Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island
by Earl Swift
Dey Street Books, 2018
Journalist Earl Swift spent two years researching his new book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, and the result is a protracted autopsy of a world that's still technically alive. His subject is very specific: the dying crab-fishing industry of Tangier Island, which sits in the middle of the mighty Chesapeake Bay.
The reason Tangier Island's crabbing industry is dying couldn't be simpler or more stark: it's because Tangier Island itself is dying. Thanks to a savage combination of subduction and sea-level rise, Tangier Island is rapidly disappearing beneath the water. The island itself was once part of a much larger chain of land, a booming string of fishing communities with thriving hotels, busy streets, crowded schools, working post offices, and hard-working families who'd spent over two centuries plying the waters of the bay. Quickly and steadily in the modern era, as Swift makes clear, all that has changed. “Settlers quit Sharps Island, not far to the south, which had stretched across 449 acres before the Civil War and was still big enough to merit a three- story hotel and a steamship pier in the 1890s,” he writes. “Sixty years later it was the size of a small bedroom. By 1963, it had vanished completely.”
Swift goes to Tangier Island and talks with its inhabitants, lives there, gets inside their lives and struggles of the place. As could probably be predicted from his extensive writing history, he's a first-rate observer, well able to portray pathos without sentimentality. He follows the people of Tangier Island through the various minutiae of their daily lives, bringing their humanity to life at every turn. And he fore-grounds his narrative with a succinct description of the torturous genesis of the blue crabs that form the basis of the areas entire economy:
Their travels take them up the bay until the late fall, when they burrow in the mud and sand on the bottom to wait out the coming cold. They neither molt nor eat during this hibernation; they spend it in a senseless torpor until the following spring, when they're on the move again, migrating into the lower-salinity waters of the middle and upper Chesapeake. There, they reach adulthood and pair off to mate. Afterward the jimmies, which prefer a less salty environment, stay put and continue to molt. The sooks hang around to build their strength before heading back down the bay to spawn – a journey that sees them burrow into the bottom to wait out the winter. When they emerge from the mud a few months later, they use the sperm they've carried since mating to fertilize their eggs and acquire a bright orange sponge.
Thanks to the island's position on the bay, “Tangier watermen thus have a shot at them both coming and going: They catch peelers and newly matured crabs as they move up the bay and lemons on their way down.”
It was the locational bedrock of Tangier Island's economy, but it's largely irrelevant if Tangier Island isn't there anymore. The blue crab industry in the Chesapeake will continue, but as Chesapeake Requiem makes eloquently, heartbreakingly clear, it will continue without Tangier Island.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website ishttp://www.stevedonoghue.com.