Life feels like one headlong rush at times. The phone squeaks constantly with notifications, demanding attention now, the 24 hour news fills our lives with politics and despair and yet time goes no faster than it did 5000 years ago. It grinds ceaselessly on, covering memories and objects with its gossamer-thin seconds. To go back in time, we need to unearth our landscapes and memories.
Time is a spiral. What goes around comes around.
The book opens with her in Alaska helping at an archaeological dig in a Yup’ik village. The site is normally frozen most of the year, but in the summer the cold relents, normally allowing the top four or five inches to be uncovered, however, climate change means that the permafrost is thawing to a depth of half a metre allowing more secrets of its hunter-gatherer past to be revealed. The objects that they are finding are enabling the village to re-discover their past. They found dance masks that were discarded after missionaries told them it was devil worship and for the first time in a very long time performed a dance that was pieced together from the elder’s memories.
The landscape was astonishing. There was nothing I wanted to do more than sit quietly and look at it, come to terms with its vastness.
Her next excursion to the past is at the Links of Noltland, up in Orkney. This Neolithic site has been covered by dunes and what they have found here was last seen by human eyes thousands of years ago. The need to excavate and understand just what is there is urgent as it is subject to erosion from the storms that the Atlantic brings, as well as the other pressure of funding to carry out the work being stopped because of budget pressures. These people were only a step away from the wild and had short brutal lives and yet they were skilled enough to have devised a method when they built their homes to keep out the relentless wind.
They fill your hands, these fragments, these stories, but with a wide gesture, you cast them back across the field again.
Jamie writes of time spent in Xiahe in Tibet in her younger days, at the time of the student protests and the clampdown of martial law in the region and the palpable tension in the area. They explore as much as they can, but because they are foreigners, they have an undue amount of attention directed towards them, including the inevitable night raid by the police. There are other essays in here too, almost short interludes between the longer pieces. She stops her car to watch the mastery an eagle has over the air and consider the timelessness of a woodland. Some of the essays are more personal too, she recalls the moment of her fathers passing and struggles to hear her mother and grandmothers voices in her mind.
A new Kathleen Jamie book is a thing of joy, and Surfacing does not disappoint at all. Her wonderful writing is layered, building images of the things that she sees, until you the reader, feel immersed in the same place that she inhabited. Some of the essays are very moving, Elders in particular, but also The Wind Horse where you sense the tension in the town from what she observes. Her skill as a poet means, for me at least, that her writing has a way of helping you seen the world around in a new and different light, revealing as much from the shadows as from the obvious and this book is no different.
Paul Cheney 5/4
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Sort of Books 9781908745811 hbk Sep 2019