Earl Swift, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. Dey Street Books, 2018. $28.99USD. Hardcover, 448 pages.
By Erin Becker
In Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Virginia based journalist Earl Swift employs ethnographic methods to investigate life on Tangier island in the context of current and historic events. Swift reckons with the popular romanticized view of the island- “here people live so isolated for so long that they have their own style of speech, a singsong brogue of old words and phrases, twisted vowels, odd rhythms. Its virtually amphibious men follow a calendar set by the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, and they catch more of the prized delicacy than anyone else. It is a near-theocracy of old school Christians who brook no trade in alcohol, and kept a major movie from filming in their midst over scenes of sex and beer. And last, not least, this is one big extended family: All but a few islanders can trace their lineage to a single man” (Swift 6). To construct his narrative, he traces out a roughly chronological account of life on Tangier Island during the 2016 crab and oyster season and the events which drew international attention during the 2016 US presidential election; his account is deeply interwoven with Chesapeake history, marine science and hydrology, politics, and conservation issues.
Swift’s account is organized into five parts. In part one, “And Every Island Fled Away” (Chapters 1-5), Swift traces out the basics of island life and Tangier Island’s swift disappearance. In chapters 1-2, he lays out the history of settlement on the island, the beginning of the ‘exodus’, the demographics, and the geography/ hydrology of the island; he introduces the reader to the “deprivations” of the island (no cell signal, unsafe tap water, no doctor or dentist, one ATM machine, and very few cars or trucks) and the basics of the crabbing season. In Chapters 3 and 4, he dives deeper into the historical narrative of Tangier and looks at two competing histories of Tangier Island (one by Sugar Tom and one by Joseph Crockett) to discusses the population and growth of Methodism. In chapter five, he pairs a discussion of crab reproduction with an overview of marriage and weddings on Tangier. Part Two (Chapters 6-12), “The Lord Tells the Water”, focuses on Methodism and the dominance of faith in every aspect of life on Tangier. Swift argues, “in most respects Tangier behaved as a full-on theocracy. No municipal decision was made without the church’s assent. No new idea could take place without its backing” (Swift 195). Chapters 6-9 cover the oyster industry, the arrival of steamboats and supplies to the island, and the impact of the influx of imported crab meat. He offers a nuanced discussion of gender roles within Tangier society- as all the men are on the water, women dominate Tangier’s public institutions. He states “in just about every aspect of island life but two, working the water and running the churches, women are in charge” (Swift 156). Chapters 10 and 11 are dedicated to the danger of storms (wind, thunderstorm, waterspouts, hurricanes) and the historical danger of ice lock ups. In Chapter 12, Swift covers the paradox between preaching and practice in the Methodist church on Tangier. Part Three “Eyeing the End Times” (Chapters 13-17) covers the decline of island life. In Chapters 13-16, Swift covers the first attempts to measure land loss (1964), the demographic losses as young people move off island and newcomers cease, decline in the churches, the dramatic sea level rise, and the Poplar Island controversy. Chapter 17 covers meetings about the attempt to preserve the island’s habitat- not settlements, as the habitat is more valuable. Part 4, “A People Anointed” (Chapters 18-20), cover signs of trouble within church members (drugs, alcoholism, domestic violence, theft), the Watermen’s Stewardship Covenant, and the pro-trump fervor leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election. Part 5, “The Sea is Come Up,” (Chapter 21-23), dives into current events. Chapter 21 is dedicated to the paradox of a mayor from a disappearing island who vocally called for support for a president who believers climate change is a hoax (Swift 339). Chapter 23 discusses the global fascination with Tangier and the failure of science communication in the infamous Anderson Cooper/ Al Gore interview.
Swift weaves a powerful and compelling tale. His sources and attention to detail strengthen his work. He first visited the island in 1999 as a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot; he was charged with researched how the island fared eleven years after opting out of the Virginia lottery. Swift employed participant observation and ethnographic methods as he worked to research for Chesapeake Requiem. Much of his story is based on first hand reporting over a period of nearly two years and the events which drew international attention in 2017. During this period, he arranged with an islander to rent the second floor of her house and spent the “six month peeler-crabbing season, and beyond, on Tangier- joining its watermen on their boats, absorbing its off and longstanding customs to discern what we’d lose with its demise, and plumping its collective anxiety over what the future holds” (Swift 22). To construct his narrative, Swift drew from personal and telephone interviews with key informants on the island (including James Ooker Eskridge, Carol and Lonnie Moore, Cindy Parks Moore, the regulars at the Situation Room, and the elders at New Testament church), historical texts, government and Census documents, academic works on biology and marine science, NASA studies on sea-level rise, historical and current maps, news stories, the US Lighthouse Society, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and academic publications on ancient sea level rise. His work treats his island informants with respect; he does not denigrate their opinions on politics or conservation, but allows the reader to understand their viewpoint. His work is significant as “the Tangier experience will inform what the rest of us on and near the coasts can expect in the decades to come” (Swift 35). In Chesapeake Requiem, Swift has woven an impressive, readable, and relevant tale.
Erin Becker is the Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, NY. Her research interests focus on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Her work in museums grapples with investing local peoples in their resources (historical, archaeological, and environmental) as stakeholders through outreach, education, and the development of new public programming. She has written for Gotham Center for New York City History, New York History Blog, Read More Science, and Global Maritime History. She can be found at @ErinE_Becker on Twitter.