In the summer of 1994 I convinced my editors at the newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, to buy a kayak and let me paddle it in a great circle around the Chesapeake Bay. One breezeless and bright morning, I paddled from my campsite on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and saw the silhouette of a wooded island off to the west, across four or five miles of flat water. My chart identified it as Watts—once home to a fishing village, long since vanished. I decided to have a look.
Before I was halfway, a rising wind swooped in from the west. The seas sprang to three feet. Two exhausting hours later, I beached the boat and staggered ashore.
Watts Island was about a mile long, a fat crescent edged in sand, its interior thick with loblolly pine and poison ivy. I walked its beach, detecting no trace of a human past. As I reached its windward side, another island came into view, across another four or five miles of even rougher water. That was my first glimpse of Tangier.
This is what I saw: steep-roofed houses clustered around the steeple of a church; a rust-streaked water tower hovering above; and just offshore, a dozen small crabbing boats tossing in the storm as their captains pulled up the catch. Most of the island appeared to be treeless marsh. The houses were balanced on the slimmest wafer of green.
I knew a little about Tangier. Everyone in the Tidewater did. Though only ninety miles from Washington, D.C., it is one of the most isolated communities in the East—marooned from the rest of America by 18 trillion gallons of moody water, so profoundly that its people have their own style of speech, a singsong brogue of stretched vowels, old words, odd rhythms. It was reputed to prefer its solitude. Not that it was easy to visit: Most of the year, the only reliable way on or off was the mailboat out of Crisfield, Maryland, twelve miles away. I’d also heard it was a near-theocracy of old-school Methodists. And it was dry.
I was sorely tempted to paddle there. But the wind was blowing harder now, and the bay was in chaos. I resolved to visit some other time.
Five years passed before my editors at The Virginian-Pilot sent me. I was charmed—by its absence of cars, streets no wider than sidewalks, the K-through-12 schoolhouse—and by its utter lack of pretension. This was no postcard-ready New England fishing village. It was a factory town, its industry crabs and oysters. Islanders wasted no time competing for yard of the month.
The people were hardy, courageous, and uncomplaining. They were also worried. Their families had lived on Tangier since 1778, sustained by the bay and its bounty. The same water was now poised to erase them. In the time it took for an islander to go from diapers to skippering his own boat, erosion whittled hundreds of acres from their already-tiny home.
Erosion—that’s what most everyone called it, on and off Tangier. The effects of global warming were plain to scientists in 1999, but they had not yet shouldered their way into the public’s consciousness.
The newspaper sent me back to ring in the millennium on Tangier—it was a quiet celebration, by the way—and again, islanders spoke to me of the existential threat they faced. I could see there wasn’t much real estate to surrender. High ground was sparse, and high was relative.
After that visit, I asked my editors to send me back for a longer stay, and they did. On one memorable afternoon, a crabber took me out to Tangier’s beach to show me where he’d played as a kid. The spot was hundreds of feet offshore. And this had happened fast—he was forty-one years old.
My stories ran that summer. I planned to go back; I’d met people I liked, and whom I cared about. But other stories came along, and eventually I left the newspaper to write books. The demands of parenting consumed me. I had a yard to mow, bills to pay.
Over the same years, climate change became a global priority. Sea-level rise entered the lexicon. On the coast in Norfolk, I watched the water climb higher up my yard with each northeaster. I remember one brutal November storm that flooded the city and knocked out my power. As I waded in my basement, struggling to restart the sump pump by flashlight, I had a thought: If things are getting this bad on the mainland, they have to be dire out on Tangier.
So in the winter of 2015, I finally got around to returning. On the mailboat I sat in the wheelhouse, and on the way kept an eye peeled for Watts Island. We were nearing Tangier when I realized I hadn’t seen it, so, puzzled, I asked the captain where it was. He jabbed a thumb at a knob of land off the port side. It had been easy to miss. It had taken me an hour to walk around Watts in 1994. Now, I could do it in ten minutes.
A few minutes later we pulled into Tangier’s harbor, and I was horrified to see what fifteen years had done to the place—and what an approaching global disaster looks like.
Earl Swift is the author of Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, which is B&N’s Nonfiction Book of the Month for March.