Chesapeake Requiem

Posted on 11/26/2019 in misc

Chesapeake Requiem book cover

Chesapeake Requiem is a portrait of the insular community that has lived on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay for 200+ years. If you live in the eastern third of the US and have ever enjoyed a soft-shell crab you can thank the Watermen of Tangier for that crab.

Written by long time environmental journalist Earl Swift, he embedded himself on the island for almost a year. He got up at 3 AM to go out on the crab boats, attended church, and shot-the-shit daily with the guys (and it was always just guys) in an effort to document the culture here that is an endangered species due to both climate change and other factors, and to pose the question of whether or not Tangier Island should be saved. The people there are literally going to be the first climate refugees of the US. The island has been sinking into the Chesapeake for hundreds of years, former settlements on the island are now under water, hundreds of yards offshore. Rising seas are accelerating that process.

You’d think people whose very way of life is threatened to this extreme by climate change would be a little more open to the science that says climate change is happening. Instead they voted for Trump by an 86% margin. The island is highly religious, practicing a particularly old school form of Methodism that eschews all alcohol (it’s a dry island) and any science that suggests life evolved from a common ancestor.

I bring up evolution because what I got from the book is that their resistance to evolving on Tangier is going to result in the elimination of their culture. Several times throughout the book the Waterman that harvest the tasty, tasty crabs express confusion about changes in crab behavior, migration patterns, etc. There is no evidence that any of them did so much as a Google search to look for answers. They just write it off to God’s will and keep doing the same old thing over and over again. I was taught that God helps those who help themselves, and the people of Tangier don’t seem willing to do more than pray that somebody else will make their problems go away. They are all in on divine intervention or Trump. I’d go all in that they are going to end up disappointed.

Clinging stubbornly to how things have always been done, holding on to completely illogical beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong, and voting against their own best interests are obviously not unique traits to the population of Tangier. They are uniquely human traits, but the consequences are a little more dire here. The people of Tangier want what they believe is best for their kids, they want to make enough to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads, and they want their loved ones to come home safely from work everyday. They aren’t that different than the rest of us. And I’m not going to pretend I’d survive one day in the labor intensive, somewhat dangerous work they do.

In the end, climate change is probably just going to accelerate something that was already happening. The population has been declining for decades as kids graduate from high school and hightail it to the mainland for a more mainstream life experience. The average age of the guys harvesting the blue crabs from the Chesapeake is pretty damn close to the normal retirement age. There is no evidence they’ve ever had a plan to deal with that either.

It’s a fascinating and well written book. Swift is a professional journalist, so we get the benefit of his years of experience. He bounces back and forth between the history of Tangier, going back to its “discovery” by John Smith and the current day to day lives of the people that live there.

To answer the question about whether or nor Tangier should be saved… I question if can be saved. The locals think they need a jetty to protect from the erosion that has been eating their island away for hundreds of years. The jetty, if it’s ever constructed, may end up being all that is left of island in 30-50 years.

Pictures of our visit to Tangier in 2011.

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