Book review: Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie needs few introductions. Since last year Scotland’s Makar, and now a freelance poet, writer and indeed editor, her non-fiction writing, which combines deep observations about nature and the environment with reflections on her own place in it, relates clarity and perceptiveness and also captures fundamental meaning within, and from, moments of time. Her writing ‘at the confluence of nature, travel and culture’ is powerful in its simplicity and Surfacing, her 2019 collection, made a happy – and entirely serendipitous – accompaniment to my own recent (and ongoing) archaeological studies.

The cover (mine is 2020’s paperback edition) features several archaeological artefacts alongside relics of the natural world and its publication leans on two archaeological digs on which Jamie spent some time – on a native Alaskan (Yup’ik) dig, inspired by a visit to the Aberdeen University museum (oh! the power of curators!); and also at the Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement at Links of Noltland, on Orkney (where one of the team, mentioned at several places in the book, was our own Dr. Emily Gal). It’s a well-chosen illustration which emphasises the impact of humans on the environment (and which, perhaps, is suggestive of that impact not being kind) and, at the same time, that nature has – at least up to now – been able to regard and deal with that impact within the circularity of the life cycle (the distinct lack of which, with its non-degradable plastics, is the signature mark of our own Anthropocene) and with humans and nature in a degree of harmony.

The title is also clever, repeating Jamie’s predilection for single-word titles and, at the same time, strongly suggesting a theme of growing consciousness and the coming to light of things – both artefacts and knowledge – that were once lost.

Comparatively lengthy accounts of her time at the digs are book-ended with shorter (more typically Jamie-like) feature writing (blog posts, even) reflecting on climate change, our own lack of care for the environment and others (increasing as technology advances), family and ageing, and listening to nature’s voice. There is also an extended account of time spent in China (close to Tibet) during a tumultuous time in the mid-1990s, written as a promise to herself, and in part exorcism of a dream, made during a recent cancer diagnosis. But it is the digs that take centre stage, in terms both of the content and the theme of the work, and both feature different aspects of climate change: global warming (a lack of snow and compacted ice in Alaska); and coastal erosion (a result of rising sea levels and increasing rain on Orkney). More prosaically, both also illustrate the uncertainties arising from the short-term, piecemeal funding common to archaeological digs; as well as their seasonal nature, with daylight, and the weather, having an impact on what can be done and what can be realised in terms of bringing things to light.

The Links of Noltland dig features Jamie at her best; but I think the Alaskan section works rather less well. Here she is curiously detached and her observations, while conveying insight, seem as a result a little more forced and certainly occur a little less naturally. Frequently, she is factual rather than poetic; prosaic rather than elevated. The reasons why can only be speculative and are likely to be several: language and culture are surely among them (politically, the Chinese section, the third piece of extended writing in the book and appearing at the opposite end to the Alaskan, provides some particularly interesting contrasts and its selection here in this volume might provide a contribution in this area). The same is also true of archaeological dig experience, perhaps gained for the first time in Alaska. At Links of Noltland, such barriers are not present (or not as present) and Jamie features much more on the dig itself – accurately conveying, as a novice, some of the techniques involved in constructing and cleaning a site, for example. The result is a much more cohesive piece of writing which allows Jamie’s observational ability to come fully to the fore and to present the material exploring and combining her themes in a way which is more rounded and which emphasises the links she wants to make between humans and nature. In Alaska, these are known, but less clear and differently perceived; while the issues raised appear more contended not least since they are also tied up with identity and a shared understanding which is native and not Jamie’s own.

The lack of cohesiveness to the first part of the work perhaps renders this a lesser achievement than her earlier work – but then, such a criticism is also a misstatement of the role of non-fiction writers who change with time and age, learning and understanding, and growth and development. Just as Sightlines was ten years ago now, and Findings a further seven, Surfacing is a product of who Jamie is now and we should cherish her: her ability to synthesise different aspects of the human existence and improve our understanding of our world as a result represents a talent of hugely important significance. I have Antlers of Water – her first edited collection concerning ‘our relationship with the more-than-human world’ on my shelf: this was originally going to be a joint review until archaeology took over. It’s greatly anticipated.

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