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A pair of environmental writers consider Earth’s changing landscapes

Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie
Penguin
2019
256 pp.
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Erosion: Essays of Undoing

Terry Tempest Williams
Sarah Crichton Books
2019
334 pp.
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As the tundra thaws in an Alaskan Yu’pik community, a buried village surfaces. A dig turns up masks that Yu’pik ancestors had worn in ceremonies not performed for more than a hundred years. Archaeologists unearth stick dolls, wooden spoons, bowls made from woods, and knives made from bone, all gifts from the past taking their place in the present.

In Surfacing, Kathleen Jamie—one of Scotland’s leading poets and an exquisite prose writer—tracks travel observations and reflects on the passage of time. The book is stoked with her precise, often arresting language. The scarlet sides of sockeye salmon in a stream flash “like silk slashes in a Tudor sleeve.” Seal skins and ground squirrels stretched out to dry are “pegged like socks on a line.”

The longest and most intriguing essay in the book recounts Jamie’s travels to a Neolithic site in the Orkneys. A decade-long dig has turned up houses with cattle skulls embedded in their walls, a red sandstone figurine known as the “Westray Wife,” passageways and bone houses, and scrapers made from sheep’s knuckles, all speaking eloquently for a world that thrived before we were burdened “Under the weight of our stuff.”

Jamie’s imaginative identification with these distant people leads her to some of her most lyrical passages. She wonders, for example, what “the wild” meant to these people: “Did stories linger of a way of life before farming, before cattle-raising and sheep? Did ‘the wild’ thrill them, darkly? Shame them?”

Considering the human story through this long lens leads Jamie to see more clearly our moment. “You don’t have to be an archaeologist to know the oil age won’t last half as long as the Neolithic did.” It is a comforting thought, although she has no desire for a throwback way of life. “We can’t go on like this, but we wouldn’t go back either, to the stone ploughshare and the early death.”

Terry Tempest Williams’s Erosion is inspired by Utah’s burnished buttes and canyons, where erosion creates vistas of unexpected beauty. Since her memoir Refuge, Williams has been an important voice for public lands, preservation of the wild, and “the open space of democracy.”

The essays in Erosion are loosely organized in sections that expand on the literal sense of the word to encompass erosion of home, erosion of safety, erosion of democracy, erosion of fear, and erosion of belief. The pressures that energy development have put on the West fuel Williams’s voice. She writes of these practices leading to “a collapse of wholeness and health of the land that is taxing the integrity of our communities.”

“[T]he idea of solitude in wilderness becomes the seminal gift at a time when we are on the verge of letting the noise of our own technologies drown out the sound of life itself,” argues Williams. She finds wilderness a “seedbed for creativity.” It may be so for those privileged enough to experience it, but it seems no longer a given to the national sensibility.

Williams’ essays include an extended interview with activist Tim DeChristopher, who outbid gas and oil companies for a lease on public lands he had no intention of paying for or developing for oil. For this act, he was sentenced to 2 years in a federal prison with a $10,000 fine. The interview unfolds as a fascinating conversation between two activists on a quest for meaningful action to protect the West.

Williams has been on a spiritual quest as well, seeking new rituals in the face of an erosion in belief. She explores the writing of Simone Weil and travels to the Yunnan Province of China to visit the shrine of the goddess of mercy. Her writing is strongest when it offers precise descriptions of landscape and creatures; when she speaks, for example, of “the millennial authority of redwood trees, the forbearance of bison, and the lyrical sermon of a wood thrush at dawn”; and when she documents the history of U.S. public lands.

Too often, however, her language rises into hyperbole and forced analogy. In “Paper, rock, scissors” she writes that the “rock of resistance can crush the political scissors of bureaucracy that threaten to destroy the paper bills that protect wilderness.” As the New Yorker feature used to advise: “Block that metaphor!”

Although they work with very different sensibilities—Jamie as a writer of poetic restraint and Williams one of rhetorical insistence—these two authors are among the most accomplished environmental writers working today. We need both voices as we face the challenges before us, although it is Jamie’s keen and quiet power of observation and her affection for the big story of the human species that seem to me the most bracing tonic for our contentious times.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA.