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20 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:55pm

Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing: documenting the beauty of our endangered earth

By Marina Benjamin

Structurally, tonally, even visually – with text punctuated by grainy black-and-white photographs – Kathleen Jamie’s new essay collection Surfacing takes up the same concerns with landscape and place as her earlier books, Findings and Sightlines. In each there’s a massing of a traveller’s scrapbook notes detailing chance encounters, fleeting relationships and a shared pull towards a specific world, that is deepened with autobiographical anecdote, then shaken up with a vivid and urgent present-tense noticing that electrifies her connections and surroundings. It is as if Jamie, wherever she goes, functions as a lightning rod, drawing past, present and future together.

The book opens with Jamie sitting in a “bone cave” in the Scottish Highlands, sheltering from the rain. Once the cave was filled with reindeer antlers, carried on the tide of a retreating glacier and swilled into the cave mouth. “That’s the surmise,” anyhow, says Jamie. Looking out from this cubbyhole, she wonders if the ice will ever return. But we can’t know that, can’t grasp the scale of our species’s effects. “The world warms,” she writes. “Last winter was the wettest: no snow or ice to speak of, a flash of blue sky was rare as a comet, the nights were starless and lachrymose. The TV news showed floods and sandbags, householders weeping as they cleared the sodden mess. There were arguments about land management, flood-plains, deforestation. Commentators intoned, ‘Is it climate change?’”

In the essays that follow, Jamie’s concern lies with what we inherit and what we lose, and how generations separated by vast swaths of time can commune with one another still, the land sometimes spilling the past into the present, the spirit world calling to us, the charge of the past retained, like electric current, by a specific place.

The longest essay recounts a summer spent in coastal Quinhagak (pronounced Quin-ah-hawk), a village of 700 Yup’ik people which is poised on Alaska’s western edge, where the Kanektok River meets the Bering Sea. Jamie journeyed there after hearing about an exciting dig, or more accurately a reveal, in which “the sea, pawing at this wall of tundra” had exposed a buried village occupied 500 years ago. Artefacts were literally tumbling from the earth – line weights, harpoon heads, snare-pins, root-picks, jewellery carved from walrus ivory, dance masks hewn from caribou antler – and archaeologists and volunteers alike were hurrying to clean, sort and catalogue them during the short summer thaw.

Here was climate change uncovering (recovering?) the past at the same time as it eroded the present and threatened the future. The irony gives this essay its bittersweet tang, as Jamie nuzzles into a community seeking to preserve its hunter-gatherer inheritance – the old ways of living that give humans meaning and round out history – while at the same time uneasily navigating the present, fighting off the scourges of alcohol, domestic abuse and widespread depression, while embracing sweatpants, hoodies and Netflix. Unemployment is high, people poor; they subsist on fishing and foraging, topped up with pizza and pop-tarts bought from the village grocery. Jeanette, with whom Jamie goes fishing, carries her iPod in one pocket, her ulu (traditional knife) in the other.

The dig, Jamie tells us, is rejuvenating the village. At the seasonal “show and tell” everyone turns up to see the latest artefacts and relearn old crafts such as carving or weaving rye grass. She meets John Smith, a slow-talking Yup’ik elder with high cheekbones and a flirtatious twinkle, who learned to carve ivory from his uncle, working it by hand until it “becomes like soap”. At his workshop, he’s making replicas of the necklaces and clothing pins coming out of the earth. He talks to her about his worries, his fears. In Quinhagak, everything is exposed – all of it under the glare of a summer light that is perpetually “ravishing” (a carefully chosen word, with pointed double meaning).

Jamie’s writing has a deceptive simplicity: its powers are cumulative. Her way is to build impressionistic detail by recounting conversations, travels, observations of the natural world, and then carefully layer it in. It is its own kind of archaeology. Every now and then, however, she cuts through the assemblage of beautiful prose with a stinging comment: a reminder that the natural balance is out of whack, or that violence and menace can surface just as easily as venerable artefacts from the past.

In Orkney, another dig draws her, of a 5,000-year-old Neothlithic settlement exposed by wind erosion. Nine summers of excavation have revealed a ringed double wall enclosing a cluster of houses not far from the seashore, where ordinary lives were lived out in difficult conditions. Food was scarce, people always cold; most of them developed arthritis by their twenties. The work-site, says Jamie “had a raw, wounded look, like skin exposed after you peel off a sticking plaster”. Still, she marvels at the time-travel in play, the sheer number of centuries packed into just a few centimetres of sand.

Funding shortages mean the boxes of bone and stone collected at the site will likely wait years to be studied. But for Jamie the artefacts are narcotic enough to summon “a vision of people clothed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle” (whose skulls they bury in the walls of their houses).

The remaining essays are mostly staccato productions, capturing memories mined from Jamie’s own past, of her grandmother, or youthful travels in Tibet, when news of strikes and student protests in China sent tremor waves through the region ahead of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Time contracting again.

In the years of writing this book, Jamie loses her father and her grown children leave home, and what surfaces next, somewhat to her surprise, is a middle-aged self still in thrall to wanderlust, still finding joy in the sight of a wild flower, or a bird in flight. She’d like to pack up shop and head for the tropics. “Do it!” urge her older friends, “before your joints give out.” Or before the world ends. Take your pick. Jamie’s apocalyptism is the quiet kind; it is gradual ageing and erosion, and a build-up of “plastic and waste” that will do us in. But we can also breathe the world in deeply, inhaling a beauty more precious for its fading.

Marina Benjamin’s most recent book is “Insomnia” (Scribe)

Kathleen Jamie
Sort of Books, 240pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war