Tombstones by the Sea, by Rick Van Noy

Tombstones by the Sea

Prose + Photography by Rick Van Noy

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Tangier Island, Virginia is losing itself to sea-level rise. President Trump tells residents there’s nothing to worry about.

Marsh grass waved in the wind, matted by sea and salt. The blue-green sea itself gleamed in the sun, rollers lapping against a shore scattered with wrack and debris. In many ways, the coastal scene was familiar. Evidence of past cultures could be found—in this case, arrowheads. Carol Pruitt-Moore said she often found dozens of them as oyster shells crackled under foot, piles called middens, dating back to the time of arrowheads. We scanned the sand to find some, pausing to talk or swat away biting flies. The wind brought up the gassy odor of sea decay and sunbaked mud.

Excerpted from Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South by Rick Van Noy. Used with permission University of Georgia Press and the author. Copyright © 2019 by Rick Van Noy.

Sudden Spring, by Rick Van Noy

Like Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work Silent Spring, Rick Van Noy’s Sudden Spring is a call to action to mitigate the current trends in our environmental degradation. By highlighting stories of people and places adapting to the impacts of a warmer climate, Van Noy shows us what communities in the South are doing to become more climate resilient and to survive a slow deluge of environmental challenges.

Learn more about the book.

But there was something very different about this scene compared with other coastal communities I had visited. Scattered on the shore was a rusted axle from a trailer, some concrete blocks from a former foundation, ceramic shards, even a bathroom sink. And there were headstones from a graveyard once well inland when the island was abandoned in the 1920s, now toppled over and drooping into the Chesapeake. One of them shared the surname of my host. They were knocked flat by Hurricane Sandy and disturbed more recently by erosion and a rising sea. Carol found five complete skeletons after the hurricane. The forehead of a skull touched the sand, momentarily between each wave, as if to get clear of the sea. “Don’t step there,” she told me. “There’s a leg bone.”

It was a grim portent of what climate change could mean for her community and for others in the Southeast and across the planet.


My host had been coming to the island called Uppards, just north of Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, every day for years, noticing small changes unfolding over time. Residents of Tangier used to say they were going “upward,” hence the name. It’s a small island once connected to Tangier, but now water-soaked and separated by the channel used by waterman and the ferry. On the way out to the island, Pruitt-Moore waved at her husband, returning from tending his crab traps, little to show for the morning’s effort. There were several abandoned shanties where we boarded a boat. Pruitt-Moore said tourists ask them if that is where they keep their cars. There are, in fact, very few on the island. I brought my bicycle to get around.

Her boat was named To Oz. “Because I never know where I’m going. And I don’t know if I should smile or cry.”

Boat and shacks on Tangier Island. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

She beached the boat in a small harbor made by erosion. We stepped off and began walking the island, site of a former settlement once known as Canaan. Pruitt-Moore is in her late 50s, tall with short blonde hair, and a seventh-generation islander. She makes the trip almost daily. As we walked, she favored one leg. She told me the island was abandoned in the 1920s. Walking the beach, we saw remnants of a former hunting lodge. Her uncle used to run it.

“This is where people lived. The graveyard was here.” A few gravestones stood at odd angles. Some lay flat on the ground, knocked over by waves, contents spilled out. There were remnants of a well, now filled with saltwater at the island’s edge.

She pointed to a spot on the island that had disappeared, her voice trembling a little. “Right here was land. From that point to that point, that was land last year.” About the ground we were standing on, “this will be gone next winter.” Waving behind her, at the grass and shrubs, she said “if we lose this, we’re in trouble.”

She motioned toward a wave breaking into shore. “That was sand when I was a kid. Lush green grass with fig trees and roses and wild asparagus. Goats and chickens roamed over here. I used to walk this with my father.” She stopped. “This was land last year,” she said again in disbelief, pointing to something that was not there. A preview of what was to come. The bay was mostly calm now, little foam or froth, but it has been biting away at the land for centuries, and could turn nasty in no time.

“It makes me sick,” she said, looking off into the wide expanse of the bay. “To think we’re some kind of test project. We’ve been studied. We’re studied to death.” She mentioned some of the work residents did, writing letters, meeting with officials. “We’re just not important enough.”

She spoke of the wildlife she sees, a further reason to save the island. Turtles. Sting rays. Dolphin pods by the thousands. One particular day, striped bass were so abundant that “they were flipping themselves on the shore.” She described how she got down on the ground—“I don’t know why I’m telling you this”—and caught one with her bare hands but was “chicken” so she let it go. Oyster catchers and pelicans. Her voice grew livelier now, her face glowing. She came up here one day when monarch butterflies coated the western shore, like it was on fire. “The whole beach an orange blanket.” But Hurricane Sandy took away the goldenrod. And they found the skeletons from the graveyard washed out of coffins. Archaeologists with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retrieved the remains. Another storm, she worried they’d find more.

On the boat ride back to the harbor, Moore-Pruitt told me she was not a believer in human-made climate change but would support whatever angle they could use to secure a wall. We stopped at her house before we boarded the boat because she had to leave something with her grandkids. Two flags flew high: one from the U.S. Marines, and another the flag of Israel, which some conservative and evangelical Christians fly in solidarity with the holy land. The mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, flies one too.

I asked about the state of things now. In 2012, Governor Robert McDonnell came. They signed some papers. Wall construction was supposed to begin in 2014, but now it seemed they were awaiting further studies. “Studies have been done and done and done. . . . Maybe we’ll invite Donald Trump,” she said. “Maybe he will help us.” I liked Carol, her feisty personality and love of nature, family, and her island community. So I joked, “Would you want to put up with a casino hotel on Tangier?”

She laughed. “Whatever works, right?”

Residential residue from the Uppards. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

The heat index for that day was 115°. I forgot my hat but Pruitt-Moore gave me one from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where her husband used to work, but they had some kind of falling out, perhaps disagreeing about restrictions on catches or the sinking of ships. “You can keep the hat.” I had noticed on the way into the harbor that Port Isobel, an island to the eastern shore of Tangier where the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has an educational center, had about six protective breakwaters, but theirs were built using donations.

Renee Tyler, the town manager, might have gotten the idea from them. She began a campaign on to raise money for the seawall. “We are in DESPERATE need of seawall protection around our entire island as well as restoration projects to rebuild our island to the size it was in the 1700s.” So far, she had raised $1,400 out of a $2.5 million goal.

After leaving the harbor and thanking Pruitt-Moore, I found Tyler in her office at the town hall. It’s a small prefab building out by the airport on the southwestern side of the island, mostly one room and some closest space, faux wood paneling, an air conditioner spitting out cool air. I had hoped to find out whose hands the seawall project was in, where it was stalled, who I could follow up with. But she did not know and was frustrated.

Tyler took the job as city manager first as a temporary gig, but they kept her on for ten years. She said she wasn’t a politician, hated small talk. “What you see is what you get.” She wasn’t a scientist, either, so was learning about the dynamics of climate change. Tyler was not real forthcoming with her answers, a bit terse, but finally opened up when I asked if there was a plan B—moving off the island. She said she still had faith. “It’s our land. Our culture. Our way of life,” she said. “It’s not my house. If it burned down, I’d miss it. But this is where I want to stay. It’s my community. When there’s a birth of a baby, a funeral, someone’s sick—everyone comes to together.”

Chesapeake Bay with Tangier Island in the distance. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

Earlier that summer, there was a New York Times Magazine story about the fate of Tangier. She was still reeling about some of the comments. Somebody by the handle Tournachonadar wrote, “Do not, repeat, do not use my hard-earned tax dollars to bail out a few people on an insignificant spit of sand in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.” Jack wrote, “now is the time to spend the money to help some folks move higher or inland, rather than trying and failing to save low-lying areas destined to wash away over the years.”

Tyler received two more donations on after the article. They were selling T-shirts that read I refuse to be a climate change refugee. More to raise awareness than money, she said. “We need more than T-shirts. Good grief.”

She spoke of the seawall out by the airport. They were losing 20 to 25 feet of shoreline per year until it was created. Now they lose nothing. “So it works.”

I asked her to make her plea to the public, state the case. She said, like Pruitt-Moore, that it was time for action. She thought the studies focused too much on the environment. “They see the environmental side more than the human side.” She thought experts worried too much about encroaching on the marsh, but without some protection, the marsh was going to disappear anyway. “It makes no sense.”

She tried to find in her email the name of the person who stalled the state portion of the money in appropriations. While she was looking, a couple came in asking about real estate. They wanted to find out about vacant properties. There are about 60 of them on the island. Tyler had no list of the owners on hand. They were vacationing and thought they would look for themselves, having found only six listings online. When I checked, there were three. A single-family home, 2,000 square feet, was going for $90,000. The historic Hilda Crockett Bed and Breakfast, 5,000 square feet, was going for $300,000. The couple had looked in on the Sunset Inn, but it was in bad shape, run down and abandoned. I had seen it on my bike ride. It probably experienced some flooding. Tyler had the name of that owner.

I left them to do business and explored the island by bike. I pedaled past the Tangier Oyster Company, a new venture Tyler hoped would bring jobs. The day before I arrived the governor’s wife, Dorothy McAuliffe, had been to Tangier to promote the Virginia Oyster Trail in hopes of drawing tourists eager to eat through the tidal region.

Yard and homes on Tangier Island. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

I rode out across a bridge over one of the tidal flats into an area called Canton, believed to be the area first settled. I rode streets until it seemed I reached the house closest to the bay. Joan Thomas and her husband were working on their transportation, a souped-up golf cart, raised on planks for storage so it would not flood. Thomas is the surname of the Methodist minister who was known as the “parson of the islands” in the 1800s. When the British headed for Baltimore in 1814 (during the War of 1812), he prophesied defeat for the redcoats.

Thomas invited me to walk her property. The grass, neatly mowed, had turned to something more like marsh grass. It crunched underfoot, and there was some black algae or seaweed in the soil, brought in by the sea. They had built a small berm in the back where a few fiddler crabs poked in and out of burrows. And there were hay bales also in use for keeping water out. She had been there for 40 years and seen things get worse and worse. She remembered walking to a candy store, in what felt like a mile to the east. Now, we were looking at blue water past green shrubs, silver breakers some 300 yards away. An osprey flew by, headed for the sea.

I asked the couple what they thought of their prospects. Like Tyler, they were hopeful for a solution. Mr. Thomas had high hopes for a new representative, Republican Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL. Unlike most in his party, Taylor has said that sea level rise is a reality in his district, which includes Tangier and Hampton Roads. “Data shows that there’s a different sea level over the past 90 years. So I certainly acknowledge that it is an issue and it certainly is for us in that area,” Taylor told a radio reporter.

Representative Taylor has opposed cuts to climate science, especially to NOAA. The scientific agency is under the Department of Commerce. Its core mission of forecasting extreme weather was once relevant to protecting property and business. Some have suggested it should be moved to the Department of Defense alongside the Corps of Engineers because it helps defend us. Then its funding would be less subjected to the whims of politics.

I reached out to Taylor’s legislative director, Reginald Darby. He was aware of the land loss on Tangier. He said seawalls have been “obstructed by a lack of funding and burdensome regulation,” by government inaction. The congressman supported a plan to “offer immediate relief from erosion at no cost to taxpayers,” he said. He wanted to sink out-of-commission barges donated by a salvage company.

Undeveloped Tangier Island. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

Susan Connor, chief of the planning and policy branch of the Norfolk Corps of Army Engineers, said she did not think sinking a ship would be allowable under most regulatory rules. Plus, it is very “hard to sink a ship and know what the impacts are going to be.” She said there is currently a jetty proposed under “Section 107” of a program dedicated for small commercial navigation. Connor said the jetty would help protect the navigation channel, keeping some waves out, but it would not really be a seawall, as some residents understood. A jetty would mostly protect the harbor—the center of the island’s economy, with its workboats, docks, and crab houses on stilts—from damaging wave energy. Without the protection, the harbor and island are in peril. The jetty would cost around $2 million. For that kind of money, the island is at the mercy of the federal and state governments, especially the Corps of Engineers.

Connor saw the jetty as a kind of small patch, to begin in 2018, on the way to a much a better plan. For any kind of Corp of Engineers plan, there is the study that can take three years, the authorization that can take another three, and then three or more to build. Connor said they had in mind an even bigger study, of hundreds of millions of dollars in project costs. Whenever the Corps does this, they are required to look at benefits. In Tangier’s case, they wanted to look at three main areas: flood risk management, navigation, and ecosystem protection.

The difficulty for Tangier is that other cities up and down the coast compete for these dollars, too—some with billions in economic benefits, such as the city of Norfolk. But Connor told me that she and many in the Corps of Engineers want to do all they can to help residents of Tangier. “Some residents have given up,” she said. “And I hate to see that. But I also have to temper their expectations. There’s no immediate and quick fix.”

Map of Tangier Island painted on the wall. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

Before I caught the afternoon ferry off the island, I went to the museum in the business district, near the souvenir shops. It had a display of land loss. Painted on the wall was a map of the island now, green to show land, the blue wall to show water. Dotted lines sketched the edge of the former island. I asked the two volunteers working there what they thought about sea-level rise. The conversation turned to moving. One had heard that FEMA was offering $50,000 to move off Smith’s Island, in the same former peninsula cluster just above the Virginia state line (I could find no record of this). Anyway, they said, it wasn’t enough money for either of them to move. How much would be? They would not say.

Before I left, I ran across the family that had come into the town hall asking about real estate. We were both ordering ice cream at the local parlor. While their kids licked dripping cones, they talked of a plan for retirement. Maybe owning a bed and breakfast, a sandwich shop. I asked if he was aware of some of the projections for sea-level rise. He said he would want to do engineering studies before making a purchase, make sure there was not “beach-front property on all sides.”

At the counter was a jar for contributions to the seawall, like those at convenience stores asking for contributions to help pay for someone’s medical bills. The owner overhead us talking. “Maybe Trump will help us.” The prospective buyer and I looked at one another. I didn’t ask on the boat with Pruitt-Moore, but now I had to: “You mean build a wall?”

My skepticism that President Trump would pay attention to the plight of the islanders turned out to be mistaken. In the summer of 2017, CNN ran a story, interviewing the mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, who spoke directly to the president. “Donald Trump, if you see this, whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us.” He later added that he loved Trump as much as his family. A week or so later, the president called the mayor. “He said we shouldn’t worry about rising sea levels,” Eskridge told The Washington Post. “He said that ‘your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.’” Eskridge agreed that rising sea levels are not a problem for Tangier—erosion was. “Like the president, I’m not concerned about sea-level rise,” he said. “I’m on the water daily, and I just don’t see it.”

Sink and other residential residue on Tangier Island. Photo by Rick Van Noy.

Eskridge may not see it on a daily basis, but scientists who study the problem with data sets over a long period of time have documented sea-levels rise in the Chesapeake Bay region by as much as 14.5 inches (at Sewell’s Point), and the Bay is experiencing a rate of rise accelerating higher than the global mean. Making a phone call is different than a plan of action, of course. President Trump offered assurances but no real help—only to cut regulations and the time it takes to study a project. He might have offered to stay in the Paris Climate Accord, which would cut global emissions. Earlier in the year, his budget would have ended federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay program, a federal-state program initiated in 1983 and coordinated by the EPA. That money helps protect the health of the estuary where Mayor Eskridge makes a living crabbing.

87 percent of voters on the island voted for Trump, a number of which they are proud (one grocery store owner has placed that information in large letters on the roof) despite the fact that this is one of communities whose very existence is most threatened by climate change and its attendant problem of sea-level rise. Yet, the residents support someone who does not recognize sea-level rise or climate change. Indeed, the vote tally tracks with that of white evangelical Christians, which is how many on the island identify. Perhaps their concern for how long they have been studied, without action, makes their support for new leadership understandable. The mayor’s claim that erosion is causing the problem, not sea-level rise, may help him make his case. If sea level rises by several feet, they are underwater. If erosion is to blame, the problem is more solvable. Still, the forces of erosion would have remained fairly constant over the period the island has lost two-thirds of its land mass. The rate of sea-level rise, however, has no such consistency.

The owner of Spanky’s said they could not afford to be polite any longer. Watermen rarely are. Ferry Captain Crockett agreed. “We have to do something,” he told me, looking to the horizon as Tangier receded from view. He felt like time was running out. “We’re not going to let our island go under.” is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.