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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
IV/ Narrating, representing

“In the early Anthropocene”: Witnessing Environmental Emergency in Kathleen Jamie’s Essays

Monika SZUBA


Cette contribution se penche sur le recueil d’essais de l’Écossaise Kathleen Jamie Surfacing (2019) pour en analyser le traitement de la temporalité, en particulier dans son rapport à la crise environnementale et à la résilience des milieux et des êtres qui les habitent.

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  • 1 I do not include the collection Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002; origina (...)

1Published in 2019, Surfacing is the third collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie – after Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012)1 – at the centre of which lies the entanglement of the living and non-living world. Complementing three poetry volumes – The Tree House (2004), The Overhaul (2012), and The Bonniest Companie (2015) – the essays highlight Jamie’s major preoccupation, i.e. negotiations with the natural world and the possibilities of authentic dwelling on earth. Yet in Surfacing there emerges a sense of urgency as the author is bearing witness to the environmental crisis. In the past two decades it has become a matter of emergency, an increasingly pressing problem. Even though scientists have indicated that growth cannot be sustained at the current rate because resource consumption means that the planet will soon become uninhabitable, responses to the climate emergency have been unhurried, or, if they have occurred, so far, they have been merely rhetorical. Whether an event such as the global pandemic will spur more people and organizations to act in order to ameliorate the ecological crisis remains to be seen. For now, it appears that we continue in a state of inertia as if the catastrophe generated by humans were unreal. The spectre of the Anthropocene haunts Jamie’s collection. Already referenced in the opening paragraph of the first essay, the term announces the presence of some other time, marking an ambiguous temporality of things past and things yet to come. It is there in the rapidly eroding coastline that, on the one hand, reveals material traces of a long-lost culture, and on the other, disrupts human lives and augurs an imminent threat of cultural discontinuity. In the essays, Jamie depicts the palpable effect of these events on vulnerable coastal communities in Alaska and Scotland. An immediate consequence of climate breakdown epitomised in tundra fires, melting permafrost and rising sea levels, ecosystem distress coalesces with positive social processes as a damaged culture becomes revitalised. The essay proposes to examine Jamie’s depiction of loss and resilience that is both melancholic and hopeful, where grief blends with expectation of renewal, reverberating in the image of the Bering Sea merging with the American continent. It will discuss the representation of climate crisis, and that which surfaces, or emerges in its wake, and how it effects irreversible change. Finally, it aims to explore the language of Surfacing, which records environmental emergency and witnesses its consequences to the non-human as well as human world.

The spectres of the Anthropocene

2A spectre is haunting the world – the spectre of the Anthropocene. Officially still not included on the Geological Time Scale, the term ‘the Anthropocene’ has come to be widely used, denoting the unit of geologic time in which human impact on Earth has become so significant that it results in the transformation of physical, biological and chemical systems of the planet. Haunted by the uncanny presence of the past and the imminent arrival of the future, which can be sensed both directly and indirectly, one experiences something that is “quite properly eerie” (Gan et al., 2). Something that is haunting, “untimely”, as “it does not come to, it does not happen to, it does not befall, one day” (Derrida, 2006, 3), and that thereby creates a vague impression as the unrecognizable shape of the present, portends the unanticipated form of the future. A number of critics note the spectrality of our times. As the editors of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene put it, “the winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts”, or “the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present” (Gan et al., 2017, 1). As David Farrier suggests, proposing a comment on the traces humans are leaving behind, “[w]e are conjuring ourselves as ghosts who will haunt the very deep future” (Farrier, 2020, 11). Confronted with the ever-expanding and multiplying manifestations of climate breakdown, we are haunted by the signs of the ways of life from the past, their spectral presence. Approaches to environmental emergency include, on the one hand, “business as usual”, or “please disperse, nothing to see here”, and on the other, amplifying shock and panic. While Timothy Morton, the proponent of the latter approach, calls for “an appropriate level of shock and anxiety concerning a specific ecological trauma”, arguing that this is what “we desperately need” (Morton, 2013, 9), J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, authors of The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, offer an ameliorating reading as they suggest that soon the anthropogenic impact on the planet will “likely” subside as a result of eliminating fossil fuels and decreasing population. This supposedly lessening anthropogenic impact on Earth will be “an accidental by-product” (McNeill and Engelke, 2014, 209). Even if one accepts the argument that the impact humans have had on the planet is an “accident”, as suggested by McNeill and Engelke, who argue that it was “an unforeseen and unintended by-product of actions undertaken for routine quests for wealth, power, and contentment” (McNeill and Engelke, 2014, 209), the reactions to the aftermath using the same “accidental” cause cannot be explained. There is a danger in this line of thinking as it may lead to indifferent or denialist approach to environment emergency if it is treated as a random event, or even a wilful rejection of any attempts to stop or amend the processes. Indeed, one could not foretell what the effects would be, one can only read the event after the fact, in hindsight, which is why “the Anthropocene” is a term haunted by its own failure to realise what we, humans, did. It is only “accidental” to the extent that, one could argue, we could not have known what we were doing as the science to measure it was not available to us then. One cannot legislate for paradigm change, but even if the course cannot be changed wholesale, “adjustments” (McNeill and Engelke, 2014, 209) appear to be a faint response. At the same time, one cannot program for the reactions, these are phenomena manifesting themselves in the moment of an unprecedented and singular event. There is only the after-shock: trauma is always already belated.

  • 2 While this essay is mainly concerned with spectrality, i.e. the metaphysical, the material aspect o (...)

3The word “accidental” in relation to climate emergency occurs in the rhetoric of other commentators. Demonstrating a “naturalising” approach to catastrophe, James Evans suggests that it should be treated as “part of the rhythm of existence” (Evans, 2010, 206) and accepted as an element of our world. If “we can only react to the catastrophe after it occurs, because it is literally part of an ‘unreal’ future that hasn’t happened yet” (Evans, 2010, 210), then the question is how does one react to the blazing world: to the images of wildfires ravaging swathes of land, disappearing Arctic ice shelf, and even the two combined into an oxymoronic vision – the burning Arctic. The fact that the question can be raised at all means that we are only reacting after the event and proves that this is all that can be done. Previously believed to be fire-resistant, the landscape in the far north – the top of the world – is melting. Now ancient peatlands are on fire: fires incinerating tundra, blanketing places in smoke, and transforming the skies into orange infernos straight from a dystopian narrative. Permafrost zones in northern latitudes where the ground used to be frozen the whole year round are now burning, including millions of hectares of land of peat soils, rich in organic matter. Thousands of years of decaying plants accumulate in a carbon sink as megatons of carbon dioxide released into the air cause “a feedback loop” (Witze, 2020, np.). With more frequent fires, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, which contributes to rising temperatures which in turn thaw peatlands causing even more wildfires. Warmer winters mean peatland fires starting earlier and lasting longer, “priming the landscape to burn”, resulting in “zombie fires” as possibly “peat fires had been smouldering beneath the ice and snow all winter and then emerged, zombie-like, in the spring as the snow melted” (Witze, 2020, np.). Fires smouldering underneath the surface for years are now emerging, like the repressed surfacing in a zombified form.2 Gustaf Hugelius, a permafrost scientist, notices that while “for thousands of years” peatlands contributed to lowering the global temperature forming carbon deposits, before the present century ends, “they will probably become a net source of carbon being released into the atmosphere” (Witze, 2020, np.). Arctic fires are not in some distant future but already here, as Amber Soja, an environmental scientist puts it, “What you would expect is already happening”; “[a]nd in some cases [she continues] faster than we would have expected”’ (Witze, 2020, np.). The future of the Anthropocene is taking shape, and is “predicted to increase as the climate warms, but by many measures, the shift has already arrived” (Witze, 2020, np.). The inhabitants of Earth have found themselves in a series of emerging crises, experienced with increasing intensity.

Haunted by past modes of dwelling and imagined futures

4The environmental processes described above are implied rather than stated directly in Surfacing. Even if Jamie’s essays have “an urgent sting” (Benjamin, 2019, np.), they are not shock-inducing but rather melancholic and hopeful; they blend grief with expectation of renewal. A faint hint of environmental melancholia occurs in her writing when Jamie depicts landscapes threatened with disappearance. “Jamie’s apocalyptism is the quiet kind”, as Marina Benjamin puts it in the review of the collection (Benjamin, 2019, np.). If, as Camille Manfredi suggests, Jamie’s “poetry is haunted by the awareness of an increasingly imminent ecocatastrophe” (Manfredi, 2019, 106), her essays follow a different logic, that of a calm attentiveness. Principally, Jamie’s “deep-seated commitment to the environment” (Collins, 2017, 7) reveals itself in a patient act of bearing witness to the world undergoing change. Jettisoning the familiarity with which we approach the natural world in order to de-automatise perception and become more aware, Jamie highlights two words in the introduction to Antlers of Water, namely “attentiveness” (Jamie, 2020, xiv) and “noticing” (Jamie, 2020, xvi), foregrounding her credo, which is observing, looking intently. The good reader of Jamie will have recognised the brief, passing references to the environmental phenomena that have dominated the world in the first decades of the twenty-first century. The term “Anthropocene” appears only twice in the volume – at the beginning and the end of the first essay, the author bracketing lightly and with some finesse where and when we are all situated: in the presence of some other time, marking an ambiguous temporality of things past and things yet to come. Yet the spectre of this other, untimely time looms over the whole collection in changing wind patterns that uncover a Neolithic settlement, the oil cultures (Jamie, 2019, 135), disappearing permafrost, “the chainsaws, the sea creatures tangled in plastic” (Jamie, 2019, 244), sustained erosion of coastlines, “plastic and waste” (Jamie, 2019, 173), the warming world (Jamie, 2019, 3), “mega-cities with instant communications” (Jamie, 2019, 173), “walls”, “poverty”, “missiles” (Jamie, 2019, 173), “the detritus of our own age” (Jamie, 2019, 113), mines like a gash in the ground (Jamie, 2019, 182). As short-lived as “the oil age” (Jamie, 2019, 135) is, there can be no doubt that climate emergency is partly associated with burning fossil fuels. Yet in her understated manner, Jamie never suggests anything as blunt as that. Instead, she offers a brief mention of the plane flying “over the shrinking icecap” (Jamie, 2019, 245), which in itself is a powerful image requiring neither elaboration nor unpacking. The figure of the plane over the disappearing ice symbolises the development of petrocultures which fuel the modern way of life. The act of noticing the ecological emergency takes on the form of short, sparse statements, because those who read the essays do not need to be reminded of the alarming events that are taking place: terse references to the effects of the Anthropocene make the reader even more aware of its spectres. For instance, in a sentence in the indicative mode denoting an objective fact, “Sea levels rise, storm winds are bearing down on us” (Jamie, 2019, 173), the phrase “bear down” contains a tinge of threat, menacingly suggesting the approach of something that is quick, determined, and possibly destructive. From time to time, Jamie adds a reminder about the state of things, signalled in such manifestations of modernity as the influx of tourists, cruise ships (Jamie, 2019, 135), and monocultures (Jamie, 2019, 124-5) as well as in passing remarks on storm surges, high tides, changing wind patterns, all in a tone that merely says how things are, but which also reminds us that a climate emergency is unfolding before our eyes.

  • 3 See for example “Aurora”, “The Woman in the Field”, “The Gannetry”, “The Hvalsalen”, “La Cueva”, “O (...)

5The sparse use of the word “Anthropocene” and of any references to it ensures that it retains its power, thus preventing the term (at least within the bounds of the book) from becoming hollowed out and overdetermined, as it has happened with such phrases as “climate change” and other hyperobjects, to use Morton’s term (Morton, 2013), repeated with so much frequency that they stop being noticed. It is in order to be faithful to Jamie’s reticence and the manner of her presentation, her style, that the question of the Anthropocene and matters of climate change have not been foregrounded earlier in this essay. That Jamie’s collection just is a collection of essays suggests that we learn as we move, that the polemic surfaces rather than being presented as an academic thesis. The title of the collection, its gerund, signposts the tactical motion of the essays: each of them emerges, breaking the surface to bring to consciousness particular issues. The text, seen in this light, is performative, it opens strategically and repeatedly. Jamie does not situate a conventional thesis that she undertakes to prove but rather allows truths to appear. Acknowledging this in Jamie and seeking to be faithful to her mode of production, I have refrained from more obvious polemic earlier in this essay. But this is not only to be true to Jamie; it is also to avoid an act of overdetermination and hollowing out, and this to seek to avoid too any diminution on the part of ontological labelling. As Cary Wolfe suggests, the extent of the event involving “an era of mass extinction, as the very fabric of time itself on Earth, woven over thousands and thousands of years, threatens to unravel before our very eyes” is diminished when “we slap the label ‘Anthropocene’” onto it (Jamie, 2020, xii). Bombarded repetitively with shock-inducing images of forest and bush fires, floods, the aftermath of storms and hurricanes, the news about disappearing ice caps and glaciers, we risk becoming desensitised, shell-shocked: some experience helplessness and despair, while others repress these images, already suffering from “apocalypse fatigue”. Jamie’s infrequent references to environmental emergencies only emphasise the force of the spectre. Surfacing is composed of twelve essays moving between continents (Europe, North America, Asia), landscapes (from a West Highland landscape, the low-lying coastal plains in Alaska, the Orkney archipelago, the Tibetan plateau, and finally, back to the Scottish Highlands), and various stages in life (travels at an early age, a teenage daughter leaving home to study, the death of the father). The opening paragraph of the first essay in the volume, “The Reindeer Cave”, firmly and unequivocally states the temporal and spatial situation of the speaker and reader. The first sentence – “You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age” (Jamie, 2019, 1) – transports us into the past, gesturing towards the Ice Age through the thinking process which bridges the physical situatedness – “sheltering in the cave” – whereby the continuous form of the verb places the subject in the now, while the materiality of the shelter acts as a reminder of its past function. The second sentence reinforces the aspects of place and time: “From a cave-mouth: a West Highland landscape in spring, in the early Anthropocene” (Jamie, 2019, 1). The colon separates the physical emplacement – a site of ancient dwelling – with the temporal plane, or the current geological period. Another reference to time appears at the bottom of the page, once again highlighted in the continuous form of the verb “to think”, as if to indicate that the thought is inevitable, “You sit…thinking about the Ice Age” (Jamie, 2019, 1). The gerund makes it an ongoing process, foregrounding a constant motion of what remains to come to light. The leap between now – the Anthropocene – and then – the Ice Age – brackets the page, from top to bottom, returning like an echo in the speaker’s and, consequently, the reader’s thoughts. Yet thought processes fail to approximate the distant epoch, the failure marked by the blunt statement, a realisation that “you haven’t a clue” (Jamie, 2019, 2). Lyrical imagination comes to the rescue, providing much-needed assistance, as the author imagines the response of the hills: “We can wait…Take your time” (Jamie, 2019, 2), which, even though it may sound reassuring, clashes with the human temporal scale. Indeed, if such phrases are used to tell someone that haste is not necessary, in this context they reveal temporal irony: the hills can wait, their time stretches to millions of years. Silently uttered by the hills, the seemingly reassuring expression becomes a memento mori. If we “take our time” and compare it with that of the geologic time scale, the current epoch appears almost insignificant. The present continuous – doubled in the sentence “You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking” – grounds the reader, contrasting with the past of the Ice Age, while highlighting its abstractness. The use of the pronoun “you” includes the addressee, placing her or him in the centre. Employed by Jamie in earlier essays,3 the second-person perspective becomes particularly prominent in Surfacing, even more powerfully than before, engaging readers in an intimate conversation. Throughout the first essay, and in effect throughout the whole collection, Jamie contrasts temporal perspectives. For instance, noticing that the landscape was shaped ten thousand years ago, she states that “in the great scheme of things, we’re living through a warm bank holiday weekend” (Jamie, 2019, 3), a reminder that what we are witnessing means little in the broader perspective. The phrase which follows – “Warm and getting warmer” – introduces a sense of immediacy yet again, sounding a menacing note as it is relatable to scientific predictions regarding the consequences of global warming. The expression also captures a phrase from children’s games, suggesting that we find out the shocking reality through an involved form of guessing that occurs over time with the possibility of revelation. The remark returns at the bottom of the page, a persistent reminder of the emergency: “The world warms” (Jamie, 2019, 3). The matter-of-fact tone with which Jamie reports the rapidity of the changes, indirectly citing archaeologists, the first-hand witnesses of the event, may be deceptive as in effect the tone foregrounds the extent of loss, as in the two sentences – “In the early years of the dig, the ice was only ten centimetres under the surface of the land. Now it is a half a metre” (Jamie, 2019, 29) – which, by simply remarking on the change, potently suggest the possible ramifications as “[a]nthropogenic landscapes are…haunted by imagined futures” (Gan et al., 2017, 2; original italics). Shaped by a series of cataclysmic events, the world appears to be shaken constantly by crises as we witness the manner in which the present erodes the future – at least the future as we know it. We should not assume that the experience is entirely novel: all modernity has been marked by constant, seismic change yet the awareness of the current environmental event, with its multiplicity and the already experienced consequences casts a shadow onto the future. The emergency is not only the sea ice coverage shrinking on an unprecedented scale, rapidly progressing coastal erosion, and increasingly frequent gale-force winds, but it is also the shrinking of ecosystems, resulting in the disappearance of their biotic parts. As Malachy Tallach observes in an essay on environmental grief, or solastalgia, “the more one learns, the harder it is to be anything but horrified” (Tallach, 2020, 153). Loss assumes prior possession: can one lose something one did not have in the first place? Can we claim possession of the species that became extinct before humankind had a chance to encounter them? Can we say we have lost the land that was “taken” by the sea if the land was never ours to have? All these questions notwithstanding, the sense of loss shapes the modern experience, which now appears to extend beyond the existential anxiety related to living towards death and is shared by many in the realisation of losing large swathes of the natural world in the face of environmental destruction. As I will now demonstrate, we may see these urgent but general global issues being foregrounded by Jamie in her essays.

6Briefly relating reactions to recurrent environmental emergencies, such as floods, Jamie mentions the debates about “land management, flood-plains, deforestation” (Jamie, 2019, 4), led as if those were some abstract concepts rather than the events affecting human and nonhuman beings and things. In response to the news of disastrous flooding, commentators “intoned” (Jamie, 2019, 4), inquiring cautiously, as if tentatively, whether the flooding was an effect of climate change, their reaction contrasting with the emotional reactions of distraught “householders weeping” (Jamie, 2019, 4). The choice of the verb – “intoned” – suggests a repetitive, monotonous ritual. Jamie’s ironic comment challenges the sense of posing the question – “Is it climate change?” – in a display of justified impatience at such a reaction: “Well, you thought sourly, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck” (Jamie, 2019, 4). Responding to expressionless, arid discussions with an emotional response is a gesture which conveys a special relevance in this context. Below, Jamie mitigates this reaction, voicing doubts, wondering whether the disappearance of ice is a part of “a natural cycle, or if we’ve gone too far with our Anthropocene” (Jamie, 2019, 4). The question remains unanswered as, even if we understand the cause and effect, we fail to comprehend “the scale of our species’ effects” (Jamie, 2019, 4). The possessive pronoun “our”, returning in these statements, is an admission of shared responsibility. Reverberating in these remarks is a sense of disquiet or concern, which stems from apprehension caused by the unknowable outcomes of the event.

7Haunted by past modes of dwelling, the landscape contains traces of different ways of life. In “Links of Noltland I”, Jamie depicts a process of saving Neolithic traces from inevitable erosion as the archaeologists race against the atmospherics and time in order to recover objects buried under a layer of earth for thousands of years, but which have been uncovered nevertheless as a consequence of “exceptional and unprecedented” winds in the archaeological director’s words (Jamie, 2019, 110). Situated in Grobust Bay in Orkney, Links of Noltland features a prehistoric farming settlement well-preserved under sand dunes until its surfacing in the nineteenth-century. Emergence has made the place vulnerable, the scale of damage summed up in the statement “a dune system which had existed for millennia had recently been obliterated by the wind” (Jamie, 2019, 110). Preserved for so long, now the Neolithic remains are made vulnerable by the current environmental conditions as a five-thousand-year-old settlement is under threat from coastal erosion. Jamie conveys the archaeologists’ acute awareness of having to save “what remained before it was lost” (Jamie, 2019, 110) as the structures will be destroyed by the wind, which is ever growing in strength. The realisation that they “[r]emained into our own times, till new winds rose and obliterated them” (Jamie, 2019, 133) highlights the force and scope of the processes that we are witnessing. These “new winds” resemble nothing known to humans, since they are capable of disrupting the layers of earth that had remained “grounded” for thousands of years. What is more, these processes proceed with such violence and rapidity that urgency is not a misplaced reaction. Striving to rescue what remains, after realising that so much is already irretrievably gone, heightens a sense of loss. Yet, as Jamie demonstrates, while a destructive force which bears undeniably negative consequences, the high winds can also create an opportunity, serving as a source of renewable energy, and helping us ration resources and replace fossil fuels. The wind turbine, which makes a repeated appearance in the essay, symbolises hope, functioning as a reminder of the possible potential of these new processes.

What we leave behind

  • 4 Conceptualising readership is always problematic because to do so erases difference in favour of an (...)

8Similarly, due to wind and erosion, traces of a Neolithic civilisation become uncovered, its artefacts preserved after thousands of years. In the essay titled “In Quinhagak” (Jamie, 2019, 13–99), Jamie travels to Alaska, almost sixty degrees of latitude – that “the imaginary line” (Jamie, 2019, 13) – in order to witness the far-reaching (and tangible) consequences of the environmental emergency. What we come to learn is the form that the climate breakdown takes in this area, in a village of seven hundred Yup’ik inhabitants, situated on the river Kanektok, the Bering Sea: rising sea levels, coastal erosion, melting permafrost, tundra fires ravaging the region (Jamie, 2019, 18, 22). We learn about the disruptive effect that these changes have on the inhabitants’ lives as the land is eroding so fast that they need to move houses (Jamie, 2019, 241), as the ones in which they have lived all their lives are being swallowed by the sea. Yet at the same time, the erosion has enabled a recovery of tools and adornments from “pre-contact times” (Jamie, 2019, 19) of the Yup’ik hunter-gatherer culture, “a survival of the Paleolithic” (Jamie, 2019, 20). Not only do they tell us about who we are but they have a tangible effect on the local community, as the archaeological dig is “revitalising a damaged culture”. What is more, it is “[d]eveloping resilience and confidence” (Jamie, 2019, 21). As one of Jamie’s speakers says, “This is not about treasure. This is about cultural resilience” (Jamie, 2019, 91). The word “treasure” is used by the media, yet it is a description with which the local inhabitants disagree. What is happening, they repeat emphatically, is not a treasure hunt, but an act of “rebuilding a whole culture lost to colonialism, to missionary zeal” (Jamie, 2019, 20). The reaction of the village inhabitants demonstrates a significant shift: treated as treasures in the age of exploration, appropriated and brought to the shores of Britain, the Inuit articles are to be found in local museums in Whitby, Dundee, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Stromness, where whaling ships sailed from and where Jamie first encountered them. The approach to cultural objects has changed, as now the artefacts found as part of the archaeological project after being catalogued and researched in Aberdeen, will “go home to the Yup’ik land where they belonged, legally and morally” (Jamie, 2019, 20). The word “treasure” emerges once again in an ironic scene as Jamie watches a man combing the beach with specialised equipment in search of valuables while she discusses their invaluable finds with one of the archaeologists. Confronted with what the dig reveals about other times, Jamie reflects on the traces that we will leave behind. Through the contrast between the archaeological finds and the refuse of today, her attention becomes drawn to the junkyard, that motley collection of discarded electronic equipment in Alaska. The image of the scrapyard is juxtaposed with the five-hundred-year-old artefacts. Is everything that we will leave behind disused stuff? What will remain after we go is junk, except that with the eroding coastline, nothing will remain in five hundred years (Jamie, 2019, 26–7), Jamie concludes. When she notes that “We are becoming ashamed of our own layer – plastic and waste” (Jamie, 2019, 173) it is important to consider who she means by saying “we”. Assuming that it is “we the humanity” would be overly generalising. It is “we the readers of the essays together with the author”, collectively. The first-person plural pronoun addresses the readership of the texts thus imagining an indefinite community of readers. Jamie is not presuming a community, but is engaging tactically in a series of performative motions of surfacing – the gerund implying a constant and unending movement – that speak only to those readers who are capable of understanding. We read the essays because we are becoming aware, or perhaps because we have already become aware of the problems we have created. Invented in response to “the harsh reality of modern experience”, to cite Jean-Luc Nancy, “the thought of community or the desire for” one (Nancy 1991, 10) may be perceived as an attempt to oppose the order of things and resist immanent power.4 The act of noticing, as Jamie highlights in Antlers of Water, is necessary in order to gain awareness. Taking notice of the world in this manner becomes a demonstration of a quiet resistance to the attention economy, pervasive in modern culture.

9Witnessing environmental emergencies is a collective experience, transgressing individual affect. As Lucy Collins argues, Jamie belongs to a group of writers for whom “ecological melancholia is situated in an uneasy space between a private emotion, at times difficult to disclose, and a recognition of shared loss that transcends the particularity of experience” (Collins, 2017, 3). Yet being ashamed might not serve its purpose: shaming as a form of social control might not be as effective as some would like to believe. It may create a backlash; moralisation has proved to have a reverse effect. According to James Evans, a change in people’s approach to the environment does not require addressing the “moral barrenness of a society forged in the fire of utilitarianism”, as has been done so far, but rather focusing on the economic aspects that a prospect of living on “a barren planet” carries (Evans, 2010, 216). What is more, blaming all humanity and marking it as the leading villain in the extinction event, is not the right solution. As the editors of Extinction Studies Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Doreen, and Matthew Chrulew point out, when considering mass extinction, which we are currently witnessing, it is necessary to avoid generalising and instead to inquire which “forms of human life are driving these catastrophic processes of loss” and “in what other diverse ways are humans drawn into and implicated in extinction – and its resistance” (Bird Rose, van Doreen and Chrulew, 2017, 6). What is needed is “a detailed discussion of the specific political, economic, and cultural forms of human organization most responsible for any given extinction” (Bird Rose, van Doreen and Chrulew, 2017, 6). Ideally, the path should lead from awareness to discussion to action.

  • 5 See for instance Carrell, 2020; Duncan 2019; Keane 2017.

10In the essay titled “The Eagle”, one of the shortest in the collection, Jamie captures the problem of vanishing species. The brevity of the essay reflects their elusiveness. Towards the end of the text, as she is watching two birds, Jamie observes that her attention strayed when she became distracted by a dilapidated construction caught in the corner of her eye: a “corrugated iron, mustard-coloured” shed with a warning sign “DANGER. KEEP OUT” (Jamie, 2019, 104). For whom was the sign intended there on the glen, Jamie wonders. What danger might the “ramshackle hut” (Jamie, 2019, 104) pose? And to whom – or what? She notices the sign only to lose sight of the bird. In the moment when she looks at the shed, the eagle passes over it, then is gone. Witnessing its disappearance becomes symbolic as, although this is not stated directly, it may be assumed that the area serves as a shooting ground. The reader might be puzzled at the irony: if it is indeed a site used by shooting parties, whatever (or, rather, whoever) hides in the shed is a prime danger to birds, hence the sign should be intended for them. The disappearance of birds of prey such as hen harrier and eagles happens on the land used for such activities as deer stalking and grouse shooting. It is clear Jamie wishes us to infer from the specific textual disappearance a more general eco-political condition: in the past few years, there have been many cases of killings of birds of prey in Scotland, deemed as “mysterious disappearances” by some media.5 Raptor killings have been observed in Scotland for years, a result of human interference. The loss of birds of prey by human hand follows a slow reintroduction because the efforts of committed groups of conservationists to reverse species extinction is thwarted. In a world where hunting by humans has led to the accelerated extinction of a number of species, biodiversity conservation “informed by a desire for panoptic knowledge” (Lorimer, 2015, 58–9) seems all the more necessary.

Attuned to the land for good reason

11As large swathes of land are privatised, vanishing species are combined with, or perhaps one could say, a consequence of, another problem, i.e. the encroachment of private ownership on the land. Unprivatised land is rare, especially in Scotland where half of the rural land is owned by a few hundred people and public bodies, and where such concentrated land ownership as a result of the monopoly of power is a source of inequality. Land ownership, which arises in a conversation about the native land claims in Alaska (Jamie, 2019, 89–90), provokes Jamie’s comment about the situation in Scotland where the countryside is heavily concentrated in the hands of very few people and institutions. The process of commodification of the land has proved not only disruptive for human communities, corroding local ties, but it has broken biotic relationships and damaged ecosystems, banishing numerous nonhuman animal species and creating uninhabitable sweeps of terrain. Gazing at a stretch of Alaskan landscape, Jamie imagines a world “before”:

I was looking out at land. Land, every way one turned. From this small hill the tundra was laid out below like a green sea, sedgy and subtle and glinting with secret melt-pools and waterways. It was land relishing its brief summer, open and free to breathe. To west, south and north the land seemed unbounded, but inland there rose range after range of low, grey-blue mountains, the source of the river, with shadows in their glens and corries. Above all, the sky. Every hue of sky was present at once, here a shower, there rays of sunshine filtering through, there openings of blue, and every white and grey of cloud. Shadows of clouds drifted over the land. It was a dream vision, a mythic view of land before farms, before towns and roads, unparcelled, unprivatised, whole. (Jamie, 2019, 78-9)

12In the passage above, Jamie offers a self-consciously idealised vision of a pure, pre-agrarian world. Through the land merging with the sky and the tundra taking the form of the sea, the image assumes an unreal aspect, enhancing the impression of stretching ahead and around the observer, as if engulfing her. The oneiric quality of the evoked landscape is further highlighted by the tranquillity emanating from the description, which is relatively static or passive, dominated by nouns. In one sentence, the land becomes personified: displaying living processes as it appears “open and free to breathe,” and thus endowed with a life of its own, capable even of enjoyment, as it seems to be “relishing” a summer. Through the use of two words – “glens” and “corries” – the Alaskan landscape becomes transmogrified and wondrously transported to Scotland, transformed into some idealised, mythic land predating compartmentalisation, privatisation, and monopolistic tactics, which damaged communities. Referring to the wholeness of the land, Jamie foregrounds an irretrievably lost unity of an undamaged world, as we imagine it to have existed before urban settlements, in preindustrial times.

13In order to counteract an overwhelming feeling of despair and helplessness, Jamie demonstrates modalities which are local, practical, and focused on caring. Understood as “a material concrete doing”, care is “always specific” according to Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017, 42) and “includes “everything that we do to maintain, continue and repair ‘our world’ . . . which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web” (Tronto, 1993, 103, qtd. in Puig de la Bellacasa 2017, 69, emphasis added). Puig de la Bellacasa emphasises the word “everything”, pointing to the heterogeneous aspect of our existence:

This vision of caring presupposes heterogeneity as the ontological ground on which everything humans relate with exists: myriad doings – everything we do – and of ontological entities that compose a world – selves, bodies, environment. It speaks of care as a manifold range of doings needed to create, hold together, and sustain life and continue its diverseness. This also means that an understanding of human agencies as immersed in worlds made of heterogeneous but interdependent forms and processes of life and matter, to or not to care about/for something/somebody, inevitably does and undoes relation. (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017, 69–70)

14In Jamie’s essays the relation is manifest in caring for one’s household and one’s own backyard, the latter understood not only literally but as the landscape in which one dwells, as one of the members of the Yup’ik community calls the sweep of the land stretching behind his house (78–9). Care extends into the act of storytelling; there are the anecdotes and incidents about encountering a bear on one’s tracks, which are retold as a way to “know your own backyard” (82–3). It is attending to the cattle and giving them names. Thus care is, by extension, an act of communication. Considering an oft-cited statement by Iain Crichton Smith (Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn), “He who loses his language loses his world”, Jamie ponders, wondering if it could be reversed: “If one loses one’s world, one loses one’s language”, and everything that it encompasses, namely “[t]he world of things, of making, of the land and animals and the stories and the hands’ work” (Jamie, 2019, 91–2).

15The associations between language and the land foreground the relationships based on basic care involving corporeal being. Jamie underlines the importance of “making”, of manual labour, of “the hands’ work” as she stresses the material aspects of dwelling. Further on, she mentions them again, referring to the archaeological finds, which “are out of the earth, back in the hands of people”, and which undergo a series of processes when these people handle them as they “call them into memory and know them, weigh them, test them, name them”. Through the enumerated gestures of remembering, touching and naming, these objects are brought back to the community, or as Jamie puts it, “they have come home” (Jamie, 2019, 94). Both spiritual and “deeply practical, attuned to the land for good reason” (Jamie, 2019, 83), the Yup’ik people observe the seasons of salmon fishing, harpooning the walrus, moose-hunting, berry-picking, which offers a glimpse into life lived closer to the ground. It allows Jamie to depict authentic dwelling of a culture which does not exchange “information”, but one which focuses on telling “incidents, anecdotes” (Jamie, 2019, 53) about birds and animals. Among the inhabitants of Quinhagak there are people who talk to the bears, believing that “[i]f you give them your presence”, if you utter the words “Quan-tah”, “I’m here”, the bears will go their own way (Jamie, 2019, 50). Being entangled in a complex network, sharing the land with other interdependent forms means that “[t]he whole place must be in constant conversation with itself, holding knowledge collectively” (Jamie, 2019, 54), which suggests the manner in which the Yup’ik relate with the world, caring, attuned to its ontological heterogeneity.


16Existential questions about what it means to be human reverberate in the collection, ending the first essay “D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?” (Jamie, 2019, 4) only to return later in a rephrased form (Jamie, 2019, 136). The first-person plural pronoun “we” emerges yet again, highlighting the collective aspect of these reflections. Jamie cites Paul Gauguin’s late nineteenth-century inscription on a painting, where the three phrases originally appeared without a question mark, proposing a metaphysical inquiry about the origin, nature and future of humankind. In an imaginative leap, Jamie wonders what could represent our civilisation to some other intelligences in the Voyager spacecraft. Considering which object could tell the story of our species, she chooses a stone ploughshare, marking a distinction between wild and arable, a thing that speaks of the “breaking of the earth” (Jamie, 2019, 149). The ploughshare began a technological intervention in the landscape which would leave a permanent mark, and which, with time, would lead us where we are now. In a review of Surfacing, Alan Massie comments that “knowledge permits us to see what the Neolithic people could not have imagined: that we may be hurtling to disaster, to extinction” (Massie 2019, np.). In an ambiguous temporality of things past and things yet to come, future is invariably obscured from us. “All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant”, writes Derrida (Derrida, 1995, 387). The monstrosity of the arrivant is guaranteed by its unknowability: what arrives cannot be known in advance, and, what is even more frightening, it may change us beyond recognition. While some consequences of human terraforming have already become visible and are experienced by an increasing number of life forms, the full extent of the putative Anthropocene is yet unknown; it remains unknowable, carrying with it unforeseen and unforeseeable effects. It is the unthought yet the haunted quality of the ghost, of the landscape, which functions as an indicator of changes to come: the vision of the land bearing traces of past civilisations confirms that at some time our future will also be in the past. Precisely because it is “unreal”, as Evans puts it; this means the future is spectral, therefore it is, possibly, to come. The experienced instability lies “sometime in the deep future” (Jamie, 2019, 182), as Jamie puts it, yet, instead of the belief in an imminent end of the present world, she offers quiet hope in a calm, reassuring tone characteristic of her writing. The slow pace of her style – as of someone walking in harmony with the land – does not pretend to forebode disaster or final doom, but assumes a calm – and calming – tone, which is both melancholic and hopeful, at the same time sounding loss and regeneration. “All is not yet lost” (Jamie, 2020, xvi), she reminds her readers in the introduction to Antlers of Water. We need to “carry on” (Jamie, 2019, 245) and “get on with it”, to approach matters “in the spirit of ‘getting on with it’” (Jamie, 2019, 116) as, in the past, “[p]eople just got on with it” (Jamie, 2019, 116) in the face of adversity. What we can do while preparing for the arrivant is think about the words of the Yup’ik people: “We’ll adapt. We’ll expect the unexpected” (Jamie, 2019, 97). You know the path, Jamie writes, walk it.

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1 I do not include the collection Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002; originally published in 1992 as The Golden Peak) as it has a different focus.

2 While this essay is mainly concerned with spectrality, i.e. the metaphysical, the material aspect of discussions concerning environmental emergency, which should not be ignored, emerges here in the form of figures such as the zombie.

3 See for example “Aurora”, “The Woman in the Field”, “The Gannetry”, “The Hvalsalen”, “La Cueva”, “On Rona”, or “Voyager, Chief” in Sightlines.

4 Conceptualising readership is always problematic because to do so erases difference in favour of an ontology of the reader. There is neither space nor time in the present essay to address the idea of the collection’s readership as fully as I would like.

5 See for instance Carrell, 2020; Duncan 2019; Keane 2017.

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Monika SZUBA, « “In the early Anthropocene”: Witnessing Environmental Emergency in Kathleen Jamie’s Essays »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 28 mai 2021, consulté le 05 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Monika SZUBA

University of Gdańsk
Monika Szuba is the editor of Boundless Scotland: Space in Scottish Fiction (University of Gdańsk Press 2015), and co-editor with Julian Wolfreys of The Poetics of Space and Place in Scottish Literature (Edinburgh University Press 2019). Author of Contemporary Scottish Poetry and the Natural World: Burnside, Jamie, Robertson and White (Edinburgh University Press 2019).

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