Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay

I wonder if anywhere tugs at the heart more than an island home for an islander. This whimsical thought came to me while cruising on the Bay for a return visit to Tangier Island, when I was reminded of a far and different island I call my own.

My island birth was accidental because an epidemic infection in a London hospital closed the birthing center where I was due to make an appearance. My mother had to take the 30-minute paddle-boat ride across the Solent to her family on the Isle of Wight for a home delivery. Having missed the chance of becoming a “Cockney,” an Island birth made me a “Caulkhead.”

Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight

Islanders have been called Caulkheads since the days of yore when they were hired to caulk sailing ships, although the word was corrupted to “Corkhead” by poor spellers who had to explain the nickname. To be a true Corkhead, it was said, you must be thrown off Ryde pier as a newborn baby to see if you floated.

The smaller and more isolated an island the richer its store of anecdotes and stories, and it often boasts a reputation for eccentricity. If you don’t know what I mean try watching Whisky Galore, based on Sir Compton MacKenzie’s droll novel about Scottish islanders who “rescue” a cargo of whisky from a sunken freighter during World War II.

To be a true islander you need a differentiated mindset. This is partly in defense against outsider prejudice, but mainly for the sake of pride in the strip of water that sets you apart from others and enables the evolution of particular customs, habits and, dare I say, peculiarities. Caulkheads used to look aloof to the mainland across the narrow strait at “Overlanders” (shortened to Overners), but that was when the Isle of Wight was still virginal, before it became a Victorian resort for celebrities and royalty and a popular retirement home which made it just “ordinary.” The Vectis National Party in the 1970s tried to turn back the clock, but the independence movement fizzled out otherwise I might now qualify for an Isle of Wight passport!

The English Channel has molded an island mentality for mainland Britons, but the Isle of Wight was cast off from the mother island after the Ice Age melt so we might expect Caulkheads to have a deeper sense of apartness. Maybe that’s why they gave a large majority to the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum (62% of a 72% turnout voted to leave the European Union). Tangier men and women too take pride in their unique identity and history.

I searched the horizon for the first hour of the crossing until I saw a thin black line shimmering between sea and sky on the hot day. I was joyful at the sight of Tangier again. At its peak above the high tide mark it is barely shoulder high, and ever at risk of being swamped by hurricanes which requires the entire population of a few hundred souls to be evacuated. Most of its 740 acres is a marshland paradise for wading birds and ducks, and far too hazardous even for houses on stilts. Little more than 10% of the land surface is habitable, and even that is slowly sinking and shrinking.

Crabbers sheds on the channel, Tangier Island
Crabbers sheds on the channel, Tangier Island

As we entered the channel we passed private docks with piles of crabbing pots alongside a shed and a berth for a shallow motor boat. Apart from a short tourist season, the Tangier economy depends on the “watermen” who earn the island’s reputation as the soft-shell crab capital of the world. After the blue crabs are harvested they are moved into tanks of salty water to molt their shells, leaving a carcass of mostly edible meat which is a seasonal favorite in restaurants.

Another lover of islands, Truman Capote, wrote that they: “are like ships of permanent anchor. To set foot on one is like starting up a gangplank. One is seized by the same feeling of charmed suspension: It seems nothing unkind or vulgar can happen to you.” I understood as we stepped ashore towards a few greeters waiting for us. A lady waved us into her golf cart, not for the sport for there is no golf course on the island, but for a ten minute round trip at top speed past the 15 mph warning (radar controlled). The sole policeman on Tangier has light traffic duties, and apart from a couple of emergency vehicles automobiles are almost absent.

Tangier Island
Main Street

When I took a seat in the cart beside my brother and sister-law who were visiting from South-west England I asked them to watch for differences to mainland folk. The uniformity of ethnicity and class was the first thing that struck them, and the preponderance of full beards was next. The islanders also had an unfamiliar accent which I was advised before my first visit long ago would sound like old West Country English. But I never heard obsolete words from Shakespeare, and my sister-in-law who is a native of that corner of England declared the accent was quite different to modern Devonshire and Cornish. Since no spoken language is frozen in time I don’t expect to hear the same twang elsewhere. We had plenty of opportunities to listen because the islanders like to stop for conversation with strangers, which is a rare compliment seldom paid today except in the deepest countryside.

We paused to cast our eyes on a plaque of World War veterans. We also wandered around a tiny cemetery reading inscriptions on the heavy gravestones that anchor shallow coffins from floating away during floods. I think there were far more Crocketts, Pruitts and Parks recorded than all the other names combined. Many islanders are direct descendants of the original settlers who came from Cornwall in the 1670s. Considering island life, I am not surprised there has been so little admixture over the centuries, although it was hard to imagine the rigors of winter there because we had a bonny day.

We stopped behind a picket fence to gaze at the old Methodist church of unspoiled white clapboard and black shingles and look up at the pointy bell tower, which is one of the highest points on the island after the water tower. The smell of soap and polish greeted me inside as I stared at the Victorian glass windows and rows of dark pews with hymnals neatly laid out. When I see a church that well-cared for I imagine a large and devoted congregation, and that day I imagined many memorial services held there for men lost at sea.

The museum is one of the highlights of a trip to the island, but you should leave behind the definition of museums in NYC, DC and London. The Tangier museum is the most amateur and most authentic museum I ever knew. Its managers have lovingly curated artefacts donated by residents to tell the story of their home and people. It is a living museum in which the curators and elderly docents are among the exhibits if you stop to listen to their stories. There is old crabbing and fishing tackle laid out alongside marine hardware, duck decoys and rusted shotguns. The walls are covered with faded newspaper and magazine cuttings about local stories of triumph, hardship and rare celebrity visitors. A yellowing 1930s article reported the arrival of a boat resupplying the starving islanders after three months of isolation in the frozen Bay. We forgot the time and had to run for ice creams at store before the only boat of the day returned to Reedville.

Islands are laboratories where the culture and living of small, relatively isolated populations adapt to the peculiarities of the environment and the whims of a maritime climate. They are biological laboratories too, where natural selection molds genotypes over eons to create forms and behaviors that exist nowhere else.

Over a hundred species of lemurs are endemic in Madagascar, over 90% of terrestrial mammals in Luzon in the Philippines are not found anywhere else in the world, and New Zealand has been a haven of strange and flightless birds. In Galapagos, the finches are distinct from descendants of a common ancestor in mainland Ecuador, and more recently diverged between islands as beaks adapted to local bugs and berries.

On some islands, bodies evolved to become giants, like the moas and giant tortoises, or became dwarfs, like the extinct hobbits of Flores, Indonesia. But you don’t have to go to the tropics to see the reshaping of a species by island isolation. I spent a week studying voles on the then uninhabited island of Skomer, which is separated from the rest of Wales by only a few hundred yards across the Jack Strait. The Skomer vole is a larger and cuter edition of the common bank vole in the mainland, and tamer.

The voles sat in the palm of my hand blithely nibbling grain, but such trust is disastrous when a new predator arrives. Island life is sensitive to change and immigration. Many native birds are now extinct in New Zealand and Guam, while Galapagos tortoises compete with feral goats for food, and so on ….

Tangier islanders face more threats these days, and I found them more pessimistic about the future than on previous visits. Their admirable self-reliance has served them well, but they now face external threats to their way-of-life that are hard to resist. Caulkheads fared better after they came under the gentle assault of Outlander hegemony because they benefited from a blossoming tourist industry, but Tangier men and women have few, if any, compensations for the challenges they face. Water levels are rising, crabbing quotas are falling, and young people are leaving.

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls on the old church, it tolls for thee. In a world that looks more uniform, if more economically divided, where a store or hotel looks the same in Georgetown, Guwahati and Guangzhou, where occupations were defined by geography and culture is blurred by globalization, Tangier Island stands out as a survivor from a more colorful age. Go to there to savor the difference and spend your $$$. Enjoy it for what it is and don’t ask for the amenities you expect on the mainland. Adjust your spectacles so you can see that what seemed poor and dull is rich and precious.

Next Post: Walter Heape, F.R.S.—A Pioneer of Reproductive Biology