A day after the storm passed, Carol Pruitt Moore climbed into her skiff and set off for the ruins of Canaan. It was her habit to strike west from the harbor, into the channel that split her island in two. She’d throw open the throttle and crouch forward as the boat’s nose came up and its stern dug deep, her six-foot frame rocking against swells that thudded the fiberglass hull. One hand on the tiller, ball cap pulled low to cheat the wind, she would speed past the county dock and 20-odd workboats parked off to port and, to starboard, a ragged line of crab shanties—weather-scoured sheds perched on stilts a few feet over the drink, surrounding decks stacked high with wire-mesh crab pots. A watery little business district, home to the greatest fishery of its kind in the world.
Out past the last of the shanties, the channel opened into the Chesapeake Bay, and most every day she threw the boat into a banking turn to the north. This time of year, she was running afoul of the prevailing winds, and if they were blowing against the tide, the journey would not be smooth. But like most of her neighbors, Carol Moore had been born into a seafaring family: She was the eighth generation of her kin born on Tangier Island, 16 open-water miles from the nearest mainland town in Virginia. She could handle a boat before she could read.
On a typical afternoon she’d hug the edge of a treeless, uninhabited marsh that islanders call Uppards, until a mile along she reached Tangier’s northern tip, where a century ago a community called Canaan had thrived. It had long since washed away, but she found sanctuary on the deserted beach there, an escape from the close quarters of town. Here she’d find tiny bottles once filled with patent medicines, offered by visiting drummers to island women a hundred years ago—Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, a 19th-century tonic for cancer, quinsy and “bites of dog”; Greene’s Infallible Liniment, a cure-all “For Man or Beast”; and Turlington’s Balsam of Life, said to cure kidney stones and “inward weakness.” She found 18th-century clay pipes and headless porcelain dolls. She collected bits of crockery, edges tumbled smooth by the surf. Each relic she plucked from the sand was a tangible link to her forebears, for her father’s people had lived at Canaan for generations, back when it had its own school and a general store and 30-odd houses, and had stayed until the last holdouts quit the place.
This visit promised to be different. For the previous three days, Tangier had been swamped by Hurricane Sandy. White-capped waves had rolled in from the east, breaking over streets and into homes, and water had surged through the channel, sweeping away anything not anchored firm.
It was a sunny Halloween afternoon, cloudless, the sky a deep and flawless blue, the water flat—“slick calm,” as the watermen say, which leaves Tangier lips as slick cam. But as she rounded the island’s northern tip, she saw that the gale had not spared what was left of Canaan. The shoreline had been broken into pieces, cleaved by three new channels. Much of the sand that she’d walked for years had been ripped away. She motored along the water’s edge until she found a place to land the boat, and as she scrambled out she noticed something a foot or two offshore: a stained brown sphere half submerged in six inches of water, rocking gently with the push and pull of the waves. As she stepped nearer she saw there were two of them. After a moment’s hesitation she bent down for one and came up with a human skull.
Carol Moore looked around her and saw that she stood among a half dozen graves arranged in a haphazard cluster at the water’s edge. A few yards away lay white marble headstones she remembered seeing as a youngster. In the 40 years since, the bay had chipped away at the shoreline and had little by little stolen the ground under Canaan, until a quarter mile of island was gone.
The island of Tangier is a community unlike any in America. Here live people so isolated for so long that they have their own style of speech, a singsong brogue of old words and phrases, twisted vowels, and odd rhythms that to an untrained ear can be as indecipherable as Tagalog or Navajo. 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 once kept a major movie from filming in their midst over scenes of sex and beer. And not least, this is one big extended family: All but a few islanders can trace their lineage to a single man.
For 240 years they’ve occupied a speck of mud and marsh that nowhere reaches more than five feet above the tide, seldom tops three, and most often fails to clear one. Now it is washing ever faster into a bay on the rise. What’s more, the island is slumping, actually subsiding into the earth’s surface. Full moons pull water not only over its edges, but straight up through the ground, turning yards into ponds. In fact, the lower Chesapeake’s relative sea-level rise—the one-two punch of water coming up and land going down—is among the highest on earth, and of all the towns and cities situated on the estuary, none are as vulnerable, none as captive to the effects of climate change, as Tangier.
At about 200 miles long, north to south, the Chesapeake Bay is America’s largest estuary, a mixing bowl for the tidal waters of the Atlantic and the fresh water flowing from the Mid-Atlantic’s big rivers. Where Maryland and Virginia meet, the bay widens to roughly 30 miles across, and it’s here, dead center at the Chesapeake’s broadest point, at the mercy of nature’s wildest whims, that you’ll find Tangier.
To look at it on a map, it seems an unlikely settlement to have lasted so long. Tangier proper is only a little higher and drier than Uppards, tidal wetlands accounting for something like 70 percent of the island’s area. Solid ground is limited to three slender, parallel ribs of sandy loam that rise above the marsh—“ridges,” in islandspeak, though so low in elevation that if it weren’t for the buildings and the odd tree rising from their surface, you’d be hard-pressed to discern them from the surrounding wet. They amount to islands within an island. To put their relative size in landlubbing terms: All of Tangier, including Uppards and a few outlying, marshy islets, is a bit smaller than New York’s Central Park. The ridges, lumped together, would fit inside the reservoir at the park’s center, with plenty of room to spare.
Little surprise that since its settlement, Tangier has felt more outpost than town, a place and people removed from the rest of their country. Come a hard January, the surrounding waters can freeze up so thick and tight that the military has to fly in food and heating oil. Rough weather at any time of the year can maroon the isle as well. Great expanses of open bay stretch to its south, southwest and northwest—long “fetch,” in maritime parlance, which means there’s plenty of room for winds from those directions to build waves.
Even on calm days, reaching the place poses challenges that few other towns in America can equal. You can fly in aboard a small plane, if you have the wherewithal; an asphalt airstrip runs down the island’s western edge. Otherwise, the only year- round, reliable passage is the daily mailboat run from Crisfield, Maryland, 12 miles to the island’s northeast. (During summer months, ferries for daytrippers run from Onancock, Virginia, on the Eastern Shore, and Reedville, to the west.)
Well past the middle of the last century, Tangier had more in common with the hollers of far Appalachia than with its neighbors on the Virginia mainland. Families were large, incomes meager, and the conditions rustic: Islanders cooked and washed with water fetched by the pail from a handful of community wells. Food on the table was, likely as not, caught or shot by a member of the household. Visits to the Eastern Shore were special events, and as radio and television were slow to make landing, trends sweeping the country often passed unnoticed. The motorcar remade America’s cities decades before Tangier got its first.
These days, though modernized in countless ways, the island continues to get by without many seeming essentials of contemporary life. Cell phone signals die halfway through the boat ride over. The tap water is unfit to drink. No doctor or dentist is in residence, and the nearest emergency room is 30 minutes away by helicopter— assuming, that is, the weather’s fair enough to fly. Eight months of the year, a visitor can’t buy much with the cash the lone ATM spits out: a meal at the one year-round restaurant, perhaps, or a room at the one year-round inn, or chips and a soda from the single small grocery.
Cars and trucks remain so few in number that they’re easy to list: an ambulance, a fire engine, and a subcompact police car, a few pickups used for hauling freight, three or four careworn sedans, a couple of thrashed station wagons, a Jeep, a Mini Cooper and a Smart car. Most everyone gets around by bicycle, scooter, ATV, and golf cart, meaning there’s no demand for a traffic light—and not much attention paid to the few stop signs. Rare is a ticket from the lone cop.
Years ago, Carol Moore will tell you, island boys trapped a couple of squirrels on the mainland and released them in Tangier’s meager woods; one soon vanished, but the other survived for years. “So,” Carol says, “when people here told you, ‘I saw the squirrel today,’ they meant they saw the squirrel. People were obsessed with that squirrel.”
All of which explains why first impressions of Tangier tend to fasten on what the place lacks, rather than its one great asset—the geographic advantage defining its very existence. For all of its deprivations, Tangier could not be better situated to harvest Callinectes sapidus.
Even if they’ve never heard of the island, millions have savored its catch. No other food is so instantly identified with Maryland and the Virginia tidewater as the blue crab. Bought by the dozen, steamed and sprinkled with Old Bay, it has been central to backyard crab pickings for generations. Its sweet, tender meat spawned the region’s famed crab cakes, which have inspired imitations around the world. And in its most adventurous form—as a newly molted softshell, eaten legs and all—it is perhaps at its best. Deep-fried or sautéed, as entrée or sandwich (always on white bread, and minus any garnish but a little cocktail or tartar sauce), the softshell’s juicy, flavorful meat and pleasing texture—firm, with a pleasant snap to the skin, not unlike a good hot dog—belie its admittedly challenging appearance. In the big cities of the East, a significant share of the softshells you find on your plate have been supplied by the small but single-minded brotherhood of watermen on Tangier. Their shedding tanks full of molting peelers caught in the bay produce more soft-shell crab than any other single source on the Chesapeake.
Mornings come early for the island’s crabbers. Hours before daybreak—in many houses, closer to midnight than dawn—bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen lights flick on, coffee is chugged, lunches are packed, and watermen straggle in the silent dark across the marsh. In the harbor, outboards whine and diesels burble to life. The scent of four-cycle exhaust hangs over the docks. Under long strings of bare bulbs, watermen exchange shouted hellos as they buster up, or sort, their molting crabs. While much of the town sleeps, the island’s 72 crabbers take to their boats and head west to the bay, or east to the sound, and their pots.
Among them is Ooker Eskridge, who spends every summer crabbing for peelers, the late autumn catching eels for the Italian Christmas market, and the winter dredging for hard crabs and oysters—which is to say, he spends a lot of time in boats, mostly alone. A tall, lean, ruggedly handsome fellow with a limber vocabulary and a fondness for conversation, Ooker was born on Tangier—his people have lived here since 1778—and it’s the only home he’s known in his 59 years. On a late May morning, he’s speeding across the bay toward his crab pots in a 20-foot Privateer, heading for a bright blue Styrofoam buoy bobbing in the water. He cuts the outboard to idle and leans over the side to snag the marker with a boat hook, then pulls in the line until the crab pot breaks the surface. Why it’s called a pot is anyone’s guess—it’s more a wire-mesh cage—but by any name, it works: A half-dozen crabs crouch inside. He springs open the pot’s top, shakes the crabs out onto a wooden tray, refastens the top, and tosses the pot overboard. With a tap on the throttle we ease toward another buoy, 30 yards away. Only 200 or so more to go.
In the 15 seconds before the boat reaches the next float, he culls the catch, tossing an undersize crab overboard. The next pot comes up with light gray mud smeared across its bottom—clay, a signal that we’re right now over what was recently high ground. “Out crabbing you see these tree stumps well offshore, and a light goes on,” he tells me as he hauls up another pot. “I think about it sometimes—that I’m crabbing on ground that used to be shaded by large trees.” While he dumps crabs into the tray, I gaze over to the Tangier shore, now a quarter mile away, and try to imagine land in place of all that water.
Ooker and his kin catch just a fraction of the hundreds of millions of crabs that happen by the island each year, but even so, their haul is impressive. A hard crabber with a top-level license can expect to catch 3,384 crabs per day. Over a typical season, from mid- March to November, a single waterman catching his limit could theoretically haul aboard more than 660,000 crabs. For peeler potters like Ooker, who catch fewer crabs, the season is shorter, and they’re limited to a maximum of 210 pots, just a fraction of which will yield crabs approaching a molt.
In the next pot we find a northern puffer, a small, pop-eyed fish with spines covering its entire body and tiny fins that look to be afterthoughts. Ooker picks it up, flips it onto its back, and rubs its belly with the tip of a finger. The fish instantly swells into a sphere. “Ever seen a puffer fish bounce?” he asks. He flings it to the deck and it rebounds into his hand like a tennis ball. “I did that with a group of visitors one day,” he says, “and this lady says to me, ‘Should you be doing that to that fish? Aren’t you being hard on it?’
“I said, ‘Well, normally I’d be cutting its head off and pulling its meat out of its skin. Comparatively, it don’t mind this at all.’” He looks at me and chuckles. “I guess I was a little harsh.”
By the afternoon, he’s made about $280 on his hard catch and has a half bushel of peelers that he’ll sell by the dozen once they become softshells. Before setting out this morning, he sold two boxes, or 18 dozen soft crabs, to New York’s New Fulton Fish Market for $460. He put them on the mailboat, and by now they’re on a truck rolling up the coast. “All in all,” he says, “it’s been a pretty good day.”
He’ll take as many of those as he can get. The very water that has provided Tangier’s sustenance for more than two centuries now poses a real threat to its future, and Ooker Eskridge is more preoccupied with the dilemma than most. For the last eight years he’s served as Tangier’s mayor, and he currently presides over a smaller island than existed just months ago. He’s read the reports, discussed what they mean with government officials and scientists. All affirm what he has seen for himself—that, in the Tangier way of putting things, the place “is going away from here in a hurry.” But the island is far from convinced that scientists are right about what’s causing the trouble. Erosion had been stealing land in the Chesapeake decades before anyone talked about climate change, they’ll tell you.
“Our main concern is the erosion,” Ooker tells me. “Sea-level rise, that might be occurring, but it’s small-scale next to the erosion.”
Carol Moore shares his skepticism. “When glaciers melt, the sea probably rises, but that’s not what is going to take Tangier away,” she told me as we sat at her coffee table, which doubles as a display case for bottles, clay pipes, and arrowheads she’s found up at Canaan. “Tangier’s demise is going to be erosion.”
Hers might be more of a political distinction. “If the government officials insist that it’s sea-level rise, what can you do about sea-level rise?” she asked. “Nothing. Not a thing. And if that’s what they see this being, then they won’t want to spend any money to try to stop it. If we don’t get help, we’re going to be history. The end.”
According to a 2015 Scientific Reports study by researchers associated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, modern Tangier has shrunk by two-thirds since 1850, from 2,163 acres to 789. And according to their projections, all of Tangier could be underwater by 2060—meaning it will likely be uninhabitable much sooner than that. The loss could potentially be slowed by constructing stone breakwaters and sand dunes, and by blowing sand dredged from the bay’s bottom onto former uplands and planting the new ground with pine trees. Such a project would cost roughly $20 to $30 million—or somewhere between $41,000 and $62,000 for every man, woman and child on the island.
The mayor knows that by any conventional measure, his island is hardly the most important place in America imperiled by rising seas. It’s statistically insignificant next to big coastal cities where millions of lives and properties are at stake—most imminently New York, New Orleans and Miami. But little Tangier is important in one respect. “If no action is taken,” read the Scientific Reports study, “the citizens of Tangier may become among the first climate change refugees in the continental USA.” That experience—and the uncomfortable questions it forces the country to confront—will inform what the rest of us on and near the coasts can expect in the decades to come. What makes a community worth saving?
The mayor’s constituency has withered even faster than his island. Since 2000 the population of Tangier has dropped from 604 to 460, or by nearly a quarter, in 18 years. It has aged, too: Young islanders now tend to strike for the mainland after high school. The one schoolhouse serving all the island’s children, kindergarten through 12th grade—the only combined school left in Virginia—had 100 students in 2000; enrollment has dropped by a third since and is projected to dwindle to 53 by 2020. Incidentally, the class of 2020 already has its valedictorian and prom king: Matthew Parks is its sole member.
On a clear, breezy afternoon at Uppards, I’m combing the clay shoreline with Carol Moore and struggling to picture the Canaan of years gone by. Crabs scuttle over the vegetable gardens that once nourished the place, over the foundations of its homes and whatever remains of the school that doubled as its Methodist meetinghouse. But what the bay has stolen, it returns in pieces: Stranded by the last high tide are square handmade nails and rusted bits of machinery, shards of china rimmed in blues and pinks, and the roots of trees that once shaded Canaan’s buildings.
I collect a nail, the neck of an ancient ice-blue bottle, and a wave-worn knot of tree limb, stepping around headstones that every few weeks Carol has dragged clear of the advancing water. In loving memory of Polly J. Parks, who died in December 1913, age 37. Margaret A. Pruitt, born in 1836, gone in 1901.
I consider the stones for a long moment, wondering whether the people bearing those names ever imagined that the bay would one day claim all but these scant traces of their existence—that it would plunder their homes, their entire village, then come for what remained of them. Unlikely, I decide. The Pruitts and Parkses might scarcely have noticed the waves nipping at the land’s edges, carrying off a few grains one day, a few more the next. It wasn’t until they were gone that the cumulative effects of those tiny incursions became plain: that half an inch a day added up to more than a foot a month. That in a year, the water drew 15 feet closer, and eventually came a dawn when it pushed at the door.
From where I stand, I can see Tangier proper across the marshy expanse—the steep roofs of weather-boarded homes bunched along lanes not much wider than sidewalks; the spire of Swain Memorial United Methodist Church, for generations the island’s cultural and spiritual centerpiece; and, hovering above, a sky-blue water tower decorated with a giant orange crab.
Near the water’s edge I find a silvery metal bracket perhaps two inches long and shaped into a scroll, like the head of a violin. I have no clue what it might be. Carol is scanning the shore about 50 yards away, and I carry my find to her. She identifies it with the briefest of glances: “That’s from a casket.”
A few minutes later, examining a tidal pool in the sod, I find what appears to be an interesting piece of driftwood. It’s pale gray, four inches long, and resembles a tree stump in miniature. It feels featherweight, leached of substance, and I see that it’s laced with tiny holes.
With a jolt, I realize it’s bone. I gently return it to the ground.
Adapted from the book Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. Copyright ©2018 by Earl Swift. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Top photo by Andrew Moore