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Authors Discuss “Chesapeake Requiem” and the Sinking of Tangier Island

Chesapeake Requiem is a new book about the culturally rich and historically unique community of watermen on Tangier Island in the southern Chesapeake Bay and how sea-level rise may soon wash it all away. That would make Tangiermen some of America’s first climate change refugees.

The author, Earl Swift, produced a complex and beautifully written book by spending 14 months living among the watermen on the tiny, isolated crabbing town just south of the Maryland/Virginia state line. 

But it’s not just a book about Chesapeake culture.  It also raises profound and troubling questions about America: about climate change denialism from the crab shacks on Tangier Island to the White House; and what our country should do about the inundation of a growing number of waterfront communities caused by sea-level rise.

Earl Swift, a former reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, joined famed Chesapeake Bay author Tom Horton and myself in a panel discussion of the Chesapeake and climate change at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday.

Horton, author of Turning the Tide and several other books about the bay, spent three years living on Tangier Island’s neighbor to the north, Smith Island, to publish his book An Island out of Time in 1996.

At the event, Earl Swift described the lobbying campaign by Tangier Island’s mayor to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Virginia to pay for rock jetties and walls to slow down the rapid erosion of the island.

“You’ve got this tiny island, with 460 people on it, with a declining population, facing an existential dilemma,” Swift said.  “And the only solution to that existential dilemma is heroic government intervention to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, to build a lasting – and still stopgap – solution to its problem.  So the question isn’t: Can it be saved?  I mean, we’ve got the technology to save it, certainly.  The question is: When you have a tiny population like that, should it be saved? What are the criteria that we are going to use from here on out as we decide, as a country, what we save and what we surrender.  Because we’re going to face this time and time again. This is the canary in the coal mine.  Tangier is merely the first town that is going to succumb to what we now recognize to be climate change. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others scattered along the 88,000 miles of shoreline we have in this country.”

The irony is that the mayor of Tangier and many others on the island don’t believe in climate change. They believe their island is being lost to erosion and waves, not to rising sea levels (although these forces are, in fact, connected). Many Tangiermen are die-hard supporters of President Trump, who has falsely declared climate change to be a “hoax… invented by the Chinese.” The Trump Administration is actively working to dismantle programs for combating climate change and sea-level rise.

Horton noted that the islanders have traditionally put their faith not in government programs, but in  conservative, old school religion.

“There is a hymn they sing in the Methodist church on Smith Island – and I imagine they sing it on Tangier, too,” Horton said. “The refrain goes, ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.’ And that pretty much sums up – when you get right down to it – what they think. Christ is going to decide this, one way or the other, whether he wants them to leave or not. Now, that doesn’t stop them from applying for a little money for rock, just in case that helps. But they really do think that way.”

Faith has kept the people of Tangier Island afloat for centuries. But whether prayer – or even man-made seawalls -- will now work in the face of the rising seas is something we may discover in the next storm.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.