Earl Swift lived on the water for more than 20 years, sometimes traveling to the mountains in search of stories for the Virginian-Pilot, but mostly observing and writing about life in Tidewater.
He’s been here now for several years, living near Afton and commuting to his office in Charlottesville, where he’s a fellow of Virginia Humanities at U.Va. As a journalist, and as the author of seven books, he’s known for his careful (reviewers like to use “scrupulous”) attention to his story. The stories Swift tells are true, not in just the general sense that they’re non-fiction, but because he piles on so many layers of careful observation and attentive listening that they’re as sharply felt and unresolved as real life. His latest book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, is a clear-eyed and compassionate look at a group of beleaguered families cut off from the outside world, hurt by economic realities and quickly slipping below water that’s rising from the global warming that they don’t acknowledge.
Requiem has been hailed as both a case study of an outpost serving as the canary in the coal mine for climate change, and as a triumph of research and readability. Writing in Bloomberg, Stephen L. Carter chose it as the best nonfiction book of 2018, calling it “a model for what serious reportage should be.” The Washington Post’s review by Steve Ginsberg, the national editor (himself from nearby Onancock) singled out Swift’s study as the one reliable account of the people who have been falsely reported throughout their history: patronized and romanticized and displayed as a kind of cartoon of themselves. Tangier Island is immensely important, Ginsberg said, as probably the first community in America that will be entirely wiped away by climate change. Most of our major media outlets have reviewed Swift’s book and praised him for his deep immersion into the complex society that might provide some clues for the rest of us.
“I’m no expert on anything,” Swift said, and this has been by intention throughout his writing life, which began when he was in high school. It’s true that he picks varied topics. He wrote about his three weeks on the James River in 1998; the search for soldiers lost in Vietnam in 2003; the US highway system in 2011; the American Dream as symbolized by a ‘57 Chevy in 2014; and the march of Dollar Stores into every town in America in 2016. As a journalist, he doesn’t want to specialize, figuring that the people living the story are the ones who know the most about their lives, and there are plenty of experts around if he needs them. Nor does he want to arrive somewhere with a preconceived notion, talk to the people who confirm it and leave with a tidy lesson he already knew.
That’s what a lot of writers have done with Tangier, he said. Journalists have given it a great deal of attention over the years: first, because of its isolated, stoic people; and then because its future is precarious: “They’ll get there in the morning, talk to the person who’s been pretty much anointed to talk to journalists and who pretty much says the same thing to everyone, and then they leave at the end of the day. Only the most industrious even spent the night.”
To compare that to Swift’s style is like comparing a book report to a doctoral thesis. For Requiem, he spent nearly two years in rented rooms, went to weekly church services, weddings, funerals, and informal gatherings, and pulled crab pots with the watermen in good weather and foul. He learned about the molting, mating and feeding habits of crabs, the weird lives of oysters, the complicated ways the few hundred souls on the small island are related, the logistical challenges of a place where most everything must come from the mainland. He studied the graveyards, lost neighborhoods and church schisms, the fierce adherence to an ancestral way of life, and the portents signaling its end.
In one chapter, Swift told the story of Ed Charnock, a man lost at sea, and Jason, the son who was a partner in his business and on the boat, the Henrietta C. It’s told partly through the words of the grown son, simple and heart-breaking, recalling the last desperate efforts to save the boat, and the man, and the father’s last words as he knew he would die. It’s a wonder and a great gift to the reader that Swift was accepted on Tangier enough to hear the son’s words, to listen to the story of the rescue from the point of view of other watermen, and to experience the fierce resolve of the men who risked their own lives and boats to find the two in the water, rescue the son, and finally to find the father’s body and bring it back. Swift was at the Charnock home when Jason, who had been pulled from the water nearly dead himself, stood stoically as he received hugs and told the author, “I ain’t a huggy person, but I’ve hugged a lot of people and I ain’t minded it.”
So Swift was nervous when, last August, he returned to the island to talk about the newly released book with the crowd gathered in the school auditorium. In Requiem, Swift had told their collective story with affection but also with an unblinking clarity. He questioned their denial of the rising water and their stubborn belief that God would save them with a miracle or the Trump administration with a sea wall. He recorded glimpses of despair, drug abuse, hypocrisy and willful ignorance. As a journalist, he didn’t hope they would all be pleased, but he did hope they would see themselves honestly portrayed. It was a tough crowd: “They have a lot of experience reading about themselves,” he said.
As the question-and-answer session unfolded, many offered testimony supporting the truth in Swift’s work. “Some were crying at different points,” he said. In the end, they were happy the book had captured their lives.
Since Requiem, Swift has been working on another project, but he won’t say what it is. Besides his eight-hour days (1 to 9 p.m.) writing, Swift spends a few hours each morning in the woods and mountains. A former through-hiker (Maine to Georgia) on the Appalachian Trail, he tries to hike 4 to 5 miles every morning, and he doesn’t mind repeating the same 5 miles. Late in May, he was hiking south of Reid’s Gap one day, south of Rockfish the next. He sometimes goes up into the Park, and one favorite hike that he repeats is from Beagle’s Gap to Jarman’s Gap and back.
The famous author has a side job in retail, and you’ll find him at The Great Outdoor Provision Company in Charlottesville one day a week. It’s a job that fits in with his love of paddling and hiking, advising fellow adventurers on practical gear for both. Of an evening when he’s not working, you might spot him in Fardowner’s or having a beer at Pro Re Nata or The Brewing Tree. He’s become a fan of the mountains and figures he’s walking on the same ground as when he lived beside the Chesapeake. “These are really ancient mountains, much worn down and washed away by time and the elements,” he said. “I’m sure much of the land down there came from right here.”
Find Chesapeake Requiem online and at local book sellers.