Surfacing with Kathleen Jamie – by Michael Malay

This December on the Land Lines Blog, we are delighted to share with you a miniseries of reviews of key contemporary nature writing texts – including creative nonfiction and poetrycontributed by some wonderful writers and academics. Keep a look out for more instalments of the series over the next few weeks!

Yup’ik Mask, Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

‘Why go anywhere else?’, a man says in ‘In Quinhagak’, an essay from Kathleen Jamie’s latest book of prose, Surfacing (2019). As a boy, he remembers his elders asking the same question. ‘Why go anyplace? We got what we need here. Living off the land. We’ve got the river, salmon, trout’. 

The man’s name is Darren, and he is referring to Quinhagak, a village of 700 souls in western Alaska, on the edge of the Bering Sea. He is a member of the Yup’ik, an indigenous people that has inhabited this region of the world for the last 10,000 years. He is at home here. This is a place of ‘extraordinary light’, Jamie writes, set in a tundra landscape of fireweed, willows, lichen, and moss, and interwoven with melt-pools, creeks and braiding rivers. Caribou and bears roam the tundra while owls and merlin fly overhead. Why go anywhere else? 

But the question isn’t entirely rhetorical, not anymore. The last winter was bad, Darren explains, there wasn’t enough snow on the ground, and the following summer was hot, ‘too hot’. The tundra dried out, so that, when lighting struck, the land caught fire. The ocean was also becoming bolder, advancing over the tundra, swallowing whole sections of coast. 

The Yup’ik have seen extremes before. They live in a landscape defined by them. Quinhagak is a place of sudden fogs, dangerous winds, hazardous cold and prolonged winter storms. In the past, though, these extremes made sense; they were the conditions of being on the land. The present extremities no longer make sense. ‘They’re moving my house soon’, a woman says, a few days into Jamie’s stay in Quinhagak. ‘The land is eroding so fast. I come out here in the morning in my robe with a coffee, but every time more is gone. The next full moon tides, I think all this chunk of earth we’re standing on will be gone.’ 

By IceCreamForEveryone – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot of loss in Jamie’s essay: the loss of the tundra, the loss of the permafrost, the loss of the seasons (the winters are now too mild, the summers too hot) and, because of these losses, the unravelling of a traditional way of being on the land. How do you travel when, in the winters, your usual ice-roads are no longer solid, when, with ‘just two blows’, a man called Warren Jones explains, you could ‘hit through the river-ice’? When Jamie asks him about the mildness of the last season, Warren responds: ‘What winter?’. Last year, he says, ‘[w]e couldn’t go anyplace’. (This last statement, a disturbing revision of Darren’s question – ‘Why go anyplace?’ – is one of the most haunting sentences in Jamie’s book.  How does one live on the land when the land is becoming increasingly unliveable?)

But there is more to Jamie’s essay than loss. One of the paradoxes of all this vanishing is the return of lost things. Now that the permafrost is thawing, ancient Yup’ik artefacts – ritual masks, bentwood bowls, dice hewed from bone – are starting to tumble from the ground, prised loose by powerful tides, or else carefully excavated by a team of archaeologists, of which Jamie is a volunteer member. And so an ulu, a woman’s knife, swims to the surface of the earth – its handle carved with two images: a beluga whale (its eye and blowhole still visible) and a seal. Other artefacts – of equal beauty, sensitivity and wit – follow in turn, touching light for the first time in centuries: darts, wooden dolls, pendants, earrings, fishing weights, arrow-shafts. Even ancient smells are resurrected. One day, while working at Nunallaq, an archaeological site next to Quinhagak, Jamie recounts how a certain scent, ‘familiar’, ‘domestic’ and ‘not unpleasant’, rises from the earth. It is the smell of seal-meat, an odour that has been dormant in the earth for ‘five hundred years’, and which is now being revived, thanks to the efforts of the archaeologists and, of course, to the thawing effects of climate change (the land, Jamie writes, ‘is losing its grip on itself’). 

Fire, melting permafrost, vanishing land. But also: the austere beauty of the tundra, its bounty of gifts (blueberry, cloudberry, salmonberry), and the return of lost worlds, in the form of artefacts that provoke curiosity, tenderness and joy in those who handle them, and, for certain Yup’ik elders, a sense of melancholy too. ‘What kind of people were they?’, an elder called John Smith asks, as he turns over an earring in his hands, unearthed earlier that day. ‘We’d often hear John make remarks of wonderment and of sadness for the culture which was past’, Jamie notes. Later, she will record John saying: ‘We gotta remember. If the planes stop flying and no food comes in, we gotta remember how to live’.

Western Alaska Sunrise, By Joseph from Cabin On The Road, USA – Own work, CC By SA-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Jamie never presses the point – part of the fastidiousness of Surfacing is its refusal to make grand statements about anything at all – but the contradictions experienced by John Smith (that sudden oscillation between wonderment and sadness) seems to be the defining condition of present-day Quinhagak. Not a day goes by without further erosion, further loss; at the same time, not a day goes by without more surfacings, more returns from the past. The Yup’ik are living through a strange interregnum, characterised by uncanny gains and disappearances, in which impossible things are suddenly possible (the thinning of ice-roads in the winter; the return of five-hundred-year-old smells). How does one live alongside these changes? And how does one make sense of the reappearance of lost things? 

Among the many objects retrieved from the earth during Jamie’s stay in Quinhagak, or which spill out of the ground willy-nilly, as the sea continues to nip away at the coast, are ‘ceremonial dance-masks, ritually broken after use’. These masks fire the imaginations of the contemporary Yup’ik who encounter them. Warren Jones, between worrying over the loss of the river-roads in winter, and about the logistics of the archaeological dig at Nunallaq, also has this to say to Jamie: ‘Since this dig began, kids from [the] village are hunting, carving again. They’re working on the dig, learning archaeology, learning their own traditions’. He also explains how a local teacher, inspired by masks that were beginning to reappear, put a ‘dance together from elders’ memories and fragments from other villages’. Again, Jamie never stresses the point, but the implication of these passages is clear: devastation is not a one-way road. There can be renewal too – and perhaps also hope. The recovery of a tradition can forge new ways of being in the present, can show new ways across uncertain terrain. ‘I liked the way she travelled’, Jamie writes of her travelling companion, Jeanette, during a fishing trip upriver: ‘with her iPod in one pocket and her ulu in the other’.

The fragments of nineteenth century cups and plates, surfacing in a farmer’s field in Scotland; hearths, arrowheads, and bone pins from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, found on the island of Westray, in the Orkney Islands; the antlers of reindeer that walked the earth tens of thousands of years ago, discovered in a cave in the North West Highlands. These are among the revenants and artefacts that appear in Jamie’s Surfacing. The essays also describe the return of old voices (the voice of Jamie’s grandmother – a voice she initially struggles to remember, but soon finds again: ‘Nana’s voice is coming back, it was just mislaid’) and the return of younger selves and half-buried experiences. The self in Jamie’s book, just as much as the land, is a kind of archaeological site, rich with the experiences of other eras, some of which are lost for good, but some of which, with the aid of language and memory, can be excavated and restored. 

Excavations at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney in 2011, by Geneviever Romier, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

In one essay, recalling the time she was diagnosed with cancer (‘[a]s you may know, biopsies can be horrible’), Jamie remembers a peculiar dream in which she is bitten by a Tibetan dog. The dream opens a ‘hinterland of other memories’, and the essay that follows, ‘The Wind Horse’, describes her travels in Tibet in the late 1980s, when she was in her twenties. Among the people Jamie meets are Chinese art students who want to ‘challenge the government with beauty’ (she meets them a few days before the Tiananmen Square massacre); Elena, a recovering heroin addict from Italy, who now devotes her time to the cause of Tibetan independence; and a young Tibetan monk learning to pronounce the English alphabet, and who Jamie helps with the letter ‘W’.  (‘Dub-elle-you!’ the boy and his classmates later call out to Jamie, when they see her passing by the temple). 

In the same essay, Jamie also describes a moment, when, coming across a collection of prayer flags by a monastery, she spontaneously decides to offer her silk scarf, which she ties next to the flags. ‘What for?’ she asks herself, before answering: ‘For the students in Beijing. For the whole damn mess. For the suffering world’. As she stands there, ‘squares of white paper’ appear before her, ‘tumbling along the grass and wildflowers by my feet, goodness knows where from’. One of these squares, which Jamie keeps as a memento, is ‘a little printed picture, red on white, of a winged horse rearing through the air’. ‘It seems like a fair swap’, she reflects: ‘a silk scarf to stay, a windhorse to go’.

The Anthropocene – and the lexis it has generated: ‘solastalgia’, the ‘sixth extinction’, ‘climate catastrophe’ – is firmly embedded in our consciousness now. We know that there is something wrong with the state of the planet and with the state of our politics. We feel this deep in our bones. Too often, though, what we are presented with is ‘information’ – numbers and graphs, statistics and charts. These things are necessary; if we want to understand where we are, we cannot do without them. And yet where shall wisdom be found? (The word is the right one, I think, though we may feel mawkish about it.) 

The power of Jamie’s essays is how they refuse to make any general statements about the trouble of the present moment, even as they exemplify a form of care, attention and witnessing that, without ever laying claim to an authority they do not possess, suggest a particular way going forward, a way of going on. ‘If you give them your presence,’ John Smith tells Jamie in ‘In Quinhagak’, referring to the bears that live on the tundra, ‘they’ll leave you alone’. Slow down, pay attention, stand aside. And make time to listen to what the others – the ulus, dance-masks and elders, the tundra, mountains and rivers – have to say. Interesting things will happen. A plane on the horizon will turn out, on closer inspection, to be a ‘flock of geese, heading south’; and, after sitting on the tundra for a while, with no motive in mind but just to be there, you will find your sight ‘adjusting’ and your ‘hearing sharpening’. After nearly an hour of such sitting, Jamie writes, ‘I could distinguish the different sounds the breeze made in the various grasses’.

Bears, Alaska, by Carl Chapman from Phoenix, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The essays do not deny the sense of lostness confronting anyone facing the ‘whole damn mess’. Even as they attend to all that is disappearing, however, they sometimes discover, at the centre of the unravelling, things that the apocalyptic sensibility cannot see, or refuses to see: fragments, glimmers, possibilities. Perhaps, in the end, those fragments will amount to nothing more than fragments. And yet, in Quinhagak at least, the shards of ancient dance-masks have led to the revival of old dances – or, more to the point, have inspired new dances based on old materials. 

These glimmers will not come with clear instructions, Jamie’s essays caution. Nor will everything you see make sense. Scattered throughout her book are reminders that ‘our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right’, as Nan Shepherd puts it, or that the universe, in Barry Lopez’s phrase, ‘is oddly hinged’. In one essay, during a train journey along the eastern coast of Scotland, a strange mirage appears in the window: ‘a ship! A ghostly tanker […] sailing over the pine trees’. (The phenomenon is explained by the fact that the window, even as it lucidly frames the scene of the forest on the landward side, also reflects, on the oceanward side, the boats in the North Sea – a doubling of vision that may also stand in for the power of a language honed by attention, its capacity, that is, to receive impressions of the world even as it discovers what is missed by our customary ways of looking.) There are other strange sightings in the book, caused by tricks of the light, or by the simple limits of human vision: what seems like a woman picking berries far away on the tundra begins to look like a bear which, as it erupts into flight, turns out to be a raven. The ‘visible shifts’, Jamie writes of the scene. ‘Transformation is possible. A bear can become a bird […] The past can spill out of the earth, become the present’.

The transformations do not always take place ‘out there’, on the land. Some of the transformations take place in the body. When John Smith speaks about animals, for instance, Jamie notices how he will often mimic the thing he describes. When John talks about dogs, his hands transform into ‘the paws of a running dog’; when he talks about cranes, he hunches ‘his shoulders in intimation of the cranes’ long-winged flight’; and when he talks about owls, his eyes take on the wide expressiveness of the bird. This, too, is another way of paying attention: looking at animals so closely that their movements inhabit your body and animate your face and hands. The more you give your presence to them, the more they give their presence to you. ‘The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself’, Jamie writes of Quinhagak, ‘holding knowledge collectively’.

What might such transformations auger? And what’s the point of looking so closely? Jamie doesn’t say. She simply looks and listens, compelling her readers to look and listen too, so that whatever emerges is allowed to emerge. A ghost ship; a grandmother’s voice; a raven; a flock of geese; the distinctive sounds of wind on various grasses. None of these things point towards any political programme, or add up to a coherent manifesto, yet they are quietly radical acts, in their own way: at a time when so much is disappearing, due to inattention and neglect, what might it mean to give our attention back to things, so that their presence is scored onto our imaginations? In one of his poems, Les Murray imagines a mode of looking ‘where nothing is diminished by / perspective’, and where everything is ‘all foreground’, and ‘equally all background’. It would be, he says, like looking at a ‘painting of equality’. 

Raven in Seward, Alaska, by DickDaniels (, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is that enough, though, paying attention? The question will naturally haunt anyone who works with words, especially when those words placed alongside, or before, the operations of political power, corporate influence and military might – or, indeed, before the rising of the seas. What’s the use of drawing flowers when tanks are advancing on student protestors in Beijing? And why listen to the wind when miles of coastline are being lost? Jamie wonders about these questions herself. ‘Can we actually say’, she writes in an essay for The Clearing, that noticing amounts to ‘an act of defiance’? The notion can quickly become absurd, she admits. ‘If we indulge the idea, then a bairn hunkering down to peer at a slug will be committing a political act, and we don’t want to lay that on them.’ 

Still, if ‘inattention is slowly killing the world’, then attention can – and should – be at the heart of a politics that would transcend the narrowness of present ways of looking and feeling. To look, to really look, such that the self is prised open by what it sees – such a task has its own urgency and value. We need deep transformations – and quickly; at the same time, we’ve never needed to slow down more, to pay heed, and, yes, to listen to the different kinds of singing the wind and grass can make. Jamie’s essays, even as they prompt feelings of startlement and wonder, or even fear and dismay, also move the reader towards the ethical categories of justice, fairness, and care. This is close looking pressed in the service of recovering the world we lose through neglect, and that can be returned to us, as if for the first time, through the excavations of art. 

Surfacing does not only describe cultural and ecological loss; it is also full of personal loss. In one essay, Jamie describes the passing of her father (when the ‘late snow was gone’ and ‘the daffodils were in bloom’), and, in another, the loss of a certain phase of motherhood. ‘From the Window’ recalls the moment when, after buying some kitchenware for Jamie’s daughter, soon to become a university student in another city, the daughter walks away to meet a group of friends. Jamie is left standing there with a ‘colander and two tea towels’, thinking ‘okay, what now?’ It seems more than fitting, then, that the final essay, ‘Voice of the Wood’, takes place in the middle of a life’s journey, in the middle of the wood, at a moment when the right path seems hard to find. ‘Concentrate’, Jamie tells herself: notice what’s around you.

Green ferns in the groin of an oak. Green moss cloaking a stone. Voice of a crow. Voice of a chiding wren. A smirr of rain too soft to possess a voice. Voice of the shrew, the black slug. Voice of the forest… Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The same moth come back? Or another leaf falling? You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.

by Michael Malay

About the Author

Michael Malay is Lecturer in English Literature and Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. He is the author of The Figure of the Animal in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and is currently working on a project called Late Light, a book about eels, mussels, crickets and moths.

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