Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
‘Surfacing’ by Kathleen Jamie.
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Published by Sort of Books ISBN 97811908745828
When my son said ‘mum, you’ve got to read this book, it’s amazing’, I bought it straight away. He knows me so well. This is a collection of twelve essays drawn from a long view back through time and place. The observations are garnered from Kathleen Jamie’s ability to look deeply at a place and attribute layers of personal reflective experience to literal layers in the landscape. It is an incredible read, such a skillful juxtaposition of genres, travel writing, nature writing and memoir.
The Quinhagak essay.
The whole of the book, although a collection of distinct and separate essays, is linked by archaeology and culture. With a trowel in hand Jamie joins in with two excavations that form the two longest essays in the book. One of the projects is in Quinhagak. This settlement is on the far west coast of Alaska, as far away from anything as it seems possible to be. It is a Yup’ik settlement, a dominant First Nations settlement in the area. I was hooked by the description of the journey just to arrive at Quinhagak, mesmerized by a place so remote and so unforgiving to a visitor. Access in the Summer is by plane, the land briefly giving up it’s frozen coat to reveal braided waterways and tundra, hundreds and hundreds of miles of tundra.
The village being excavated sits at sea level, the coastline breaking back into the tundra landscape as climate change brings rising sea levels that bite into the tundra. In very few words or pages Kathleen Jamie positions us in that environment and I could feel her sense of wonder and incredulity. Her ability to observe a landscape and commit that observation to the written word is brilliant.
So out of the tundra topples a village, a long forgotten village whose memories surface with each tide. The dig is connecting the Yup’ik with their past lives, lives changing so fast because of climate change.
If the essay Quinhagak had been a book by itself I would have been happy. Jamie’s quick sketch of a grandma being drawn along in the trailer of a 4 x 4, sitting on a chaise longue, off berry picking was brilliant.
And then quite abruptly in the narrative, she switches to an observation of the natural world and it is like a calming wave of warm water. The words gently lift you up and set you down. At one point she describes how, after thirty minutes of observation she could see colours better. I learnt a lot from that single statement.
When the content of a book inspires.
In her essay, ‘The Wind Horse,’ Kathleen Jamie writes;
“often I wished I would draw, like the art students. I’d have drawn those yaks chewing the cud, their animal patience.”
I think I probably enjoyed those words and the images they captured more than any drawing she might have done
Running all through the narrative is the constant reminder of our impact on our natural world. Jamie’s thoughts are like a constant pressure pushing at the words, impossible to escape but without it becoming too relentless in it’s pursuit.
Memories and reflections on those memories pop up as something she observes causes a ripple in her. Her thoughts flow out, not in a random unconnected way but rather caught up in an ever moving stream.
I think it has been one of the most thought provoking, open, honest and questioning books I have read in a long while and I will end on this quote from my favourite essay, the last one ‘The Voice of the Wood’
“You are not lost. You followed your map. There is a path – there is always a path through the wood; there has been since the dawn of time. The trees step aside to make one…. You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.”
Read more about Kathleen Jamie and her inspiring work.