Tiny U.S. Island is Drowning. Residents Deny the Reason

Water will one day swamp historic Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay. But its inhabitants argue that it's erosion, not climate change.

As Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, sinks and the surrounding water rises, its marshland is drowning, steadily giving way to open water.

Crabbing and oystering are the main occupations for watermen on Tangier. In the new book Chesapeake Requiem, author Earl Swift describes the anxiety the islanders feel as their home gets smaller and smaller.

The grave of Margaret A. Pruitt, who died in 1901, lies at the water's edge at Tangier's northern tip, once home to a settlement called Canaan that has long since washed away.

Tangier Island has lost 8 acres a year to rising sea levels since 1850.

Tap images for captions

Few of us could find Tangier Island on a map. A tiny sliver of mud and marsh grass in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, it is one of the most isolated communities in America. But many of us, if we are lucky, will have tasted its most famous product, soft shell crab, a delicacy that has made the island famous worldwide. But as Earl Swift explains in his new book, Chesapeake Requiem, the future for the island, and numerous other low-lying communities across the world, is not looking bright, as a result of rising seas due to climate change.

When National Geographic caught up with the author at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia, he explained how religion is a source of succor for the islanders, why, though their island is disappearing under their noses, they voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and how they then found themselves in the vortex of a media storm.

You say Tangier Island is “a community unlike any in America.” Put it on the map for us; explain what is so special about it.

Tangier Island is a squiggle of mud and marsh in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, which is about 30 miles wide at that point, and a dozen miles from the nearest mainland port, Crisfield, Maryland. It is home to roughly 460 people, all of them descended from the first settler on the island, a guy named Joseph Crocket, who moved there in 1778. Though it’s only 100 miles from Washington, D.C., it’s among the most isolated communities in the East. The island’s isolation has spawned a style of speech that you’ll not hear anywhere else in America.

For 240 years the islanders have earned their sustenance from the waters surrounding the island, which are rich in fish, crab, and oysters. They’ve especially made a name for themselves in harvesting the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, which is the chief ingredient for Maryland-style crab cakes. They are also the world’s primary source for soft shell crab, a delicacy that many restaurants on the Eastern seaboard serve.

Rising sea levels may make the island uninhabitable in 50 years. Yet the islanders think global warming is a hoax. How do they square those two things?

I don’t think the islanders find the rising water around them to be a hoax. They can see it happening with their own eyes. But they believe that simple erosion, caused by wind-driven waves, has been the cause of the island’s shrinkage, which has lost an average of 8 acres per year since 1850.

Clearly, if you take a step back and look at what’s happened here, wind-driven erosion does not explain what’s occurring. Not only do you have water chipping away at Tangiers’ edges, you also have it percolating up through the ground. This is an amphibious place to live. The slightest storm brings water up out of the marsh and the roads, and an astronomical high tide will make ponds of everyone’s yards. A lot of what’s happening—the ponding, the drowning of marsh, the widening of internal waterways—are standard by-products of climate change-induced sea level rise.

What If Your Home Was Slipping Into the Ocean?

You first went to the island to report a story about Y2K. What kept pulling you back? And how did the locals react to you?

This is a very media-savvy town. The New York Times has been writing about Tangier since the 1890s, and journalists have been going there since at least 1914. They are friendly but over the course of many dealings with journalists they have developed a certain shtick.

I was assigned to spend Y2K there. During that assignment, I got to speaking with the Tangier men about their hopes for the coming year. Again and again I heard them express existential dread about the water and their relationship to it, how their island was disappearing before their eyes. I resolved to go back in the spring of 2000 and spend six weeks there with a photographer, and got to know the people to a much more intimate degree. I began to see the place as a community apart, an outpost more than a town, clinging to this little slab of mud, surrounded by often-tempestuous water.

Tangier Island relies on exporting soft shell crabs. Talk us through the economics and seasonal rhythms of the industry, and introduce us to one of the main characters in your book, James Wyatt Eskridge, aka Ooker.

Tangier lives a calendar defined by sea life. From March until November, the men fish up crab. From December through the end of February, they go after oysters. The crabbing fleet is divided into two. Some Tangier men fish up hard-shell crabs, which are the kind you see at backyard crab boils, and whose meat winds up in crab cakes. A perhaps greater number chase soft shell crabs, or “peelers,” which are hard crabs about to molt.

A crab will offer several physical signals that it’s approaching that molting time, so a peeler crabber will pull up his pots, look for those signs and, having identified a crab as a peeler, put it in a saltwater tank, wait until it molts, then pluck it out of the water, put it on ice, and send it to market. As long as you pull it out of the water, its new shell, which is as soft and pliable as skin for the first several hours, will not harden.

You have to work really hard at both kinds of crabbing in different ways. A hard crabber has to catch a mess of crabs to make a living, because he’s paid by the bushel. At the height of the season, he might make $100 per bushel. Meanwhile, a soft-shell crabber—a peeler crabber—will sell by the dozen, so he makes a lot more money per crab, but catches far fewer crabs. He also has to work around the clock to fish them up because you can’t let them sit in the water after they’ve shed; their new shell will harden and then they’ll be worthless.

Ooker Eskridge is a ninth-generation native of the island, married to his high school sweetheart, who he has known literally all of his life. He’s a peeler crabber in the summer and does oysters in the winter with another Tangier man. He began emerging as the island’s mouthpiece back in the mid-nineties, became mayor about 10 years ago, and has now become the face of Tangier. He’s a ruggedly handsome guy with a Magnum PI moustache, blue eyes and a very strong Tangier accent. He’s thoroughly likeable and very worried. He looks around Tangier and the places he played as a child, just 40 years ago, are 200 yards out to sea!

Tangier Islanders are staunchly religious. Tell us about the role of faith in the community, and why Warner Bros was barred from filming “Message In A Bottle,” starring Paul Newman and Kevin Costner, on the island.

[Laughs] It’s a deeply religious place, peopled by old-school Methodists, more akin to the old Shouting Methodists of pre-Civil War U.S. And sometimes faith is all a Tangier man has. When you’re out in a shallow crab boat in five-foot seas and the deck is pitching like a bad carnival ride, faith is a natural thing to turn to because at times like those you only have so much control of your circumstances. Tangier men—and that term refers to both men and women, by the way—find themselves in those circumstances routinely.

Weather factors into everything they do, whether it’s going out to harvest crab or oysters, or just getting to the mainland to do some grocery shopping or go to the doctor. As their reliance on the water increased through their history, so did their reliance on the scripture and they became strident in their religious beliefs.

Warner Bros. was looking for a location for some of the outdoor scenes in the movie “Message in A Bottle.” They sent location scouts up and down the East Coast and some came to Tangier and found it was ideal. So they approached the town council and gave them copies of the script, which featured scenes of beer drinking and PG13 sex. The town council responded by insisting that, if the movie was going to film in Tangier, those scenes had to be altered to make them palatable to the religious people of Tangier. Warner Brothers said, “Thanks, but we’ll look elsewhere.” And they did.

The island came out strongly in favor of Trump in 2016. I’m scratching my head to understand what these god-fearing islanders see in a flashy billionaire who has boasted about groping women. Put me straight, and describe the media storm that followed.

I’m not sure that I can explain it, Simon. It’s certainly not restricted to Tangier. People of religious communities all over the U.S. went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. In Tangier’s case, there was some political pragmatism built into the vote. They saw him as somebody who could hurry up the federal government’s response to their existential problem. They bought into the notion that he was a wildly successful businessman who had always been able to get things done, and that trumped, so to speak, any reservations they might have had. And they remain staunchly pro-Trump today.

Of course, the notion that a town threatened by climate change—the canary in the coalmine, so to speak—had backed a candidate who had proclaimed climate change a hoax attracted a steady stream of reporters, both foreign and domestic. Then, in June 2017, CNN showed up, led by meteorologist Jennifer Gray, who interviewed Ooker and several other townspeople at their afternoon coffee klatch. During their interview Ooker declared that he “loved Trump as much as any family member I’ve got.” And that is what set off the media storm. Three days after that comment aired, Trump called Ooker and assured him that he had nothing to worry about, that Tangier Island had been there for hundreds of years and, as he put it, “I believe it’s gonna be there for hundreds more.”

For the islanders the public response to both the CNN story and Trump’s call was, and still is, a shock. People were saying things like, “Let ‘em drown!” and “Hey, if they voted for that idiot, to hell with them!” No matter how you come down in the political spectrum, what happened was sickening.

What do you think the future holds for communities like Tangier Island? And what did your time on the island teach you?

What communities like Tangier represent is the earliest chapter in what is going to be a very painful story, not only in the American experience, but the experience of governance and civilization around the world. Places like Tangier force us to confront a problem that’s going to grow exponentially in the next few years: how to decide what is saved and what is surrendered to the sea because we lack the time, money, and technical means to save every place.

There are big cities, like New York or Miami, which clearly are efficient uses of our money and efforts to save. But places like Tangier abound, small places that are sacred ground in one way or another due to their history and the spice that they bring to the national dish. And there are similar places all over the world, like the Maldives.

As far as my experience is concerned, I came away filled with admiration. I’ve been a journalist for 40 years and I don’t recall a story in which I’ve been so deeply embedded in another culture as I was here. In many respects, it is a foreign culture to what I experience daily in Charlottesville. I don’t know that I would want to change places but I admire the people of Tangier Island and envy their connection to place. This is a place where the concept of “home” is alive and well, and far stronger than in the vast majority of places on the mainland. They feel a deep, personal connection to that little dome of mud.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com. 

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