Although I've loved the previous books by Scottish poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of her latest essay collection, Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez.
Her essay "In Quinhagak," for example, tells the story of Jamie's summer on an archaeological dig in a Yup'ik village on the Bering Sea. Towards the end of the summer, she joins a colleague for an afternoon of bird-watching:
"We chose to sit quietly, and in a short space of time, maybe twenty minutes of looking out over the landscape, I realised my eyes were adjusting, my vision was sharpening....We looked at the land, and at a pond where Melia had noticed a number of different ducks and waterfowl; it was these she wanted to watch. Grebes and shovellers with little parties of chicks setting sail across the blue water. Sometimes, a rare and beautiful Aleutian tern flew in. I was happy just to sit quietly in the company of someone who also enjoyed spells of quietude.
"After thirty minutes or so, I could see colours better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.
"A quiet meditation. Melia sat some yards away, half turned to look southward, occasionally lifting her binoculars, naming a bird she saw. My hearing sharpened too: after forty-five minutes I could distinguish the different sounds the breeze made in the various grasses. A little bird nearby made a buzzing noise, like a small electrical fault. The ripple of pondside reeds, the light on distant mountains. Then an owl appeared, labouring toward us with a fat lemming drooping from its claws. It landed silently fifty yards away, watching us. We hoped it was feeding the young one we'd disturbed. Its cat-like owl eyes stared at us through the long grass-stems.
"We watched the tundra, but the tundra, they say, is watchful too. The people say, 'It's like something's looking at you.'
"There are stories of disappearance and reappearance out on the tundra.
"Was it John [a Yup'ik colleague on the dig] who told the story of the two men out on the tundra in fog? The fog was so low, just above their heads. But a hole appeared in the fog and from the hole they could hear laughter and merriment. 'Give me a leg up,' said one of the men. 'I want to see what's happening.' 'Okay, but you must reach for me in turn, and pull me up too,' said the other. So the first man entered the world above the cloud, but at that moment the hole closed and the bank of fog moved on, and the first man was never seen again.
"The story of another man, who got lost on the tundra and was given up, but who walked back into the village years later, wearing the very same clothes.
"The story of the little spirit woman appearing to a lost hunter, with a drum, dancing to the beat of her drum. She was on a hillock. 'But I knew I mustn't follow her. I knew I mustn't....'
"The story of the rain-cloud. The woman was out collecting berries and had stayed too long, become a bit exposed and sunstroked. 'But,' she said, 'a little cloud came, right above my head and let down rain, it filled the leaves with rain for me to drink. How grateful I was to that cloud!'
"After an hour, my senses were still clarifying. Perhaps it would never stop.
"Now a loon was passing overhead, against the bright clouds, with a long thin fish trailing from its beak.
"Then Melia saw cranes. She called my attention and together we watched seven or eight sandhill cranes flying in, flying low, then land one by one, and begin to stalk through the grass on long legs.
"By then the grasses were so vibrant I could almost taste them. This, after only an hour of attention. What would a year be like, a lifetime, a thousand years? How attuned a person, a whole people, could become.
"Who can say which story is 'true' and which not, when the tellers' senses are so acute?"
I highly recommend Surfacing, a book that is quietly exquisite.
The art in this post is by Inuit sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben, who was born in a camp south of Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories. His great-grandparents, noted shamans Apakark and Kagun, came from the Bering Sea region of Alaska. Until the age of eight he lived with his family on the land, migrating with the changing patterns of the seasons; and then, like so many of his generation, he was sent away to a white-run boarding school -- the trauma of which he has subsequently explored in some of his most powerful pieces of art. After studying at the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska, Ruben established an art career exploring the stories, myths, and traditions of his ancestors in sculpture, prints, and drawings. Today, his art is exhibited and collected across the United States and Canada.
"The Inuit believed in the existence of the Soul in all living things," he says. "The concept of reincarnation was central to family and community beliefs. As a vigorous group of Arctic people, the Inuit came from west to east in wave after wave of nomadic bands in search of new land and game. With the re-curved Asiatic bow and toggle harpoon they hunted sea and land mammals. They traveled by kayak and umiak in summer and by dog team in winter. The Inuit Shaman acted as mediator between the world of man, animals, and the spirit world. He was the keeper of Inuit stories, myths and legends, the repository of knowledge of the land and the secret worlds.
"As a storyteller, I have sought to bring life to these ancient voices from a time when northern people held a reverence for the land and for all living things therein that provided sustenance and survival."
The passage quoted above is from Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.