I’d forgotten I hadn’t finished Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie until I was looking for something else and found it on John’s side of the bed. Sometimes when I read at night, I fall asleep and when he comes up to bed, he puts whatever book I’ve left on top of the covers on his bedside table rather than walk around the bed to mine. This must have happened. So I opened the book, realized I’d read about half, including the incredible “In Quinhagak” in which Jamie joins a group of archaeologists in the remote Yup’ik community situated where the Kanektok River empties into the Bering Sea. It’s a place of light and wetlands where the thawing permafrost is reshaping the land and eroding a 500 year old settlement site. I remember reading that essay and thinking how beautifully Jamie wrote about it but also how she somehow let the place and the artefacts and the Yup’ik people and their culture take their place in her words, her descriptions. She wasn’t pushing herself to the fore, wasn’t asking the reader (me) to recognize her sensitivity or courage or intelligence. It’s a quality, inherent in her work, I’ve noted before: her essay collections Findings and Sightlines are treasures of quiet beauty. I remember her extraordinary collaboration with visual artist Brigid Collins, Frissure, in which she examined the scar left on her body after a mastectomy:
Whatever it was, it was a line, drawn on my body. A line, in poetry, opens up possibilities within the language, and brings forth voice out of silence.
What is the first thing an artist does, beginning a new work? He or she draws a line. And now I had a line – quite a line! – inscribed on my body. It looked like a landscape. Because it was changing colour as it healed, it seemed to me as if it had its own weather.
So over the past few nights, it’s been my unexpected pleasure to read what remained of Surfacing. And to recognize again, because I certainly felt this when I read Jamie’s earlier essays, how skillful a writer she is, how elegant, and how so much of what she writes about and notices echo my own interests. On Westray, one of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, she (again) joins an archaeology crew as they excavate a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement. Detail after detail, meditations on time and continuity, on what changes and doesn’t: I read farther into the night than I meant to just to follow her mind and her account of the work of the crew working against time (again), weather, funding sources drying up. She marvels at the little Westray Wife, or Orkney Venus (you can read about this tiny carved sandstone piece here), and I marvelled too because I am fascinated (as so many are) by the early representations of women found in various sites in Europe. (Mostly recently I’ve been looking at a Gravettian engraved Venus found in Předmostí in the Czech Republic, unusual for the geometrical elements used in the carving. The Westray Wife has interesting incisions in the decorative patterning too.)
On Westray, Jamie is intrigued by the spirals carved into rock, found on pottery fragments. After she meets a young couple who’ve come to the island to raise dairy cattle and to make artisanal cheese they call Westray Wife, she stands with them on their land for a few minutes:
Amid the cows, we were looking inland at the island’s shallow valley. Their view was of a gloomy castle, and, beyond it, the small loch, then farms on the hills, sheep on the peaty summits, the climbing road, the chambered cairn, two or three small whirring turbines under the huge island sky.
I said, ‘When the Neolithic people brought their cows ashore here, the first ones, all this land would have been wild. Can you imagine? I wonder what grew here then?’
‘I love this valley,’ said Nina. ‘Its different colours. Brown in the spring, then green. The cattle. Quiet, then noisy with tractors.’
‘I see it differently through your eyes.’
‘They were like us,’ Jason insisted. ‘Caring about their animals.’
Some folk say time is a spiral, that what goes around comes around, that events remote to one another can wheel back into proximity. Leaving Nina and Jason I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of heart to know there is still room in the world for a summer’s day and a cow called Daisy.
When I was putting aside the book the other night, the night I returned to it after an absence of perhaps 3 months, I found the card inside that had come with it when it arrived from the Netherlands as a gift from my friend Anik. I’d made her a quilt, mostly as a thank you for a kindness on her part, and also as a housewarming gift for the house she had recently moved to with her husband and son. The quilt was log cabins, 4 of them, arranged around green pathways quilted with spirals. I wanted her to be reminded of the log cabin she was living in when we met and how we have stayed friends, our green paths perhaps metaphorical rather than actual, though on a quilt they can be both. In the centre of each cabin block, a red square for the hearth. Everything is connected, isn’t it? The hearths uncovered on Orkney, their spiral pots broken. While helping with the excavation at Quinhagak, there’s a wonderful moment when Jamie is screening some soil with a Yup’ik man:
A smell was rising from the earth in the screen. It was familiar, domestic, not unpleasant. I worked on, wondering if I was imagining it, because it was the smell of cooking. Specifically, the smell of mince and tatties, staple dish of my childhood
‘Mike–I’m hallucinating. Can you smell that?’
‘The meaty smell? It’s because we’re down at the floor level now, where they did the processing. Seals, walrus meat, skinning, all that.’
The air is so clean and sharp, you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago.
On a cool morning, I’ll make a fire and sit by it stitching spirals. And in those inscriptions, time curls in on itself, holding stories and history and love. Sometimes they spool out across the ocean and sometimes they are the blanket that keeps me warm at night, keeps others in my care.