to relocate the residents to the mainland, as is being implemented for the residents of Isle de Jean Charles in the Louisiana Gulf. That idea is not well-supported by Tangier islanders. This has been their home for 12 generations. They and their descendants tamed this land, this little speck in the middle of all that wild water, and despite all odds raised a vibrant, wholly unique community on it. It’s not replicable anywhere else. Tangier isn’t Tangier unless it’s on Tangier.
Only a few chapters into Chesapeake Requiem, I knew I would make the long trek from New York to see it. You’ll be happy you did, I thought, after it’s gone. And I am. Tangier hums with history. It’s buried in its marshes, along with the bones of the people who coaxed a living from the mud; it is thick in the air, like the humidity. This place represents an archetypal American story: pioneers setting out into remote lands and making them their own, bending it to their wills but also being shaped by its wildness, surviving on faith that God’s good earth would provide for them. And provide it did, for generations. That a place like this will disappear without the quality of caring and understanding Swift gives it is a tragedy we will look back on with deep regret.
In 30 minutes, you can see every bit Tangier by golf cart, and that includes a few stops to take photos. Standing on one of the three bridges that span the Big Gut, the creek at the island’s center, I realize the scene has likely been the same for longer than I’ve been alive. Placid bay — “slick calm,” as the Tangiermen say — tranquil marsh, small white homes in the distance, the water tower. A little crab swims by in the green water: Callinectes sapidus, or “beautiful savory swimmer.” Perhaps, when he’s older, Ooker will fish him out of the bay and sell him to the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant only hours after he sheds his shell. There, he will be served as a soft-shell sandwich, like the one I had for lunch, the freshest I’ve ever tasted.
Unlike many places one reads about, Tangier is not a cost-prohibitive to visit. Remote, yes, but not impossible to get to. Perhaps other readers of Chesapeake Requiem will be inspired to do the same; perhaps some of those people could help save it after all. But even if not, the book will have succeeded where other pieces about Tangier have failed — by lovingly recording the island’s names and faces and stories for history to remember, long after the bay has finally claimed it.