Sea Change

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The sun sets over Mailboat Harbor
on Tangier Island in August 2016.
Photo by Pat Jarrett
The sun sets over Mailboat Harbor on Tangier Island in August 2016. Photo by Pat Jarrett

By Brendan Wolfe

Earl Swift (left) and Peter Hedlund talk about Tangier Island. – Photo by Brendan Wolfe

On a humid evening last July, I met Earl Swift and Peter Hedlund at a pub in downtown Charlottesville to chat about the work that they and Virginia Humanities have done in relation to Tangier Island. Swift, a longtime Virginia Humanities Fellow, proudly dropped on the table the latest Garden & Gun magazine, which featured an early, rave review of his new book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island.

In the news because it’s quickly washing into the sea, Tangier has been the object of national fascination for its distinctive island culture and its residents’ resistance to the idea of climate change. On Tangier, families date back generations, their lives centered around the water and crabbing. They even speak with a unique, Cockney-like accent. Tangier is one of the most remote communities in Virginia, which is why Hedlund—the director of Encyclopedia Virginia—wanted to document it. Hedlund and other members of his staff created a 360-degree virtual tour of the island in 2016 using Google Street View technology.

Over beers, the three of us talked about Tangier, preservation, and—for lack of a better word—how cool it is to have captured the island digitally.

Swift: It’s a place that’s difficult to get to and the Street View allows you to walk the streets. It’s not the same as going to Tangier, of course, and smelling the crab and feeling the humidity—

Hedlund: And hearing the accent.

Swift: The bites of the flies. But it’s a great service. You know, school kids can now visit a place they’ve only ever heard about as this almost mythical, lost section of Virginia. It also appealed to me because if you go on Google Street View usually, the main roads are all represented, but if there’s a narrow lane off that road it’s fifty-fifty if Google’s going to make that turn. And it was great that Encyclopedia Virginia’s virtual tour incorporates everything, all of Tangier’s sidewalk-wide cart paths.

Hedlund: And the harbor.

Swift: And it’s a very thorough tour of the place, too. I gotta tell you, there were times when I was writing the book that I put it to use.

Hedlund: Looking to see what house is next to what house?

Swift: Yeah, remembering spatial relationships, that sort of thing.

James “Ooker” Eskridge, the mayor of Tangier, sorts peeler crabs on Tangier Island in August 2016. Photo by Pat Jarrett

Hedlund: So I’ve asked you this question a ton of times, but it kind of gets at this whole “canary in the coal mine” aspect of Tangier, with climate change and sea level rise. I remember an interview you gave to CNN where you said it’s headcount that will determine what places get priority in saving, and Tangier doesn’t have a chance—

Swift: No, I said if that’s the metric, then Tangier doesn’t have a chance, but I hope that’s not the case.

Hedlund: So what other metrics are important to consider when we look at preserving and protecting places like Tangier?

Swift: If you look around America, some of the most hallowed ground has very few people living nearby. Yorktown battlefield—it’s not going to be saved by virtue of its headcount. And for that matter Jamestown, which if sea levels continue to rise will go a long time before Yorktown does.

Hedlund: We were just out there, the staff of Encyclopedia Virginia, and it’s amazing how wet Jamestown is.

Swift: You’re right there on the James River, almost wading in it, on the fort side.

Wolfe: And part of the metric that goes into thinking about saving places like Jamestown is that it’s very much at the center of a big, collective story, while Tangier—

Swift: Is an outlier.

Wolfe: —is at the margins of that story. And we can try to pull it in by telling a slightly different narrative, or telling it in a slightly different way, but right now more people have not heard of it than have heard of it.

Tangier Island is losing approximately fifteen feet of land to the Chesapeake Bay each year. Photo by Pat Jarrett

Swift: Sure. I guess it comes down to how you describe a circle. When you’re trying to describe it to someone, do you describe the insides or do you describe the edge that forms its shape? Of course you describe the edge, and Tangier is one of those points that demonstrates just how varied and peculiar American society can be. To me its value is the fact that it’s remarkable.

Wolfe: It’s a place that feels frozen in time in a lot of ways.

Swift: Sure does.

Wolfe: I remember reading a book a number of years ago about a small town in Iowa. And they described it as both frozen in time and actually rotting. And I thought, that’s not possible! Rotting is a function of time passing. But it’s a paradox that also kind of feels true in this case.

Swift: Yes and no. I would compare Tangier to a small town in Alaska, completely cut off from the rest of the world until the mid-1970s, when they got satellite TV. Now all of a sudden the kids are watching Rico Suave videos and realizing there are a lot more glamorous ways to live.

Hedlund: So is the environment or culture the greater threat to Tangier?

Swift: Oh, the environment. Tangier has been pretty good at absorbing what it likes and keeping at arm’s length what it doesn’t in terms of culture. But the sea—that’s a tougher thing to stop.

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