Join 3,495 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A place apart, in peril
August 25, 2011 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Tangier Island, Virginia, is mere inches above the Bay around it. There isn't much dry land. Kids play on the airstrip. The people have a unique accent (which is becoming hard to find). With the land mostly marsh, folks bury their dead in their yards. It's a watery place, but charming. If Irene delivers even a glancing backhand blow, the entire island will be underwater.

It's a quiet place. There are no cars. By day the men crab or fish; by night the women gossip while driving golf carts in circles, and the kids play in semidarkness where every single street is a dead end.

Sadly, Irene is not the biggest threat the island faces.
posted by kinnakeet (51 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Reading weather reports from the past two years makes me feel like I'm in the prologue to a Peter Watts novel.
posted by The Whelk at 5:55 AM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's also the biggest sports town in the US.
posted by schyler523 at 5:55 AM on August 25, 2011


Tangier and Smith Island are both unique, amazing places. There used to be communities like them on islands all along the Chesapeake, but erosion has taken its toll. I hope Irene steers clear.
posted by spaltavian at 5:56 AM on August 25, 2011


Your "It's a watery place" link, BTW (Challenging Runways) is great fun! Scrolling through the images now, of runways all around the world. It's so interesting!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:02 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here's a nice aerial view at Flickr.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:06 AM on August 25, 2011


I have great sympathy for these watermen - I grew up an island or two away, but we had a bridge, and so lacked this kind of community. Their accent is sounds like something from northern holland at times.

It's worth pointing out that the way they catch these crabs isn't the most environmentally friendly practice either, as it really plows the bottom.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 6:07 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


That accent is just awesome.
posted by Kitteh at 6:09 AM on August 25, 2011


During our visit, we found that driving golf carts around on the runway was a major time-waster; folks have to keep their eyes peeled for incoming aircraft as there is no tower. We spoke with one pilot who landed there "just to prove [he] could."

The place is famous for fishing and crabbing, yet frozen flounder was on the mailboat we took from the mainland, and the crab we had while on the island was from Crisfield.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:11 AM on August 25, 2011


Tangier is also home to a unique form of home visits (via. Doctor Copter). Many of the residents on the island have a genetically inherited condition called Tangier's Disease. A rare disorder that pretty much is localized to the island, and gives clues to how secluded it has been since its founding.
posted by samsara at 6:12 AM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's worth pointing out that the way they catch these crabs isn't the most environmentally friendly practice either, as it really plows the bottom.

Not sure what you mean, every time I've been out on the Bay the watermen use crab pots with floats attached to them.
posted by smoothvirus at 6:16 AM on August 25, 2011


I think elektrotechnicus is referring to the scrape method of harvesting, which does do damage.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:19 AM on August 25, 2011


...after a Google search. OK I get it now, they do dredge for crabs but only in the winter. In the summer, when yours truly is more likely to be out in a boat they use crab pots.

There is currently a ban on dredging crabs in Virginia waters though.
posted by smoothvirus at 6:21 AM on August 25, 2011


Sadly Doctor Copter passed away in December.

Pilots of light aircraft in the region have a holiday tradition called the Holly Run, where they bring green boughs and gifts to children on Tangier Island.
posted by exogenous at 6:21 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was born on the bay and have lived next to it for most of my life. It's an extremely important piece of water that has had its ups and downs. Tangier and Smith islands are the last remnants of the ways of the real family watermen. I'm not sure what can be done to save them (Tangier has been sinking for decades) but it'll be a shame when they're gone.

Nice links. Thanks.

( For those of us who grew up on the water here, looking at those incredible deadrise crabbing boats is like seeing a cherry 57 Chevy. Man, would I love to have one of those.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:21 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Our crab harvest has gone down, definitely. No one knows why, and a lot of people blame pollution (which certainly has some effect). But I think it's important to recognize that crab numbers have gone down as striper (rockfish) numbers have exploded. Stripers eat crabs, lots of 'em. Just saying.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:25 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love places like this. I'm from further south, in NC, so the bit about the dialect reminds me a lot of Harkers Island. Harkers Island is a lot less isolated, though, and has managed to turn traditional decoy carving into a fairly strong craft industry. Places like this, though, I have no idea how they're going to survive, which is a shame.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:50 AM on August 25, 2011


One of my favourite books from my childhood, Jacob Have I Loved, is set on an imaginary Chesapeake Bay Island. I wouldn't be surprised if it were based directly on Tangier - the name "Pruitt" on the gravestone in one of the linked photos made me remember that "Truitt" was the name of the main character's father in the book, and the look of the island fits the descriptions in the book exactly.
posted by cilantro at 6:57 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


The accent sounds very West Country. Lovely accent.
posted by the noob at 6:58 AM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


A rare disorder that pretty much is localized to the island, and gives clues to how secluded it has been since its founding.

You can say the same thing about that accent. Wow.
posted by three blind mice at 7:06 AM on August 25, 2011


The accent sounds very West Country. Lovely accent.

Unsurprisingly a lot of the first inhabitants of these enclaves were from devon.

This group has pretty much lost its accent, but they were also part of that migration from England.
posted by JPD at 7:12 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Accents are weird things. I have an unplaceable mid Atlantic accent because I was raised by John Hughes films. Surely if there's less than a thousand of you, for over 10 generations on an island, the feedback would produce something very different from the Restoration era British accents they started with.
posted by fraac at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2011


I wonder how much of the United States will have to wind up underwater before climate change denialists wake up.
posted by Renoroc at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fascinating post. What a cool accent, sort of Aussie with some Scot mixed in. A real brogue.

Prayers that they remain above water.
posted by nickyskye at 7:32 AM on August 25, 2011


Hearing these people speak is like music to the ears. Great post.
posted by Meatafoecure at 7:32 AM on August 25, 2011


I first heard about this island (well, actually the neighboring island Smith, but still) from William Least Heat Moon's seminal Blue Highways. I always hoped to get there to see it but figured it had somehow warped into condos and beach houses in the 80's and 90's would probably be a disappointment. I'm happy to hear it remains mostly unchanged, and hopeful that I'll still get a chance to see it.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:40 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


If the chesapeake, blue crabs, watermen, and tangier island interest you, I cannot recommend William Warner's Pullitzer-prize winning Beautiful Swimmers highly enough. It's a phenomenal look at crabs, crabbing, and the bay.

I spent a few years of my early childhood in Crisfield, on and around the water. I remember hanging out at the Crisfield City Dock and seeing the Tangier and Smith Island ferries.
posted by namewithoutwords at 7:45 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


They sound a little Newfie, don't they?
posted by Roachbeard at 7:49 AM on August 25, 2011 [4 favorites]


I visited Tangier as a child - this would have been quite some time ago. My strangest memory of it (apart from the bright red golf cart fire engine) was that the local kids had developed a very weird local bicycle subculture. (Hey, what would you do if you were a teenager in a place with no cars?)

There were a lot of rusted old bikes lying around, and they'd started salvaging old front forks from them and bolting them together into these long, multicolored, waving "chopper" assemblies that curved up and down a good bike length out to the front wheel.

I've never seen anything like that anywhere else, and I have no idea how they could ride them. But it was all the rage there when I was like 12.
posted by Naberius at 7:51 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Our Toronto neighbours had their shingles re-done a couple years back and everybody working was probably from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. They were a pretty rowdy bunch of guys and it sounded like the crew of a pirate ship was on their roof.

...to Naberius - we had the same extended bike fork craze in Sarnia, Ontario about 1969.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:58 AM on August 25, 2011


Their accent is fascinating because it sounds like some kind of transitional form between a British Isles accent and a southern accent. (Probably because that is what it is, I guess.)
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:00 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Their accent is fascinating because it sounds like some kind of transitional form between a British Isles accent and a southern accent. (Probably because that is what it is, I guess.)

Similarly (and just a little ways down the coast).
posted by thivaia at 8:26 AM on August 25, 2011


Naberius, a few years ago the Tangier kids were still really into their bicycles, only most were on the new side. I did see a few custom jobs--one was used by a kid who lived in the Canton Ridge area to get to school. Its rear sported a fat, nearly bald motorcycle tire, clearly to cope with the soft sands on the Ridge/

I spent an evening walking every "street" on the island, and found the kid culture oddly reminiscent of the early 60s. Due the the limiting nature of the place, the lack of cars and the fact that little if any water traffic occurred at night, kids had incredible freedom to roam and ride. In some respects it seemed like a great place to grow up; in others, not so much.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:28 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I sailed there a few years ago and spent a day and night at Mr. Parks' marina. My favorite part of the island was the sign on the main drag that said "SPEED LIMIT 15 - RADAR ENFORCED." I think the only car on the island is the policeman's PT Cruiser.
posted by zap rowsdower at 8:30 AM on August 25, 2011


I thought "Wow, this looks like a great place to vacation sometime."
Then I saw "Tangier Island is alcohol free."
Pretty dry for such a watery place.
posted by hellbient at 8:37 AM on August 25, 2011


They're also pretty uptight about stuff like "revealing clothing," and don't cotton to loud music and raucous behavior, either. The place is Methodist and they don't let you forget it.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:41 AM on August 25, 2011


Then I saw "Tangier Island is alcohol free."

No alcohol. Blasphemy! Let it sink into the sound leaving no trace. As a dedicated drinker, I see no need for any place where you can't get a drink.
posted by three blind mice at 8:43 AM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Best bread pudding I ever had was on Tangier Island, and I say that as a lover of bread pudding.
posted by John of Michigan at 8:45 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The barrier islands along the mid-Atlantic coast have been accreting and eroding for millions of years, covering and recreating islands or big chunks of land. Inlets open and close with storms (or a series of storms), islands lose their ocean-facing beach but gain inches on the bay side (or vice versa) until a new inlet or promontory opens or an existing one closes and changes the wave patterns that add or remove sand. Hurricanes can speed up the accretion/erosion or inlet openings/closings. Ice ages and warming ages with different sea levels over the millenia reveal and hide landforms, but accretion and erosion will do the same thing gradually over years.

There's evidence of islands and inlets appearing and disappearing in roughly same place over the past few centuries with written human observation. It's really interesting, but is more a reflection of the broader climate change (weather's impact on landforms and wave patterns.) as opposed to modern man-made unnatural or unanticipated changes. (on a side note, I find the term "climate change" to be so overwhelmingly generalist and wishy washy that it clouds the line between natural climate changes and man-made climate change.)

That said, the communities and people of the area are wonderful, and I hope they can survive this and don't go the way of other islands that have disappeared below the waves or have become uninhabited or daytrip destinations. It always made me sad to be on Hog Island and to think about the community that lived there until the 1930s until erosion caused most everyone to leave -- and to to tote their homes on barges to the mainland before they fell into the sea.
posted by julen at 8:46 AM on August 25, 2011


The barrier islands along the mid-Atlantic coast have been accreting and eroding for millions of years, covering and recreating islands or big chunks of land. Inlets open and close with storms (or a series of storms)

This is a really important note for people not from these sorts of areas. The potential loss of an interesting culture if this island disappears is a lot more interesting and telling than the fact that the physical island might disappear. Barrier islands disappear, it's basically all they do, and the number of barrier islands that would be completely or mostly underwater in a category 3 storm is pretty high.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:58 AM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tangier is one of the few places this Texas girl has visited that really enjoyed. When over on a oyster boat belonging to a family that had relatives over there. We had a huge meal with crabs and oyster pie. It may dry but we took over beer on the boat. Great time. I will be praying that Tangier will avoid the coming hurricane.
posted by bjgeiger at 9:14 AM on August 25, 2011


The people have a unique accent (which is becoming hard to find).

It sounds a lot like a Newfoundland accent, or backwoods Miramichi.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:21 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The place is Methodist and they don't let you forget it.

Yeah, that was my experience as well, showing up on a sailboat with two girls in bikinis on deck and drinking beers dockside. Got us some looks, we did. Best crab cakes I've ever had, though.

The town was deserted during the day- everyone was out fishing. Went for a walk around sunset, and it had a really weird, cool, The Lottery-esque vibe because the entire town was just sort of hanging out in the streets. EVERYONE knew who we were, and what boat we had shown up on, because it was off-season and we were the ONLY outsiders there.
posted by zap rowsdower at 9:45 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you turn the Tangier Island accent down to about 10% strength, it wouldn't sound dissimilar to a Balmer, Merlin accent. The Os and As especially.
posted by jocelmeow at 10:53 AM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


What a fascinating post! Makes me want to give up everything and move to Tangier.
Apart from the obvious, the emphasis on air travel is exotic to me. Why not just sail?
posted by mumimor at 1:24 PM on August 25, 2011


barrier islands

Smith and Tangier Islands actually aren't barrier islands. They're in the Bay, far from the they are not on the coast.
posted by spaltavian at 1:35 PM on August 25, 2011


Because my father's beat-up Aeronca Champ was just a two-seater, he'd rent the 172 they kept at Laurel Suburban Airport and we'd set out for Tangier. It wasn't a long flight, but I'd get that glorious end of land fever, watching the landscape roll away below until we'd zoom over the glittering blue-green plain of the Bay. The coastline was fascinating, and I'd close one eye and pick out a fleck of dirt on the side windows and make it follow the shoreline by bobbing and dipping my head as my mother and father would chat quietly over the roar of the engine.

As we came around for the approach, the little plane would dip suddenly in the way that always made me wish I was somewhere other than in a plane, but at least a 172 had flaps, so I didn't have to suffer that deep down cold feeling I'd get in the Champ when my father would side-slip to scrub off airspeed on the way down. The world rushed up towards us, and my brother paid close attention, dreaming about the flying lessons he'd been promised, and suddenly, we were down, trundling down the runway on the island.

"Three points!" we'd yell in unison when we felt the characteristic single thump of a flat touchdown, but my father stopped our cheer.

"Chipped it a little," he said, and we were used to his perfectionist flying language.

We'd taxi in, park the plane, and rent a set of black cantilever-framed bicycles with balloon tires and fresh house paint, and start to roam. I usually went my own way, looking for the world no one else could see.

You were already in Oz there, or some suburb of Narnia, and in my youth, the accent hadn't yet been bleached nearly out of existence by the advent of satellite television, and I'd just pedal around the sandy streets just fast enough to stay upright, looking for places where I could sit and eavesdrop.on the locals. You couldn't just blend in or be anonymous there with a population so small or insular, so I'd turn on the charm and chase after frowning, matronly women on their way somewhere.

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" I'd ask, apropos of nothing, coming up with dialogue as bad as the pickup lines of mid-seventies porn.

"I suppose it is."

"I just landed here in an airplane!"

"Well, that's something, isn't it?"

"My name's Joe-B. What's your name?"

"Agnes."

"Wow, like the hurricane! I'm glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Agnes," I said, as brightly as a plastic flower on a white wicker basket, and stuck out my hand.

The glory moment. A busy woman with a frown chuckled, then smiled a broad smile in spite of herself and shook my hand. Her hand was thick and calloused, a real blue collar mitt that engulfed my own.

"Like the hurricane," she repeated with a tone I'd probably recognize today as a kind of bemused disbelief. "Gotta tell my Dan that one."

"What do you do on this island? It's so beautiful here."

I strolled alongside her for a long while, walking the gangly 1950s bicycle as I interrogated her and told her absurd and unsolicited tales about my own life, and then she headed back to her chores, waving to me from her front door as I climbed back onto the bike and went roaming again. Somewhere along the line, I looked down at the scuffed crystal on my nearly worn out Gruen and realized I needed to get to the restaurant on the main drag to meet my family for dinner.

"Where have you been, kid?" my dad asked.

"Just riding around. Did you know that all the graves here are above ground because the water table floats coffins right out of the ground?"

"Where'd you hear that?"

"Miss Agnes told me.

"Miss Agnes?"

"Yeah, nice lady. I talked to her for a long time."

"Don't drive the locals crazy, Joe-B."

"I'm not. She was nice."

"Where's your brother?"

"I haven't seen him for a while. I think he was down by the marshes," I said, and Will trundled up on cue, a cartoon character on a bike three sizes too large for him, and was soaked from head to toe.

We had adventures then. The world was so large, so unbounded.

At the end of the day, we checked our bicycles in, climbed aboard the Cessna, and chased the sunset home, arriving back in our own town just as the sky was turning indigo.

I have lived in my apartment for twenty-three years now, halfway between Baltimore and Washington. I can climb on my motorcycle and be in the mountains in an hour, or at the Bay in less, at the beach in two hours, or in two vibrant, distinct cities, or rushing through tobacco and soybean croplands, or passing herds of steers, or pull into a little town that's just like it was a hundred years ago, almost, and Tangier Island is one of those things, one of those magical places just at the ends of my fingertips here. Maryland's just a postage stamp, a miniaturist painting wrapped around the largest estuary in the country, but I have yet to stop finding new worlds here.

Having arrived in a sudden and thoroughly unexpected state of financial security, it occurred to me that I could actually buy something, and so I ended up back on Tangier, looking over a prim little cottage with a real estate agent. The place was tiny, lined with knotty pine, and cheaper than I could believe possible with the latest downturn, and I stood in the nearly original 1940s kitchen, complete with jigsaw cut ornamental valences hand painted with cherries, and thought of a life that could be, if I wanted it.

The agent was a Tangier ex-pat, just old enough to have a trace of that wonderful twirl of the tongue, and I poked around the place, considering possibilities.

"Did you ever know a woman named Agnes?" I asked, apropos of nothing.

"Around here?"

"Yeah."

"Not that I recall, but I've been in Crisfield for a long time."

"Ah."

I chickened out in the end, knowing that I'd always be an outsider on Tangier, and that all the charm in the world wouldn't be enough to make it a real home, but I can always visit.

These days, though, I have to take the boat from Crisfield like all the other poor slobs in the world, but it's still out there, a little bit of sweet elsewhere in the Bay.
posted by sonascope at 2:03 PM on August 25, 2011 [20 favorites]


I second namewithoutwords' recommendation of Beautiful Swimmers. I'll add Tom Horton's Bay Country and An Island Out of Time, which is about Smith Island, just north of Tangier.
posted by kortez at 4:47 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Funny, that accent sounded to me like southeast Baltimorese, with the vowels turned up to 11.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:31 PM on August 25, 2011


The accent does sound very much like backwoods Nova Scotia (much more than Newfie, I think).
posted by Sys Rq at 6:39 PM on August 25, 2011


I fear I shall always be a second fiddle to sonascope, the Scott to his Amundsen, if you will. He is forever appearing in any thread I have the slightest interest in and telling a story so beautiful and carefully wrought it leaves me wondering how my mere typing dares even belong in the same sphere. Someday, I'll buy him a beer... if he'll deign to let me... then we'll kick back and tell stories the whole night through, and I shall be much the richer for it.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:17 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Tangier is home of the best crab cakes in the universe.
posted by cloax at 9:55 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older "There's just so much science, nature, music, arts...  |  After 14 years, Rob Malda is w... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments