Of the 12 essays in the book, two longer ones dominate and set the tone. Each concerns an active archaeological site where Jamie learns how “the past can spill out of the earth, become the present.”
The first site is on the Bering Sea, near the Yup’ik village of Quinhagak, whose “ice-worn hills” remind her of Scotland. Just outside the semi-modern town, rapid erosion of the shoreline has revealed the remains of the 500-year-old village of Nunalleq, long thought lost, though its name survived in local lore. The archaeologists there, who were once obliged to wait until the thaw of August to excavate, may now begin in July. When she asks whether the town had experienced a mild winter, one inhabitant replies, “What winter?”
She befriends indigenous Yup’ik at the dig and is invited to explore their Paleolithic “hunter-gatherer culture” on trips out onto the tundra. There is a palpable sense of the past surfacing. When archaeologists arrive at an ancient house floor, “the air is so clean and sharp, you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago.”
Recovered artifacts inspire an exhilarating cultural renewal among the Yup’ik, who begin fashioning replicas, which “meant relearning old techniques — ivory carving, for example,” as they rebuild “a whole culture lost to colonialism, to missionary zeal.”
Throughout, Jamie remains acutely aware that she is descended from Europeans who once disparaged the “savage” life and is now among those “supplicating, marveling at their relationship with nature, the last of the hunter-gatherers” (though, as she is careful to note, they are “hunter-gatherers with a grocery store”). Proud as they are of their subsistence traditions, the Yup’ik also are aware of their dependence on modern American goods, urging the young to think what will happen “if the planes stop flying.” As she departs, Jamie salutes their “reclaimed past. I wish them a future,” she writes. “I wish them snow.”
Later, Jamie visits another ancient site brought to the surface by rapid erosion at the Links of Noltland, in the Orkney Isles, north of mainland Scotland. The Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement was unearthed when the “natural cycle had been interrupted. Across a mere fifteen or twenty years the ancient dunes had collapsed, and the vegetation had vanished.” The wind that exposed the ancient buildings now promises to efface them altogether in a short time. Working the 5,000-year-old site, an archaeologist muses, “We don’t live long, do we?” This insight leaves the author “freighted with thoughts about time, how it seems to expand and contract” as she learns that many centuries can be separated by “only a few centimeters of earth.” Sadly, due to precarious funding for such digs, most of what emerges out of the site is stored away, perhaps simply to be abandoned as the wind works away at what remains.
Alongside her observations of ancient civilizations are meditations on her ancestors “brought to the surface” after mining disasters and family memories that resurface as each generation passes its memories to the next. “Surfacing” concludes with a description of “a tundra landscape, as seen from the air. Blooms of bottle-green, circlets of paler green, of fawn,” only we learn that Jamie is in her father’s kitchen peeling back the plastic lid on a meal gone putrid. In his final days, her widower father, who lives alone, refuses to eat the meals Jamie and her sister deliver. Their efforts to bring him sustenance only lead to waste, though we are heartened to learn he finds some relief in his final days spent watching his beloved trains go by out the window, “a dram at his elbow.” Jamie considers, “Isn’t that the best way? In your own chair at home. Who wouldn’t want that? Och, he even got to finish his whiskey.”
In these pages, Jamie is inspired to believe that “time is a spiral. . . events remote to one other can wheel back into proximity.” Throughout it all, the reader encounters passages of breathtaking beauty — sockeye salmon like “silk slashes in a Tudor sleeve,” ocean waves “leaving plumes of rainbow hanging in the air behind them” — though Jamie always finds herself relentlessly tugged away from primordial beauty toward anxieties of the modern world and a looming sense of catastrophe, the immediacy of her surroundings giving way to a geologic sense of time.
Ernest Hilbert is a poet and rare book dealer.
By Kathleen Jamie
Penguin. 256 pp. $17