Surfacing II by Kathleen Jamie

In the second half of Kathleen Jamie’s latest nature writing essay collection, Surfacing, she writes about an archaeological dig on the the island Orkney in Scotland, remembers a trip to a Tibetan town in China in her twenties, and tries to recall voices of her own female ancestors that are beginning to fade from her memory.

Links of Noltland I, II, III

The author spends time at another dig, one whose archaeology has been buried for five thousand years on the Scottish island of Orkney.

‘What’s happening is significant really to…well, to archaeology, but also to us, the human race.’

It is a Neothilic and Bronze Age settlement, a site that has been in operation for a number of years and could go on for many more, if they had surety of funding. They do not.

‘There’s enough here for thirty PhDs on bone alone,’ said Graeme, ‘Decades worth of work.’
‘If HES really pull out what will happen?’
‘We’ll have to look elsewhere and make all kinds of promises. We can’t look to the EU anymore.’

There is not just the work on site, but a Victorian building stacked with their findings, she visits and is shown beads bones and stones and ponders who those people might have been.

For a moment, out of the twenty-first-century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, there emerged a vision of people clothed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

The most famous find, discovered in 2009, is kept in the Heritage centre, where they have a small section, most of the centre given over to more recent Viking finds.

The ‘Westray wife’ is the earliest representation we have of a human, in the UK, and she has become a motif for the site, almost a tourist attraction, if tourists can be drawn to a sandstone figure not four centimetres high on a faraway island.

Jamie asks about local interest in their ancient dig and is surprised by the response.

‘They’re interested but not connected. It’s only the Viking they’re interested in. It’s the Vikings the Orkney and Shetland islanders identify with. They’re not British, not Scottish, they’re Norse. Not prehistoric. Viking.’
‘But the Vikings are so recent, relatively.’
‘The Vikings “won”,’ said Hazel with a shrug.
‘What do you mean the Vikings “won”?’ I asked reluctantly, thinking of the ancient burial mound I could see from my window, which the Vikings had chosen to use as a fishing station.
‘Just that. After the Vikings arrived, all traces of the older culture ceased. That’s what the archaeology is suggesting.’

Some years before the team found cows’ skulls set into the walls of one of the buildings they’d excavated, a complete ring of cattle skulls, all placed upside down with the horns facing into the room. The wall had been built up over them, no longer visible, but presumably their presence had been felt by whoever built it.

There are other sites over Europe where cattle skulls have been found and often a rush to come to conclusions, resulting in dramatic headlines of massacre or sacrifice, but this team have a different take on it, believing them to have had symbolic or aesthetic significance.

‘Remember’, said Graeme, ‘these animals would have had biographies. They would have been known as individuals. As personalities. Spoken about.’
‘Named?’
‘Maybe.’
‘You think they revered their cows?’
‘Worshipped!’ Hazel Laughed.

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She meets a couple who are organic cattle farmers, it seems like the only living link to the Neolithic people. They moved onto the farm one day and ploughed up the ryegrass the next, to plant a species-rich herbal lay, with thirty varieties of grass, which has seen a great increase in insects and wormcasts. They now have a herd of twenty-three milking cows. With names. And personalities. And a bull named Eric.

‘Lots of bulls here are called Eric. I think its a Viking thing.’

The couple make an artisan cheese in the style of alpine French cheeses called ‘Westray Wife’ a little picture of the Neolithic figurine features on their labels.

In the second part of the essay she returns for the end of the season, the closing of the site and in the third part she writes the story of the Neolithic people, the culmination of observation and imagination.

Surfacing

Although ‘Surfacing’is a metaphor which aptly describes the book’s theme and is appropriate for narratives about archaeological digs, it is also the title of a vignette about the author’s mother and grandmother.
Your losing their voices. When did that happen? You’re forgetting the sound of your mother’s voice,and your grandmother’s. They died within eighteen months of each other a decade ago and today you realise you can’t quite bring their voices to mind.

A Tibetan Dog

A wonderful little essay that recounts an experience with a little terrier in a Tibetan town and his return in a dream many years later, a symbol she interprets on awaking, like a message from the subconscious she immediately understands.

The Wind Horse

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The final longer essay is one pulled from old notebooks and memories of her twenty-seven-year old self, travelling far from home, a woman who wanted to become a writer, starting out.

It is notably different to the earlier essays, more of a travelogue, less present, more self-conscious, there’s a passivity to travelling through a place without purpose, looking at it from the outside.

I could look and smile, but what did I learn of their lives, the prostrating Tibetan pilgrims, the stallholder deftly working an abacus, the ice-cream girl with her barrow, who sat with her chin in her hands when business was slack? Nothing at all.

A tall monk who wore brown robes and a topknot staying at their hotel.

He may have been a Taoist, he may have been Japanese, I don’t know, and I regret that I didn’t try to speak to him.

This reticence highlights what has become one of her strengths, prominent in the earlier pieces. What has also surfaced is Jamie’s generosity and respect for those she interacts with, she gives voice to others, her observations are an amalgam of her own observations and insights and those of the many other passionate participants or locals she encounters in her meanderings. She is not the lone observation, she is a gatherer of insight.

I so enjoy and value how the essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality. Her work is like a patchwork quilt, made up of different colours and textures, bringing in all the elements that make a community, whether its 5,000 or 500 years old or from the present day.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Surfacing I by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie writes creative nonfiction. Some people call it nature writing, some travel writing, others describe it as lyrical prose.

In her first book of essays Findings, she talks about her attempts to observe better, to stop naming things, to really see. She wants to move away from labelling and identifying, towards painting a picture with words.

Surfacing is her third collection and it’s brilliant, practiced in the art of observation she takes us with her on a voyage, helps us see with the eye of a naturalist, sharing her experience with respect for the environment, acknowledging the privilege.

A poet and bird watcher from Scotland, her essays are compelling and engaging, they draw you in as if you were there.

I’m writing about Surfacing in two parts, because the third essay, the longest, is 86 pages and deserves it’s own post, the majority are short vignettes of 3-6 pages. There are three essays of significant length and I’ll write about the reminder in Surfacing II.

The Reindeer Cave

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In the first essay, written in the second person ‘You‘, the author has hiked up a glen to the cave, thinking about the Ice Age and the preciousness of life, as she observes six red deer on the hillside opposite, equally startled no doubt.

Not half an hour ago you were walking beside the burn in a narrow ravine further up the glen. You heard something, glanced up to see a large rock bounce then plummet into the burn twenty five yards in front of you. The echo faded but your heart was still hammering as you backed away.

Deep within the hillside, in the passage of an underground stream, the bones of a bear were found by cave-divers. Carbon dated, they were found to be forty-five thousand years old.

A long sleep, even for a bear: sixteen million days and nights had passed in the upper world. Long enough for the ice to return, then yield again, then return in one last snap, then leave for good – or at least for now.

At the cave mouth she wonders whether the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’re too far gone with our Anthropocene.

Next to the last page is a black and white photograph of a valley, mist in the distance; as I look closely I see something  appear out of the mist. This is a book you must read the printed version, or you will miss the apparition.

A Reflection

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The second essay begins as Jamie is taking a train north (in Scotland), sitting on the landward side she watches wintry fields pass by, passengers on the opposite side have a sea view. Drifting in and out of daydreaming she notices the sea superimposed over fields of brown earth. Then disappear.

A moment later it flashed back again, a stretch of sea, silvery over the land, but only for a few seconds. By now I was sitting up, interested in this phenomenon. The fields on the left gave way to pinewoods, the train tilted a little and, yes, the sea’s reflection flashed on again, this time above the trees. If I narrowed my eyes I could see both sea and trees at once. And now there was a ship! A ghostly tanker was sailing over the pine trees.

She continues to Aberdeen and visits a museum. Interested in Arctic artefacts, it is at the Aberdeen University museum she first hears about archaeologist Rick Knecht and his work in Alaska, the subject of the next essay.

In Quinhagak

Jamie takes a six-seater plane from a small airport in Alaska, where pilots enter the waiting area, call out the name of their village then lead passengers across the tarmac. Nervous because the name is so unfamiliar, she hears the call for Quinhagak and follows two other passengers behind the pilot to the plane.

The pilot had long red hair tied in a loose bun with a biro stuck through it. In the plane she readied herself, then half turned in her seat.

‘You guys definitely going to Quinhagak? Just checking! Okay. There’s emergency supplies in the back.’

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The village is the home of the Yup’ik, indigenous people of the circumpolar north; an archaeological site Nunallaq (meaning old village) sits at the edge of the tundra, a couple of miles away near the beach. As the sea erodes the land, it is slowly revealing the 500 year old village and its cultural heritage, its resilience.

The dig is in it’s fifth season, at the end of every season all the finds are air freighted to Aberdeen to be cleaned, preserved and catalogued.

At the end of the excavation, however, there would be a great return. All the thousands of artefacts would go home to the Yup’ik land where they belonged, legally and morally.

The dig is revitalising traditional skills that had been lost, local people interested in the items found are beginning to make replicas, relearning old techniques.

They are people who have learned to adapt. Their houses stand on stilts due to thawing of permafrost. Nothing can be buried. Any warm structure on the ground would cause the ground to melt and heave, collapsing the structure.

Between walks with her binoculars and helping out at the dig, sometimes facing seaward, other times landward, she observes life. At the end of each day people gather at the shed to view the days finds; on the last day of the season there will be a grand ‘show and tell’.

I noticed that people notice. George had noticed me looking.  They notice the bog cotton and its passing, an influx of owls, that there are bears around. The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself, holding knowledge collectively.

Near the end of her stay, she is invited to a birthday party with a couple of others. They arrive, there are introductions, they gave their names.

As we did so, Sarah looked at us from head to toe appraisingly, and then bestowed on each of us a Yup’ik name several syllables long. It seemed to delight her, matching us to these names by I don’t know what qualities.

I understood that these names, which we now bore as well as our own, were the names of family members who had died. So it was as revenants, rather than strangers that we were welcomed into Sarah’s home.

Later when they are introduced to one particular elder with their new Yup’ik names, the mention of those lost people affects the old lady deeply, she hugs them each warmly.

I so enjoy and value how Jamie’s essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Further Reading

My Review Of: her 1st collection Findings, her 2nd collection Sightlines

Article: Why Thawing Permafrost Matters