Kathleen Jamie’s luminous new essays brim with sense and sensibility

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

There is a moment in one of the longer pieces in Surfacing, Kathleen Jamie’s luminous new collection of essays, when the author trains her binoculars on an animal in the distance. She is on an archaeological dig in Quinhagak, a Yup’ik village in Alaska. Unsure as to what the creature is — perhaps a bear, or perhaps a woman picking berries — she waits for it to move: ‘After long minutes, my woman-or-bear spread two black wings and took to the air. A raven!’ She wonders:

Maybe it showed how readily, in this unfixed place, the visible shifts. Transformation is possible. A bear can become a bird. A sea can vanish, rivers change course. The past can spill out of the earth, become the present.

It’s just one example of how Jamie marries keen sensory observations with a metaphysical sensibility. Her pared-back prose is alive with complex ideas, not unlike her literary Scottish forebear Nan Shepherd.

‘In Quinhagak’ is one of two long pieces in this collection that revolve around an archaeological dig. In this coastal spot of Alaska, the combination of rising sea levels and melting permafrost has resulted in the exposure of a buried ancient village. Jamie describes how the climate has altered drastically even in the six years of the dig, and quotes the lead archaeologist: ‘It’s like the site’s been towed 500 miles south in just five years.’ Here, and elsewhere in the book, Jamie surveys the damaging effects of the Anthropocene with a steady eye. Though always mindful and mournful of what is being lost, she gives space to what climate change brings to the surface.

She juxtaposes the lives conjured by the 500-year-old artefacts from ‘pre-contact times’, when the Yup’ik ‘were hunter-gatherers and fended for themselves’, with current local habits, such as the enthusiastic consumption of supermarket-bought hot dogs and driving four-wheelers at speed. She also shows how archaeological findings are proving to be a means of appreciating and reconnecting with the past: a ceremonial dance was held for the first time in 100 years, inspired by ancestral dance-masks from the dig. She notices how the permafrost makes burying rubbish impossible: ‘Wrecked snow machines and oil drums, discarded bikes and satellite dishes stay just where they are.’ It’s not the only time that Jamie brings to our attention the layer of plastic and waste we’re leaving behind us.

The other long archaeological piece discusses ‘Links of Noltland’ in Westray, Scotland, where a 5,000-year-old site is newly exposed because ‘a dune system which had existed for millennia had recently been obliterated by the wind’. As Jamie spends time among these ancient remains of a people ‘only a step away from the wild’, she looks again for echoes in the current way of life. The Neolithic Westray Stone, carved with ‘deep, trancey spirals’, was discovered nearby, and she turns a visual observation into a philosophical one: ‘Some folk say time is a spiral, that what goes around comes around, that events remote to one another can wheel back into proximity.’

Jamie also looks at time’s spiral on a more personal scale, exploring recently resurfaced layers of her own life, always with an eye to a surprising resonance, an unexpected detail. She recalls her grandmother, who suffered from severe depression, being given ECT ‘to shock her to the surface of her own mind’. Elsewhere, she transforms the mould on portions of food, left uneaten by her elderly father, to ‘a tundra landscape, as seen from the air. Blooms of bottle green, circlets of paler green, of fawn’.

In the final piece, ‘Voice of the Wood’, Jamie loses herself in a wood,where she has gone to ‘consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing’ of all the ‘horror’ in the world. In writing this piece in the second person, she brings her reader with her, and we can’t see the wood for the trees. Or, rather, Jamie turns this expression on its head: she sharpens our senses and lets us really see the trees, ‘green ferns in the groin of an oak’ and hear ‘a smirr of rain’. She demonstrates that in seeing the detail we can understand the whole: only by seeing the trees can we see the wood and find our way out: ‘The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.’

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