Surfacing by Scottish author, Kathleen Jamie, is a collection of essays about memories, history, and the natural world.
Jamie explores what it takes for history to resurface and become part of the present through wide-ranging triggers that are arresting in their own right: rising temperatures melting the Alaskan tundra; shifting dunes revealing a neolithic village on an Orkney island; a voice, a memento, a dream…
Jamie’s essays vary in length and some are more personal than others. Three longer pieces anchor the collection and I found each one uniquely fascinating from a historical point of view.
Quinhagak tells of Jamie’s trip to Alaska where the permafrost is receding more with each new season. She visits the excavation site of a five-hundred-year-old village. The recovered artefacts excite both archaeologists and the local townspeople. The resurfacing of their history renews the Yup’ik people’s sense of culture, their connection with the past and their hopes for the future.
Links of Noltland is physically closer to home for Jamie and she writes about her visit to an archaeological site on Westray island. Shifting dunes uncovered the remains of a bronze age and neolithic village. Jamie talks about the researchers’ tireless work as they seek to learn as much as they can about this well-preserved site before the project’s funding runs out and the village is left to erode in the wind and sand. Jamie’s observations of the process raise questions about the current state of the world, the role and responsibility of archaeology, and the future of humans.
The Wind Horse sweeps the reader into Jamie’s memories during her 1989 travels along Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway. She reflects on their stay in Xiahe in Gansu, the people she met, the Beijing student protests, and this now distant phase of her life before her divorce. The essay also sets up some other essays in the collection that reflect on her more immediate situation; life with grown-up children, ageing parents, and the freedoms and responsibilities of middle-age.
Jamie perceives often overlooked details and draws connections between greater philosophical concepts with ease and elegance. What’s more, she renders this worldview on the page without ornamentation. The essays are thought-provoking and filled with wonder and curiosity.