Follow the Lines

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie’s first collection of essays, Findings (2005), opens with an arresting image. Jamie describes a trip with her children to see a pantomime performance of The Snow Queen, one idle Saturday afternoon that happens to be the winter solstice. When the queen herself appears onstage, she is “coldly glittery”, “swirl[ing] around” “in a platinum cloak”, and, at one point, she storms off, “stage left”, embarking on a course of travel that sets Jamie’s imagination alight:

[H]ad she kept going, putting a girdle round the earth, she’d have been following the 56th parallel. Up the Nethergate, out of Dundee, across Scotland, away over the North Atlantic, she’d have made landfall over Labrador, swooped over Hudson’s Bay, and have glittered like snowfall somewhere in southern Alaska. Crossing the Bering Sea, then the Sea of Okhotsk, she’d have streaked on through central Moscow, in time, if she really got a move on, to enter stage right for her next line.

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing.
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With this image, Jamie signals her interest in a phenomenon that reappears throughout most of the essays in Findings: an interest in the riches of unexpected lines of sight, in vantage points that orchestrate alignments between otherwise disjunctive entities, and in imperceptible lines that somehow intersect with the visible world. In one sense, an interest of this sort is not so unusual for a nature writer of Jamie’s ilk. In his essay ‘Nature’, no less an authority than Ralph Waldo Emerson counselled his readers thus: “Turn the eye upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years!” Much the same advice appears in The Living Mountain (1977), now a classic of “geopoetics”, by the Scots poet and essayist Nan Shepherd, Jamie’s clearest literary antecedent: “Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity…” Change your point of view, look again at familiar things, see the world anew and be newly startled by it: such is the refrain of writers who would have us notice the beauty of the quotidian, the better to appreciate its value.

What is unusual about Jamie is the awesome scope of her vision — its expansiveness, spatially and temporally, as she scours the planet far and wide and peers back in time as far as the Ice Age — as well as her willingness to seek out new lines of sight in the built environment, not only the natural one. In fact, following her trip to see The Snow Queen, that first essay in Findings leads Jamie to the chambered cairn of Maes Howe, on Orkney Mainland, where the darkness of a Neolithic tomb carves a perfect beam of light from the overhead sun on the winter solstice. And one of the book’s final essays describes the skylines of Edinburgh — skylines, plural — so as to trace their shifting contours as they bend and warp around different vantage points. Walking across Charlotte Square one day, Jamie recalls that she “happened to look up and, between chimney stacks and cupolas, saw [a] beautiful brass comet” she’d never noticed before. This chance discovery prompts her to admit she hasn’t looked to the sky as often as she should, hasn’t “wondered what the city raises upward [to] offer to the winds”, and so she ascends from street level to obtain a “synoptic view” of things. At the summit of Calton Hill, she discovers a telescope and puts her eye to it, finding “something slightly hallucinogenic” about “being able to swoop over rooftops”, and she toys gleefully with the different lines of sight it affords her. “But”, she writes, “I resolved to be systematic, to look at things in turn, rather than as a magpie, lightning on shiny objects at random”, and in this way she scans the cityscape with care, in order to consciously appreciate sensory input available nowhere else. Improbable pairings of statues seem to communicate across the rooftops in semaphore. Buildings raised across a distance now appear to be neighbours with contiguous planes. Precious materials scattered amidst the city’s spires coalesce in new constellations.

In her follow-up collection, Sightlines (2012), having declared her primary interest in the title, Jamie sets off in pursuit of strange new lines of sight that complicate the relationship between the observer and the observed. In the first essay, ‘Aurora’, she triangulates her perspective in an attempt to understand Viking modes of navigation, to sail from a featureless point at sea to a landmass beyond the horizon. Because the prolonged daylight of mid-year at high latitudes makes the stars invisible, orienting oneself on an invisible path requires observing the arc of a raven in flight. In ‘The Hvalsalen’, she travels to a museum in Bergen, Norway, where the freshly-cleaned skeleton of a whale hangs suspended from the ceiling. When she is granted the rare privilege of climbing up to view the skeleton on a level plane, close enough to touch it, she realises that, despite the bleaching of the bones, the skeleton actually “emit[s] a yellowish light”, “a nineteenth century glow”, as it appears still to exude the last faint vapours of the dead whale’s oil. And in ‘The Woman in the Field’, describing her involvement in an archaeological dig, she finds that her descent into the earth is a direct result of someone else’s rise above it. Here she helps to unearth a Neolithic henge which was buried centuries ago, made invisible to the earthbound eye, but secretly “disclos[ed itself] to the sky” — appearing, to those with a bird’s eye view, as unnatural undulations in the terrain — so that it was finally spotted by a passing pilot.

Here, then, is a typical essay by Kathleen Jamie: an off-kilter line of sight is traced and extended by speculative means, and allows for an apprehension of things that otherwise escape the eye. Sometimes, as above, the escape is spatial. A locus of interest might have a position so far above human affairs, or so far beneath, or at such a distance from them, that its very place of being evades any one person’s embodied vantage point. At other times, the escape is temporal. A locus of interest, deeply embedded in the past, makes a mockery of our immersion in the urgency of the present, so that, in effect, we are blinded by the here and now and unable to pierce the surface of the times we dwell in. In each case, though, an essay by Jamie will always find a way for the author to place herself just so in relation to her surroundings, at which point — like a key with a clean cut sliding smoothly into a lock — the author’s eyes align with some aspect of the world that radically expands the horizons of her perception. Findings was blurbed by Richard Mabey, while Sightlines was blurbed by John Berger, and Jamie’s work often comes across as a synthesis of theirs.

In Jamie’s latest collection of essays, however, there’s a striking new element in the mix. True, in a formal sense, Surfacing is of a piece with Findings and Sightlines: like the earlier books, it brings together a dozen occasional pieces of prose that leisurely drift between different modes of writing, from ethnography to autobiography, from lyrical reverie to sociology, never settling for any one mode at the expense of the others. But there’s a clear difference of tone to Surfacing and it makes a difference to how Jamie sees what she sees. Surfacing is noticeably less joyous, more elegiac, than Findings and Sightlines, for reasons that are apparent, if implicit, in the opening lines of the first essay: “sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age”, Jamie looks out upon “a West Highland landscape in early spring, sometime in the early Anthropocene”.

That final phrase sends a signal to the reader. Jamie, here, will not simply record a human experience of the world; she will understand the world as one irreversibly altered by the activity of humankind, and will therefore observe how her experiences of it have been tainted by the effects of that activity. While Jamie has always been alert to the pernicious consequences of environmental exploitation, never before has she been so pessimistic about the likelihood of redress, nor so placid about the possible destabilisation of civil society. Hers is an outlook shaped by “deep time” as much as any glacial landscape. She is aware, always, of just how mutable human civilisations have been over tens of thousands of years, and how provisional are the conditions that have given rise to them. If she seems to be sanguine about the idea that our current ways of life will in time become the collateral damage of the Anthropocene, particularly as we leave behind its “early” phase, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Sanguinity is the gift of the experiences she seeks here. Her ecological sensibility is such that she can’t really rue the end of environmental degradation, and her anthropological consciousness is such that she can’t not see the decline of human civilisations as an inbuilt feature of their existence.

Lest this make Surfacing sound like a torrent of despair, readers seeking the simple pleasures of Jamie’s work will find new lines of sight aplenty in these pages. ‘The Eagle’ describes Jamie’s attempt to track the dizzying flight of a bird of prey through a pair of binoculars: she loses it, then rediscovers it, and at last thinks her way into becoming it, wondering about its experience of “different textures of air”. ‘Voice of the Wood’ sees Jamie losing her way in an ancient forest, deep in thought on the misfortunes of the world and the comparative blessings of her own life. She tries first to tune into the arboreal chatter of the trees around her, and then, accepting her human limitations, she tries out several other speculative vantage points in search of a path through the green. In ‘A Reflection’, she describes the “strange Arctic phenomena” whereby the atmospheric refraction of light causes phantom ships to appear in the sky, and in ‘From the Window’ she describes patiently watching the movement of daylight across grass, hoping to identify colours that call to mind other objects of sentimental significance to her. But these prose poems and several shorter entries — meditations on illness, ageing, frailty — are powerfully overshadowed by three more substantial essays, each between fifty and eighty pages in length. In those essays, Jamie achieves a dizzying effect unlike anything else in her earlier books, as she obtains lines of sight that do not terminate in a locus of interest but enter its orbit, bend around it, and turn back to confront the observer with her seeing self.

In ‘In Quinhagak’ (pronounced “Quin-ah-hawk”), Jamie makes something real of her fantasy about The Snow Queen and takes flight to arrive in a remote village in Alaska. The essay opens with an echo of the opening of Findings, purposefully tweaked:

Take an atlas, or better a globe, and find the line that marks sixty degrees of latitude, then follow it west. If you begin in Shetland, you’re at once swinging out over the North Atlantic. You snip off the last few miles of Cape Farewell, Greenland, make landfall in Labrador but soon launch out over Hudson’s Bay. Keep going. The line demarks the northern border of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Keep going. Now you’re in Alaska. … For the final hundred miles of Alaska, the imaginary line passes over the Kuskokwim-Yukon delta. The atlas will show no roads, just green scribbly waterways and meltpools. The village of Quinhagak is right on this coast, tucked just under that sixty degree line…

Most of the seven hundred residents of Quinhagak are of Yup’ik heritage, and many have recently become hosts to a team of archaeologists drawn to the surrounding tundra. Rising sea levels and melting permafrost have conspired to expose a site known as Nunallaq, an old Yup’ik village abandoned and buried five hundred years ago, during “pre-contact times”. The Yup’ik of Nunallaq lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, befitting a people of the Palaeolithic era, and now the retrieval of their tools and accoutrements has furnished their descendants with a heritage they’d believed lost to colonisation. Access to this heritage, as Jamie observes it, very much involves handling the objects recovered from Nunallaq, but is not available to outsiders like herself. Towards the end of the essay, watching a group of Yup’ik elders handle a tray of treasures, she writes:

They turned the objects, felt and examined them, and began to speak. Explanations, lore, stories. Alice was there to understand, guide, clarify. The bucket handle was made of bentwood; the root-picks, which women would have used to dig for edible roots, were made from the ribs of sea mammals.

The language was gentle, soothing. The elders spoke softly, making sounds like wood gently knocked on wood. Through the window, a green rib of tundra, a wall of mountains. The objects were turned, demonstrated. The last Yup’ik hands to touch them, speak of them, were those of people five hundred years ago.

From time to time a phrase was translated into English, for clarification. … Out the window, a flight of geese passed, the grasses rippled. It would soon rain. The eldest man had [a] stone pick in one hand, as he reached for a chocolate cookie with the other. I was listening to the language of this landscape, as expressed with the hands and eye.

But if this landscape language is “expressed with the hands and eye” — if the bodies of the Yup’ik are the voice of the terrain and the culture it has produced — then there’s something significant about Jamie’s habit of not quite listening to it. She pointedly looks away, out the window, twice, rather than fixing her gaze on the expressive movements of the people and interpreting them. She watches as these people make contact with their Palaeolithic ancestry, and return language to their forebears, but her lot is only to watch, not necessarily to understand — pointedly not to share in their new sense of belonging.

Later, in ‘Links of Noltland’, Jamie all but cries out to stand in the place of the Yup’ik elders, questing after her own forgotten forebears at another site much like Nunallaq. The site in question is the eponymous village on the island of Westray, in Orkney, where Jamie joins a team of archaeologists unearthing a huge complex of Neolithic buildings and other artefacts that have been buried under an expanse of sand for up to five thousand years. The site is exceptionally important. As Graeme Wilson, one of the co-directors of the dig, explains to Jamie, the Links of Noltland is “a second chance at Skara Brae”. The enormous Skara Brae, on Orkney Mainland, “was excavated in the 1930s, but not before it had been plundered”, and today it is so “hugely famous” that every summer it is swamped by an armada of tourist coaches and cruise liners. But viewed alongside Skara Brae, says Wilson, “Links of Noltland was a bigger settlement”, with “homes, field systems, boundaries”, so that only “a fraction of the whole” has been revealed even after a decade’s worth of excavations. “Everything that was chucked away at Skara Brae… we have here”, Wilson adds. “What’s happening”, says his partner, Hazel Moore, “is significant really to… well, to archaeology, but also to us, the human race.”

This last claim is something for which Wilson and Moore are called to make a case. For many people, including the authorities who begrudgingly finance the dig, the Neolithic settlers of Links of Noltland belong to a past so far removed from the present that bonds of kinship do not reach them. Moore complains that the locals of Westray are “interested, but not connected” — much like Jamie herself in Quinhagak. Their ancestral connections extend back in time a little way, but not to the realm of prehistory: “It’s only the Vikings they’re interested in”, Moore adds, because the Vikings “‘won’”, conquering the Orkney islands and establishing a fishing outpost atop the Links of Noltland and erasing all traces of earlier human activity. “If we had some names, that would help”, she tells Jamie. “Place names or personal names. That would help.” As it is, the absence of names — the most fundamental utterances of language, the most basic tools of individuation — depersonalise and defamiliarise the first peoples of Westray. Another archaeologist, Criostoir, is more blunt than Moore, and makes no effort to hide his irritation with the disinterest of outsiders:

Cristoir leaned back from his patch of earth and declared, “Sure — I don’t understand this interest in the feckin’ Vikings. And the Romans — the English are obsessed with the Romans. The Normans in Ireland. All conquerors. What’s wrong with the people who were here first?” He gestured across the site. “These are your ancestors.”

That’s enough to guarantee Jamie’s interest — to imply that she might find here the equivalent of the heritage she saw the Yup’ik discover at Nunallaq — and it prompts her to dig down into daily life at the Links of Noltland, literally and imaginatively. As she helps the professionals peel back layer upon layer of history, she delves deeper and deeper into a sympathetic understanding of the Neolithic experience. On a superficial level, this understanding involves reminding herself of the simple facts of daily life at the Links of Noltland. Five thousand years ago, populated by cattle herders, “the whole place would have reeked of dung and smoke”, and although the settlement might have been “[g]orgeous”, the people died young and “[a]lmost everyone had arthritis by their twenties”. On a more profound level, this understanding involves assembling a mindset with which to imagine herself outside of human history, because prior to it. The first settlers “didn’t know they were Neolithic”, Jamie is repeatedly told, so they “just got on with it” and went about living through “days [that] were as long and vital as ours”, enduring “the long and various ‘middles’ [of time] that most of us inhabit”.

Time, for Jamie, has a way of “contracting and expanding and turning round on itself” at places like Links of Noltland. “I had to remind myself of just how many centuries separated [the Neolithic from the Bronze Age], although only a few centimetres of earth.” And throughout the greater portion of ‘Links of Noltland’, there are various attempts at inhabiting the consciousness of a Neolithic settler — not all of them Jamie’s — until the essay reaches towards a conclusion with a standalone stretch of italicised text that represents some of Jamie’s very finest prose. In this achingly beautiful passage, a clear highlight of Surfacing, a disembodied consciousness conjures up visions of its Neolithic ancestors, addresses them as familiars, and asks them questions of belonging that we know are destined to remain unanswered.

The final long essay in Surfacing is in fact a two-part exercise in journalistic memoir, in which Jamie reminisces on the time she spent in Xiahe, China, in 1989, during the Communist crackdown on the Tibetan population — an experience also at the heart of Jamie’s poetry collection The Autonomous Region (1992). The two parts of this account have an interlocking structure of some intricacy. The first part describes seemingly disconnected dreams and episodes which eventually — retrospectively — slot into gaps carved out of the second part. There is also a delayed framing device at work: as the first part interweaves Jamie’s dreams of Tibet with the disorientation of a cancer diagnosis, her inability to distinguish fantasy from reality prompts her to retrieve her old journals and revisit her time abroad. But then, in context, appearing in the wake of ‘In Quinhagak’ and ‘Links of Noltland’, the structure of Surfacing imbues these notes on Tibet with even more complexity than they hold on their own. Looking back from this point in the book, how does Jamie’s time in Xiahe align with her journeys to Alaska and Westray? Her story of Chinese interventions in Tibet in 1989 isn’t just about Tibet, or even about China: while it glances at the years of unrest in Lhasa, and describes reactions to the state violence in Tianenmen Square, it also speaks to larger notions of civilisational stability and our blinkered view of it.

Some of Jamie’s acquaintances in Xiahe are Czech students on vacation. They have chosen to visit China because, under Soviet rule, their only permitted alternative destination is Russia — “And we HATE Russia!” When Jamie meets them in Xiahe, this is the circumscribed life they know, and the life they expect to know indefinitely. But at the end of the essay, jumping ahead to the final weeks of 1989, Jamie returns to Scotland and receives a postcard from one of the Czechs, sent to her around the time of the Velvet Revolution demonstrations. An all-encompassing way of life that was presumed to be indefinite only six months earlier has abruptly reached its end. Immersed as they are in their pre-revolutionary moment, they assume the permanence, the ongoingness, of a civilisational status quo that we know is staggering towards collapse. And knowing in advance that this collapse will begin before the year is out, it’s difficult to give weight to their concerns about lifelong restrictions; the fragility of the Soviet dictatorship is apparent to us.

So, from the vantage point of Xiahe, how do these concerns align with those of Nunallaq and the Links of Noltland? Those essays, too, touch on the decline and loss of a steadfast way of life, and a rediscovery of certain traces that lead Jamie to imagine the days of the bygone peoples who assumed their ways would endure. The three long essays, in combination, point to the folly of this assumption — this wholesale investment in sustaining the present — while also acknowledging its persistence, throughout human history, as decline sets in. Through these essays, Jamie comes to know such decline as a recurrent feature of our existence, an almost rhythmic phenomenon of human societies, rather than as something definitive, totalising, or outright cataclysmic. This isn’t to say that, in Surfacing, Jamie advocates a lackadaisical, accommodationist approach to climate change, or a defeatist politics. In truth, she doesn’t advocate much of anything, certainly not an explicit programme of action. If saddened and wearied by the destruction of the natural environment, she is not alarmist about the evident dangers it poses to human affairs. It’s mostly the case that she takes an uncommonly long view of the human presence on this planet, and, when she turns her eyes to our time, what she sees is a particular way of life tending towards its dissolution — as all ways of life must do.

Reaching the end of Surfacing and reflecting on the earlier two books, the new collection has the odd distinction of being, simultaneously, the work least likely to win over new readers and Jamie’s most fulfilling volume of prose to date. It doesn’t have the easy charms of Findings and Sightlines. It doesn’t have as broad a range of subjects and locations, or as many short pieces to dip into during an idle ten or fifteen minutes. To some degree, it assumes a familiarity with the earlier two volumes of essays, in which Jamie takes greater care to explain and justify her interest in such things as bird migration patterns, the nineteenth century whaling industry, and prehistoric cave paintings. But, partly as a result of this assumption, Surfacing does have the feeling of a book by an author extending herself, pressing her powers beyond their initial limits. If it doesn’t exactly bring Jamie’s interest in lines of sight to a culmination, it certainly deepens it and gives it body. It treats this interest as something more than a momentary fascination, something like the starting point for a rough-hewn method of investigating the workings of time on different peoples of different places — time considered as a sort of miasma in which we lose ourselves, day after day after day, but also as a condition to which we lose our ways, when we have spent sufficient generations submerged in it. Findings, as above, opens with Jamie exploring the Neolithic chambered cairn of Maes Howe, waiting for daylight to spear the darkness with a sharpened beam of white that appears only on the winter solstice, when the sun aligns perfectly with a gap in the roof. Findings and Sightlines cohere into something like the foundations and ceiling of that tomb, replete with wonders and mysteries of their own, but with nooks and crannies anticipating greater illumination. Surfacing is the beam from above — dedicated, concentrated, refined, and striking — and it fills the spaces of the larger structure with a light made of prose that feels like a promise fulfilled.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.