With his seventh book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Earl Swift has hit the trifecta sought by all writers of nonfiction but achieved by very few. The book is the fruit of deep-dive, immersive research; it is deftly written, and it raises questions that affect every person on the planet. Does the human race have the will, or the intelligence, to address the irrefutable fact of climate change? If so, which places should be saved and which should be written off? Who should decide? Who will pay for it?
Swift’s research included living for more than a year on tiny Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most remote, insular, eccentric—and vexed—places in the United States. During his stay, Swift watched rising sea levels nibble away the island at an alarming rate. Without major governmental intervention—a costly and politically fraught prospect—the island will probably be gone in a few decades. Yet the deeply religious people of Tangier Island, who have lived off the bounty of the bay for centuries, are now staunch supporters of Donald Trump and stubborn skeptics about the science of climate change. They believe their island is succumbing to erosion.
Swift, to his credit, doesn’t judge the 460 citizens of Tangier Island or take sides in the hot arguments over how to address climate change. His book manages to be both dispassionate and full of passion, a soulful portrait of a complicated, endangered slice of America.
Full disclosure: Swift and I worked as reporters at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in the 1980s, and I’ve followed his career with growing admiration ever since. He spoke by telephone from his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
The Millions: You lived on Tangier Island for, what, a year or so?
Earl Swift: Fourteen months.
TM: So you were embedded, I guess you could say.
ES: Yeah, exactly.
TM: I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Eastern Shore, and I know just how insular things are there. Tangier Island is the most insular of the insular. People have lived there for generations, everybody knows everybody, everybody’s related to everybody. Did you find a lot of resistance to you as an outsider when you first got there?
ES: This is a pretty media-savvy place. There’s been a steady stream of reporters visiting since the 1890s, and the people are accustomed to them visiting for a day or two and writing kind of the same story over and over again. So it took about a month and a half for me to figure out who my main characters were going to be and for them to figure out that I was not a tourist, that I was actually going to stick around and I was going to do something different. Once they made that turn, they were fully on board.
TM: What was your approach—were you sort of a fly on the wall, like Gay Talese? Were you invisible? Were you participating? I know you went out on the crab boats, but how would you describe your reporting?
ES: I would say it was fly on the wall, but if there was a conversation in the Situation Room (a popular meeting spot), I’d ask questions, and that’s reflected in the book. I wasn’t utterly silent and off to the side and refusing to participate. I lived in Tangier and lived as close to the Tangier lifestyle as I could, tried to insinuate myself into daily life. So I went to church a lot, I went to the Situation Room every weekday and shot the breeze with the old-timers, I went out crabbing and oystering as often as time would permit. I rode my bike around the island talking to people—and that was maybe the most important thing I did, because communication on Tangier is face to face. It’s a place where everybody gets around by golf cart or scooter or by walking, and so a lot of the communication that you participate in is in the form of conversations you have serendipitously when you’re on the road. It’s a society that lends itself to stopping go chat.
TM: And people opened up to you?
ES: Yeah, again it took that month and a half for them to be convinced that this wasn’t the same old same old. Once they became convinced of that, they treated me as a Tangierman. And that was pretty wonderful.
TM: You make a point that I find interesting, that Tangier Island is in effect a factory town, where disciplined people get up at three in the morning, they punch a clock, they produce a product that sells in the market. There’s a great deal of drudgery and physical danger involved, and I got the feeling you developed a lot of respect for the work these people do.
ES: Oh, absolutely. It’s a cross between a factory town and a farm town—maybe farming is just factory work when you get down to it. There’s physical prowess involved in what they do, and no shortage of courage is necessary as well. These guys are going out on big water in little boats, and the weather is not something that can stand in their way, or they don’t eat.
TM: You mentioned going to church a lot. Two things in the book surprised me. One was the deeply religious nature of the people, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me. They’re at the mercy of this tempestuous body of water, so it’s a natural that they would be religious. The other thing is their love for Donald Trump, which led to another surprise—the reaction of outsiders when CNN interviewed the mayor and several Tangier people and it came out that they love Trump and they’re climate-change deniers and they support Trump policies that contribute to climate change, and on and on. One typical reaction was, “They should learn to swim.”
ES: Hateful. Nothing short of hateful.
TM: Did that surprise you?
ES: It shocked me. And I think it shocked them. My politics differ from those of my neighbors on Tangier, but I was surprised by the ferocity, by the petty meanness of the comments. Considering that they were coming from folks who like to think of themselves as the enlightened side of the political divide, it was disappointing as hell.
TM: As I read the book, I sensed three threads. There’s a lot of history of the Chesapeake Bay—even history of the Ice Age, for that matter, and then there’s a snapshot of daily life on a remote, insular place. And the third thread, the elephant in the room, is the challenge of climate change and what’s going to happen. I think the reason the book’s catching on is because it’s raising these questions. I’d like to read a little quote from the book. As sea levels rise and the land sinks, and here’s the quote: “little Tangier is likely to be the first to go. That experience—and the uncomfortable questions it forces the country to confront—will inform what the rest of us on and near the coasts can expect in the decades to come. What makes a community worth saving? What, in short, is important to us?” Have you or anybody else worked out answers to those questions?
ES: I certainly haven’t. We’ve got an issue here that’s going to affect not only everyone in the United States, but virtually everyone in the world in the next 50 years. And there seem to be very few people stressing about it. It’s time we started stressing. The question of how we go about deciding which communities we save and which ones we surrender—and how we decide how to decide, because that’s the truly ugly decision—it’s something we should have tackled years ago. We need to tackle it pretty soon, otherwise it could lead to a great unraveling.
TM: Do you see people asking these questions?
ES: Not at all. And that makes me pretty damn worried.
TM: What do you hope happens with Tangier? Do you think it’s savable?
ES: Sure, it’s savable—with the necessary political will and money. What makes this difficult is that you’ve got to be consistent when you develop a rubric. We don’t have the means to save every place. We’ve got hundreds if not of thousands of towns along the American coastline that are going to be threatened by climate change—not as soon as Tangier, possibly not to the same degree as Tangier, but it’s coming. So we’ve got to come up with a rubric to figure out what do we save, what do we surrender to the sea? We have to be consistent. If we save Tangier, that has to inform what we do in other places. Clearly, there are some places that have the population density that make them no-brainers, like Miami, New York, Norfolk. Then you’ve got other places that are key to who we are as Americans, that we consider sacred ground but don’t have that kind of population. Do we surrender them? Maybe so. Maybe head count is our sole criterion. If it is, it has to be applied uniformly, and we have to go into it knowing we’re going to kiss off a lot of places we hold dear.
TM: Do you put Tangier in the category of sacred ground?
ES: I put Tangier in a category of a place that’s so much an outlier in the American experience that it helps define the limits of what it means to be American. And therefore it’s of great value to us. It’s out there on the edge, the frontier, and because it’s so far out, America’s a more interesting place, more inclusive. It’s part of the spice of the national dish.
TM: There isn’t much time left for Tangier, is there?
ES: I’m guessing by 2038, 2040 it’s going to be a very difficult place to live—if nothing’s done.