'Surfacing,' Erosion': Alternative Views of Climate Change
A pair of authors tries to maintain optimism about the worlds changing landscapesbut at what cost? In October, the residents of Newtok, Alaska, are expected to begin relocating because of climate change. And its not just the people who are moving. The town is packing up everythingincluding its school and airport and starting over on higher ground nine miles away. Sitting between two rivers on the states southwestern coast, Newtok voted to move in 1996 , but governmental red tape and the projects high cost, more than $100 million, have contributed to the delay. As rising tides claim their land and record-breaking heat melts the permafrost beneath their homes, Newtoks 354 residents hope to complete their move by 2023. We cannot wait anymore, the villages relocation coordinator told Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in August . Residents of other Alaskan towns and villages may soon be saying something similar, if they arent already. Ninety-two miles east of Newtok, the 350 people who live in Napakiak are retreating from the Kuskokwim River, moving back their houses and other properties one by one from the eroding riverbank. Twice they have had to move the village cemetery. Its a constant race against time, and right now the local grocery store, the fire station, and a city building are top of the list for relocation, a city-council member told the news agency AFP earlier this year . He added: Who knows what we are going to face in the next 10 years. The U.S. governments 2018 National Climate Assessment provided some idea , finding that 49.4 million housing units are located within shoreline communities across the country and that flooding from rising sea levels and storms is likely to destroy, or make unsuitable for use, billions of dollars of property by the middle of this century. Amid this destruction, a pair of new books suggests, may lie the secret to surviving it. In Surfacing , the Scottish essayist and poet Kathleen Jamie recounts her 2014 visit to Quinhagak, a coastal village of some 700 people located south of Napakiak. Five years earlier, while watching the Bering Sea swallow their land, creep closer to their homes, and threaten their community, Quinhagaks residents, most of them indigenous Yupiks, invited Rick Knecht, an archaeologist from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, to help them preserve what the water was taking away. Jamie reports that that erosion of a mile-long stretch of beach had revealed a 500-year-old village filled with Yupik artifacts: line weights, harpoon heads, jewelry, wooden arrow-shafts, fishing weights, darts, models of animals, even ceremonial dance-masks, ritually broken after use. The discovery of these objects soon led to a renewed interest among the Quinhagak community about a way of life that had all but been forgotten. Before Jamie joined Knecht in Alaska, the archaeologist had told her that the site, named Nunallaqor Old Villagewas revitalizing a damaged culture and developing resilience and confidence among Quinhagaks residents. Warren Jones, the former president of the village corporation that owns the land in Quinhagak and most of the businesses that operate on it, tells Jamie how the dig inspired the first ceremonial dance in the village in a hundred years. Jones credits interest in Knechts work to an increase in young Quinhagaks attending college, and believes whats happening there can show other Alaskan villages how a return to traditional ways of life can prepare them for the future. As one village elder tells Jamie during a discussion about hunting, We gotta remember . If the planes stop flying and no food comes in, we gotta remember how to live. With Surfacing , Jamie doesnt join the chorus of voices calling for immediate action to prevent the effects of climate change from getting worse. She admits to feeling powerless to resist the global forces and corporations blamed for the crisis. She cant, however, be accused of throwing in with the climate defeatists . Surfacing is a work of cautious optimism, with the author occasionally tilting too far toward wide-eyed hope. If you imagine all the incidents the people here spoke of, she writes of Quinhagak, all the looking and listening, the stories and encounters, remembered and repeated and layered over thousands of years, you might indeed come to know your own backyard. And how it might help you. Such stories are not, of course, found only in Alaska. Later in the book, Jamie spends time at an archaeological site named the Links of Noltland in her native Scotland. Buried for 5,000 years, the site is home to a recently exposed seaside settlement from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. As steady winds erode human remains and other evidence of communities that existed on the spot for 700 years, archaeologists race to save as much of it as they can. The subsistence farmers who lived here, Jamie writes, practiced a way of life that bound you inescapably. More than once, archaeologists tell her that these people just got on with itthe business of living. Does this matter, is the question, Jamie wonders. Do we want to know how it was to be human, here, five thousand years ago? Do we want to know where were coming from as we cruise into the future? What we were, or might be again? How we engaged, if thats the word, how we configured our relationship with the rest of the natural world, with the planet. Jamie appears content to let the reader answer these questions, and she moves on to essays about losing her parents, her bout with cancer, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in China. For Terry Tempest Williams, there is no moving on from such questions. The Utah-based conservationists new book, Erosion: Essays of Undoing , reads like a longer, louder, and less searching book than Jamies. Without a respect for origins, Williams declares, the human spirit falters. In her impassioned collection of essays, poems, and interviews dating back to 2012, Williams returns often to the idea that in order to adapt to the climate crisis, everyone will need to understand what indigenous communities have always known, and are increasingly willing to sharethat we are one with the land, not apart from it. The veteran nature writer Barry Lopez makes a similar argument in his recent, career-spanning book Horizon , and like him, Williams understands that her observationsand, ultimately, her faith in humanity and optimism about its futurecome from a place of privilege. While everyone is experiencing the effects of climate change, its easy to write Our undoing is also the making of our becoming when the ocean isnt lapping at your front door. I have the privilege of looking forward, Williams admits in Erosion , later adding, This is who I amBoom! A white woman of privilege born of the CovenantI am not on the outside but inside. Williamss impatience with subtlety, penchant for aphorisms (Wilderness is a necessity, not a luxury; The silence before us is time), and wide embrace of repetition threaten to dull the books message early on. But the more she repeats her argumentssometimes within the same paragraphfor saving public lands, standing up to the oil and gas industries, and building another world in the ashes of this one, the more effective Erosion becomes. Williamss and Jamies books arrive late in a year that has already seen climate literature advance in intimate (Margaret Renkls Late Migrations ), imaginative ( Karen Russells Orange World ), and authoritative (Lopezs aforementioned Horizon ) ways. On their own, Surfacing and Erosion arent quite at the level of those works. But taken together, their disparate approaches to the same idea To belong to a place and a group of people saves our lives, as Williams puts itprove to be, almost despite themselves, encouraging.