Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Jamie is generally described as a poet and a nature writer, but these categories only begin to convey her remarkable range. The twelve keenly observed and graceful—yet tensile—essays of this collection take us around the world, from the Arctic to Scotland to China during the Tiananmen uprising, and through time from today to the Neolithic era 5,000 years ago. The collection’s two longest pieces explore archeological sites in Quinhagak, Alaska, and Westray, an island off the Scottish coast, reflecting on change and continuity in both local and global contexts. While some technical aspects of the digs are similar, more striking are the contrasts: few of the Scots would go back to the short and difficult life of those distant days, but for the Yu’pik, the excavations are vital to their daily lives, providing one of the few tangible sources for the culture the Europeans nearly destroyed. For Jamie, the sheer proximity of the past is exhilarating and sobering. It teaches her—as the Indigenous people themselves do—the importance of “noticing” her surroundings, and it sparks some of her most sensitive reflections on the meaning of our earthly existence. So add philosopher to her list of titles, and read her book—as she listened to the Yu’pik’s talk—not for the sake of “information,” though there’s plenty here on native ways, landscapes, and more, but for its ways of “coming at a subject sideways,” that is, beautifully and memorably.