The haunts of my youth have vanished, in two senses — they rest under layers of mental debris, accumulated along life’s way, and under the lava that flowed from the flanks of Mount Helgafell, “Holy Mountain,” in Iceland’s Westman Islands in 1973. These facts evoke in me both pure curiosity and a poignant sense of loss. Where is my home? As have so many others throughout history, I long for a world that is no more, for a place of be-longing that can never be regained. Can I have something in common with a lava field? Can I identify with a mountain, or connect with a contemporary event in the geological history of the Earth, the way other people identify with their generation, genetic fingerprint, or zodiac sign? In the terms of the Christian burial ceremony, what is this earth, these ashes and dust, from which we come and to which we return?
Published today at Punctum Books, a gripping retelling of how a small group of people battled to save their village from a volcanic eruption in Iceland, 1973 as a parable of living in the Anthropocene. Down to Earth: A Memoir by Gísli Pálsson, and translated from Icelandic by Anna Yates and Katrina Downs-Rose, is available in print and digital open access at punctumbooks.com.
Can one have something in common with a lava field? Can one identify with a mountain, or connect with a contemporary event in the history of the earth, in the way that some people feel connected together by birthday, genetic fingerprint, or zodiac sign? In the terms of the Christian burial ceremony, what is this earth from which we come and to which we return?
In Down to Earth, Gísli Pálsson explores such questions through both personal reflection on the microcosm of his childhood home, an Icelandic island disrupted by volcanic eruption, and a critical discussion of the current age of the Anthropocene, characterized by the growing environmental impact of humans. While environmental hazards caused by humans often inform public discussion of the Anthropocene, human impact on the planet is not always detrimental. This book discusses in detail the pioneering effort on Heimaey island to cool molten lava and to divert its flow, in order to save a fishing harbor and the community it has allowed to thrive. Mingling the personal and the geological, the local and the global, Down to Earth should appeal to many readers in diverse contexts throughout the English-speaking world. The author appears to the reader when it suits him, naturally enough, and on occasion near the center of the narrative, in the vicinity of earthquakes, eruptions, and other natural hazards.
Gísli Pálsson is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland. He has written extensively on a variety of issues, including human-environmental relations, slavery, biomedicine, and the social context of genomics. He has done fieldwork in Iceland, the Republic of Cape Verde, the Canadian Arctic, and the Virgin Islands. He has written over 130 articles in scientific journals and edited books. His most recent books are The Man Who Stole Himself (2016); Nature, Culture, and Society: Anthropological Perspectives on Life (2015), Can Science Resolve the Nature/Nurture Debate? (with Margaret Lock, 2016), and Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology (co-edited with Timothy Ingold, 2013). Pálsson has received a number of Icelandic and international honours for his academic work, including the Icelandic Asa Wright Medal for excellence in research, Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the Rosenstiel Award for research from the University of Miami, and from the College of William & Mary, annaward for the best book on historical anthropology (2018). He has served on various international boards and committees, including the European Science Foundation.
Punctum Books is a sparkling diamond open access press with no author-facing fees. In order to survive, we depend on our readers to support our operation. If you want to support the open access mission of Punctum Books, please consider subscribing to our press.