Review | Surfacing – Kathleen Jamie

About the Book

In this remarkable blend of memoir, cultural history, and travelogue, poet and author Kathleen Jamie touches points on a timeline spanning millennia, and considers what surfaces and what reconnects us to our past. From the thawing tundra linking a Yup’ik village in Alaska to its hunter-gatherer past to the shifting sand dunes revealing the impressively preserved homes of neolithic farmers in Scotland, Jamie explores how the changing natural world can alter our sense of time. Most movingly, she considers, as her father dies and her children leave home, the surfacing of an older, less tethered sense of herself. In precise, luminous prose, Surfacing offers a profound sense of time passing and an antidote to all that is instant, ephemeral, unrooted. 

256 pages (paperback)
Published on September 24, 2019
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This book was a library loan.

Recently, I was in the mood to read something a bit different. Something about somewhere I’ve never been, a place I’ve never heard of. I wanted to read a book written with lush language, evocative prose. I wanted, basically, to go on a journey. 

I came across this book randomly. In fact, I was wandering around Amazon, and I happened upon it. I noticed the author has won some awards for her essays and poetry, and I knew this was exactly what I was looking for. I was lucky enough to discover my library had a copy of the book, so I put it on hold and, here we are. 

Surfacing is not a long book. I usually read tomes that clock in at over 500 pages, so this particular book really only took me a day or so to read, but what a day it was. 

Surfacing is essentially two long essays connected by theme of erosion, of environmental change, of a merging of the past and the present. Mixed into this, are a few shorter essays that give readers a more visceral, personal eye view of some of these places and issues that Kathleen Jamie experiences. All in all, she weaves these bits of narrative and personal history together to create a lush tapestry for readers to engage with. Not only is she discussing archeological sites that are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, but she’s also telling the human story of how these places resonate with people today.

It was quite an interesting read, and another take on archeology and human history that I’ve never really experienced before. Honestly, I’m not even sure what genre this would be. Part travelogue, part personal story, part modern-day journalism, Jamie manages to weave all these different parts together to create a book that just completely swept me away. 

The first essay she writes is also the longest one, and probably the one that interested me the most. Jamie traveled up to Alaska, and spent a bit of time in a Yup’ik village called Quinhagak, only accessible by airplane. This town, far out in the hinterlands of the far north, is home to a few hundred souls. Near the town is an archeological dig that has been attracting numerous wandering souls over the years, from National Geographic photographers and writers, to people like Kathleen Jamie, who are a different sort of reporter altogether. 

The archeological dig is five hundred years old, excavating the native population who lived in that area so long ago. In many ways, this dig is helping strengthen the roots of the residents who still live in that village, who have blood, family, and cultural ties to those who came before. Due to erosion, however, everything is changing. The Yup’ik village has to move, as the land under their homes keeps slipping away as the permafrost melts, and the archeological site is also at risk. In a lot of ways, it’s a race against time. 

However, the link between an ancient hunter-gatherer civilization and modern-day life is explored here, and as layers of dirt are moved, and objects are found, Kathleen Jamie not only discusses those ephemeral ties that bind yesteryear to the present, but also what connects the people to the land. The relationship between modern convenience, modern struggles, the vast and ever-changing landscape, and the results of things like global warming, on the lives of those today. Echoes of the past are still very present in the people who live in the surrounding area, and with a very thoughtful, lyrical approach, Jamie slowly studies all of these threads in this essay. By the end of it, I felt like I’d been up in Alaska, in this Yup’ik village, living with these people and learning how to approach the land, and history in a brand new way. 

I will also say, the more intimate glimpse into how melting permafrost is directly impacting the lives of people, and their security really gave me a new respect and understanding for just how catastrophic global warming really is. It’s easy to ignore it, where I live. Sure, the summers are hot and we’ve got some amazing inversions in the winter, but otherwise, global warming is a thing that happens to other people. However, Jamie really does touch on the subject in a very deft way, and I felt incredibly moved by just how profoundly this is being felt by some people, and just how life-altering it really is.

In one part of this essay, a woman had to have her entire house moved, because the land under it was slipping away. The winter was too warm, and so there was no hunting of the sort that they traditionally do to get them through the winter because, for example, the caribou never came far enough down the mountains. And while this archeological dig is very much connecting a current people to their distant roots, I often felt like they were one group of people living in two very different worlds, because the reality of life five hundred years ago must have been so dramatically different than now, with melting permafrost, altered animal migration patterns due to warmer winters, overfishing concerns and the like, which are fundamentally impacting the way of life of so many.

The second essay in the book takes place on an island, just off the coast of Scotland, where erosion of sand dunes has exposed a very well preserved Neolithic community. This essay is a bit shorter than the Alaska one, and I’m not sure why it didn’t grip me quite as much as the first (though it was probably just because I found the stint in Alaska so interesting, I kind of had a book hangover from reading it) but it was still really fascinating. In this essay, Jamie spends some time on this archeological dig. This particular group of archeologists, working on the Links of Noltland, are facing an imminent funding problem, and so the entire dig is at risk (from a google search, I think I read the government continued funding this dig). 

Jamie explores the relationship between these paleolithic ancient farmers to the land they lived on, and dives into the relationship between people, to the wilderness. In doing this, she also explores the idea of time, and how, thin that connection is, between the present and the past. As though diving beneath layers of soil to discover what lay beneath, somehow helps us peel back layers of time, so we might not only understand our ancestors, and how they lived, but also understand different ways of loving the planet on which we reside. 

Ultimately, Surfacing tells the story of Kathleen Jamie on a few different archeological digs, and while it’s interesting to see where she’s been and what she’s been doing, there’s a deeper message in this book, and it really hit home for me. Here, are two very different places, studying two groups of extremely different groups of ancient people, and yet both of these sites are facing the same issues: erosion, and how it will, given time, erase and completely destroy these places and in so doing, our connection to them. Nature is a force that will not bargain with humanity, and in in this book, Jamie left me with the profound need to not only understand what we are doing to this world we live on, but what it would be like if we started loving our planet again. If we redefined our relationship with the wild. If we examined our past, and perhaps internalized some of these messages that have echoed through so many layers of time.

Told with a poet’s love for language, and an eye for the environment, Surfacing might be a short book, but it packed quite a punch. It will be resonating through me for quite a while.

5/5 breathtaking stars


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