Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie are the two most critically vaunted practitioners of the wildly fertile British publishing phenomenon known as “new nature writing”—though both reportedly resist that genre designation, and both are as much writers of history and human culture as of nature. Both explore these themes in similarly exquisite prose, but their tones and emphases are quite different, and their authorial performances have at times been contrastingly—and in Jamie’s case, one suspects, deliberately—gendered. While Macfarlane was bivouacking in the mountains, Jamie was watching falcons through the kitchen window; it was she who coined the phrase surely destined to dog Macfarlane for the rest of his days: the “lone enraptured male”.
Fortuitously for readers, 2019—already a vintage year for the literature of travel and nature—has seen new offerings from both of these great writers. In May Macfarlane’s long-awaited Underland was published—to much-deserved acclaim. And now, four months later, Jamie’s Surfacing has appeared.
More than once Jamie returns to the idea of time as a spiral.
Like Jamie’s previous books, Findings and Sightlines, Surfacing is billed as an essay collection. But the individual pieces—three long, nine short—are so artfully arranged to reflect off one another that they form a tightly coherent whole.
The first of the long sections, “In Qinhagak”, is an account of a summer Jamie spends at an archaeological dig outside an isolated Yup’ik village in Alaska where rising sea levels and melting permafrost have exposed the ruins of an older settlement, predating European contact. Jamie’s ability to conjure a sense of place is astonishing: the physicality of Qinhagak, with its stilt houses, squalor of broken machinery and “ravishing, energizing light” is so palpable that, having read her account, there’s a risk of believing one has actually been there in person.
But she is also as concerned with excavating human personalities as the archaeologists are concerned with uncovering walrus ivory artifacts. Diggers and local residents appear, fully formed, by way of a few carefully recorded details and fragments of speech: Yup’ik women with traditional ulu knives in one pocket, and mobile phones in the other; the local man who instructs the author to “Just tell ’em we don’t live in igloos.”
The second long section, “Links of Noltland”, deliberately echoes the first so that they seem at times to melt into one another: again it describes time spent at an archaeological site, exposed by changing weather patterns, pored over by itinerant researchers, and located on a littoral in the far north. Noltland, however, it is in Orkney, much closer to Jamie’s own Scottish home. And where the Qinhagak site was a mere five hundred years old, this village, similarly sited, structured and laden with artifacts, dates back to the Neolithic. In Surfacing, time is deliberately made to contract disconcertingly in this fashion. More than once Jamie returns to the idea of time as a spiral, “in which events remote to one another can wheel back into proximity”.
Again, time contracts, expands, spirals—here in the form of a human lifespan.
The final long section of the book, “The Wind Horse”, appears at first glance to involve a dramatic change of course (though the transition is artfully signaled in one of the preceding, shorter pieces in which fragments of willow pattern crockery, featuring the “inevitable pagoda”, turn up under the plow in a Scottish field). What surfaces in “The Wind Horse” are not physical artifacts, but the author’s own memories of a youthful sojourn in China.
The outward journey takes Jamie and her companion north along Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway through Gilgit and Hunza and across the Khunjerab Pass. This is a region she would write about not long afterwards in her first book, Among Muslims; but at the distance of thirty years these place-names “are wonder-filled and exotic to me now, elevated with a sense of altitude, of jagged snow-plastered mountains, blue skies and strikingly cold air.”
Debarred from entering Tibet proper, the travelers find themselves temporarily stranded in the monastery town of Xiahe in Gansu, listening to vague rumors of uprisings in Lhasa and student protests in Beijing—for the year is 1989.
Jamie’s reconstruction of the monastery and surrounding streets and hills, and of the tense atmosphere of the time, is meticulous (she offers a fascinating glimpse of her own craft in the preceding section, describing the unearthing of her old diary and photographs from the trip, “Archaic objects with material existence”). But she also foregrounds the naivety, crude idealism and occasional insensitivity of herself and her fellow backpackers, trapped by a lack of shared language, unable properly to connect with local people as she would in Alaska and Orkney, decades later. Here the linking thread between this and the earlier sections surfaces startlingly for a moment: the gauche travelers in Xiahe are in their mid-twenties, an age that would have made them arthritic elders in the Neolithic community at Noltland. Again, time contracts, expands, spirals—here in the form of a human lifespan.
The impacts of climate change are made explicit without polemicizing.
There has been some debate over how and to what extent contemporary travel and nature writing should address environmental crises, and there is also a certain critique of the solipsism that can emerge in accounts of personal responses to landscape and nature (the “lone enraptured male”, once again).
But as in her previous work, in Surfacing Jamie finds an effortlessly elegant balance. The impacts of climate change are made explicit—in summer fires in Alaska, floods in Britain and uncovered coastal archaeology—without polemicizing. And the personal themes of time’s passing are made universal without the self-obsession that mars some of travel and nature writing’s tales of “healing journeys”—something achieved in part by the sporadic use of the second person, with the gazes of narrator, protagonist and reader intersecting in a shared perspective.
As always, Jamie’s deft and subtle handling of her themes is aided by the remarkable quality of the writing itself. She is an acclaimed poet, as well as an author of prose, and her writing here certainly has the meticulous precision of poetry. But its fineness has an elusive, quicksilver quality. Isolated in extract there is sometimes an illusion of what’s-so-special-about-that plainness:
I was looking out at land. Land, every way one turned. From this small hill the tundra was laid out below like a green sea, sedgy and subtle and glinting with secret melt-pools and waterways.
Put together, however, the whole thing shimmers. The more closely you look, the more detailed its patterning becomes, with common threads and images running back and forth through the text: a bear’s skull at the outset is recalled later by cattle skulls set into a prehistoric wall, and echoed again in a Tibetan monk’s bowl, made of a human cranium. Individual lines, containing individual ideas, come with the force of an unexpected blow, leaving the reader briefly giddy. Digging into the layers of the Qinhagak site a mysterious scent of cooking envelopes the archaeologists: “The air is so clean and sharp you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago.” A patch of Scottish forest may hold no large predators in the twenty-first century, but “Wolves, though—the wood is old enough to remember them, just.”
There is a certain melancholy laced through Surfacing, with its insistent reflections on time’s passing—on both the grand scales of ancient woodlands and prehistory, and in the minute span of a human life. There is a continuation here of a theme from Jamie’s two previous books, spaced seven years apart: motherhood of young children, followed by the sudden arrival of old age in one’s own parents, then the departure of those now adult children and the death of the parents. But the Surfacing’s final firm imperative is full of unsentimental hope: our own portion of time’s vast spiral is very short indeed, but there is much still to be done with it.
But there’s a hint of deliberate mischief in Surfacing’s opening piece.
Arriving so close together as they do, it is impossible to avoid comparisons between Surfacing and Macfarlane’s Underland. Their shared concerns with “deep time”—explored in each author’s contrasting style—is surely coincidental.
But there’s a hint of deliberate mischief in Surfacing’s opening piece, in which Jamie visits the entrance to a mountain cave where prehistoric reindeer antlers have been found—signalling her own themes to come. “It makes you quail,” she writes, “the thought of crawling through darkness and passageways and underground streams.” This is the very thing that Macfarlane does in Underland, of course.
The inference in this line, and in the books’ contrasting titles, is irresistible: while Macfarlane thrusts himself bodily down through the strata, such are Jamie’s gifts that she need only wait quietly at the surface while meaning rises up to meet her.
Tim Hannigan is the author of Murder in the Hindu Kush, shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java which won the 2013 John Brooks Award; A Brief History of Indonesia; and Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre.