One of the delights of using dictation software – and I use it increasingly to note down quotations – is the wild guesses it makes about words. Has it got used to me with place names such as Ludchurch or Uffington? I don’t know. As this blog post’s title suggests, it certainly wasn’t prepared for the dark and sacred depths of “the inner tomb at Maeshowe.” Maeshowe or Maes Howe, whose significance (detailed in very modern terms here) lies in its being, along with the rest of the complex archaeology of the area, such an astonishing “example of an architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape…” Even the dry report cannot escape a tone of wonder.
But I have to come clean and admit where I am: in my study in Headington, reading Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing. It has some spellbindingly great writing, and shares insights from all sorts of digging and wandering and wondering and loving from Sutherland (and back again) through the discarded bikes and tundra-preserved past of the Yup’ik and the eyes and spirals of the Noltland dig and the rummage through the layers of the author’s own life. Careful here, Nick, not to unearth too much: the book demands its own read.
But at least I can share a few things: all, this time, from the central section (as I read it) of Jamie’s visits to the Orkneys. It is full of lovely lines and images: If seals could watch Netflix, they would and I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of hard to know there is still room in the world for a summers day and a cow called Daisy.
The author is shown a warehouse of finds:
Graeme opened one particular box to show me a slender implement reminiscent of those nibbled pens we used at school, to practise joined up handwriting. It could have come from his own school house.
“You see how the tip is stained dark?” He said. “We think it was used for tattooing…“
Hazel and Graeme showed me more beads, some made of animal teeth, and half-made beads, lots of beads. Thick pins of bone, as long as your hand, presumably used for fastening clothing…
For a moment, out of the twenty-first–century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, they emerged a vision of people closed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.
Jamie has already asked about Neolithic ghosts, concluding, maybe rather sadly, that Ghosts have a half-life, it seems, lingering just a few hundred years, till they too fade away. I am reminded of the ghostly Lord Kildonan whose haunting fades with the years in M R James’s Residence at Whitminster – only to reemerge some years later in a different form. It could be an allegory of sorts for the antiquarian. Here in the Victorian warehouse however, she seems able to conjure such spirits like Prospero as she speculates on the Neolithic settlers:
Different groups, with their different clothing and accents, tools and designs arriving here, but very soon after their arrival, there will be no one alive who could remember the journey. Doubtless there were stories. Origin stories. Contact with other peoples of the same ilk, who spoke the same language, at other settlements. Great ceremonial gatherings, informed by movements of sun and moon, risings and settings, alignments of stones. The midwinter sunrise shines down the passageway at Newgrange, the midwinter sunset illuminates the inner tomb at Maeshowe.
How did they know that, these kids of twenty or thirty years old, with their bone and stone tools?
I am reminded of the poem of Frances Horovitz Poem found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall (from her Snow Light, Water Light, and found in this collection) which likewise looks at finds at contemplates a culture long gone. Starting with the confident To Jove, best and greatest she chants the museum labels – billhook, holdfast, trivet/latch lifter, nail lifter, snaffle bit… until she reaches the unknowns and uncertainties dedication partly obliterated/with human figure in rude relief… All a bit of a challenge for the dictation software, because they are outside the range of frequency to be picked up by the software: just not used enough? So I am back thinking of the Lost Words – but then, oddly, of the book that inspired so many daydreams when Maggie and I were first married, John Seymours‘ Self Sufficiency. Such daydreams – and tonight is simply the Allotment AGM, and I am “doing the teas.”
One of the joys of the modern nature writers is that they will not only write of the sod lit hut by a seal-oil lamp but also of the welcome cuppa, not only a song about time and change but also about pub night and Wifi. The Inner Tube at Mike’s House would not be out of place. Kathleen Jamie is a writer whose poetic instinct draws us into her world of spirituality and history and topography; she is another of those writers, Rob Macfarlane, Peter Fiennes, Rob Cowen… travel writers, nature writers, topographers in what Robert Mac’s Cambridge page calls Geohumanities. A neat (and maybe not uncritical) review of Macfarlane and Jamie and the phenomenon of British nature writing appears here.
As an aside: the more I think of that term, the more I like it. It is Geohumanities (as a metonymy) that impells the glossaries in Landmarks; that makes connections (reliable or not) in Watkins’ The Old Straight Track, that watch the revelation of Yup’ik past in Surfacing… I am beginning to wonder whether it is a term that could be applied to fiction, too: to Peter Dickinson’s The Kin, or Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse Moon Horse. I don’t think I have an answer.
If all goes well, I will be taking time soon with my friend Mat on Uffington White Horse. In my hand I will have my (now signed!) copy of David Miles‘ The Land of the White Horse. On my ‘phone I will have a collection of poems about the place: Jon Stallworthy, G K Chesterton, and if I can find it in time, Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s poem which celebrates the Ridgeway – and of course Frances Horovitz. They all speak – in very different ways – of how landscape and language interrelate: Chesterton is full of a great battle that made England; Horovitz has a mystical white horse that she urges to strike fire to the earth from air. But behind all of this will be the repeated challenge of Kathleen Jamie that all the writers I’m lauding here are answering, as she asks again and again:
Why feel anything? Do you understand? Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The path is at your feet, see?