I was about ten or eleven years old in the early 1970s when I visited Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay with my family. It left quite an impression. We walked the neighborhood streets, visited the crab, oyster, clam and fishing docks, and stopped in to a few shops before finding a place to enjoy a meal of fresh local seafood. OK, crab cakes. Gotta be the crab cakes. I think Dad had a softshell crab sandwich. I was intrigued. My two younger brothers were grossed out. I mean really… crispy spider-looking legs hanging out of a sandwich? Yum?
It was Mom and Great Aunt Edna that were the driving force behind the visit. They were drawn by the stories they had read in the local papers and tourist guides about the unique culture, odd dialect, and deep history as a semi-isolated society with a livelihood based on harvests from the surrounding bay and sea.
Now in the 20-teens Tangier Island has been in the news and not for happy reasons. Many of the stories, and most of the islanders say that the island is “sinking.” This is, in fact, true, as a function of the aftereffects of the last ice age called glacial isostatic adjustment. But the sinking of the tiny landmass is exacerbated by the fact that the island is also being swallowed up by slowly rising sea level due to climate change. Estimates are that the island, that has been inhabited by European settlers for over 200 years, has only 25 to 50 years of habitability left.
The sad irony is that the sea that has provided the livelihood for centuries, is now the bringer of doom. These islanders who could be alarm bell ringing champions, have their heads deeply embedded in the sand regarding climate change.
There is nothing new about metaphors for planet Earth, or perhaps just humanity, in peril, hurtling toward doom. Past societies that rose and fell, the Titanic, and the spaceship lost in the void with dwindling air and resources. But I can’t help myself with this one, in particular due to the odd political inclination of the populace on Tangier Island. In 2016 they voted nearly 90% for the Climate Crisis Denier-in-Chief and continue to support him according to polls.
There they are on Tangier Island, staring their extinction in the face, and seem only to be able to muster calls for seawalls and jetties that will ultimately all prove to be folly. And here we are on Island Earth, still unable as a global society to manage an adequate response. All the more reason why encouraging effective, replicable action at the local and regional level is so important. The solutions are not coming from anyone other than all of us in our own communities.
Book: Chesapeake Requiem: “A place in crisis”: Author documents life on disappearing Tangier Island”