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Home Uncategorized In her Element

In her Element

Kerri Ní Dochartaigh

And now there is a moth …
Kathleen Jamie’s “Surfacing”

The tissue of the land
and skin and bone and sky …
If the land, like the body,
can hold a trauma …
It can also, perhaps,
hold a healing.

[Elizabeth Jane Burnett]

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable
links between each of us and everything else …
the farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family.
[Mary Oliver]

Surfacing, by Kathleen Jamie, Sort of Books, 240 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1908745811

Kathleen Jamie’s new book, “Surfacing”, arrives with me – between two heavy showers of Atlantic rain – at the end of August, moments after the BBC tell us that the government has asked the queen to suspend parliament; a handful of weeks before the Brexit deadline. We have no idea – not a single one of us – how any of the next few weeks, months or years will look for these islands.

This illuminating, essential; deeply moving book makes its way from London across the sea, mirroring so many ancient pathways, ignoring boundaries, crossing borderlines. The city in which it arrives – my hometown of Derry – is a border town caught up in the spiralling chaos that the last few years of Brexit negotiations have spat out at their mucky feet. They find themselves very far north, these new words from this well established and esteemed writer – one for our era; in a northwesterly corner of the island of Ireland. The words, before they made their mark on the paper I now hold, so gratefully, in my hands – found their shapes and form high above London on the map – in Jamie’s home of Scotland, I imagine. In the autumn that is on its way to us, beginning to rattle the trees, calling to the geese and the swans, Kathleen Jamie will travel from her home in Alba, to the North of Ireland, where she will take up her post as the Seamus Heaney International Visiting Poetry Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast. She said of the appointment: “As a Scottish poet I’ve always looked to Ireland”, and I found such nourishment in this small gathering of words; such a sense of soothing, and solidarity. There are places on both bodies of land where, if one looks on the right day, and in its proper part, under certain conditions, the other can be seen as closely as if it were right there – held tenderly inside your own hands.

A while back, when I was struggling with my own words, and wondering what the point was of it all – of even trying to write about a world that is burning and melting, a world that is dying, and so choked with the fullness of loss – I came across an essay that has changed my life; and I say that with no sense of exaggeration whatsoever.

In that essay on “The Clearing”, written as part of a series of responses to the referendum of summer 2016, Jamie wrote:

I wonder what to do as a writer. What to do for the best … As an angry-Scottish-poet-nature-writer who can’t see straight.
(I still love the world.)’

Three years have passed since that essay, and so, so many of us have got angrier and angrier. The turning world has been through much, too much to even put into words; and it is into this thunderstorm of heartbreak and surreal daily life that Kathleen Jamie has sent out this dazzling, humble, deeply affirming collection.

The collection is made up of twelve essays of varying lengths. The things we find in these essays range from the day-to-day act of living, the mundane order of things, to the otherworldly and ethereal; the beauty to be found in the ancient ways, the knowledge held in the edge-lands. Scotland, Alaska and China; childhood, marriage and motherhood; loss, grief and joy; sea, sky and land: the parts fit gracefully together, the whole is unimaginably and startlingly fine.

This is Jamie in her element, observing the world around her with honesty, exposing raw truths, asking us over and over again to look – to look as if our lives depended on it, because, as she shows us subtly but directly, they do.

The prose is matter-of-fact as well as lyrical – each chapter does its job with the greatest of ease; we come away full of a sense of things having been placed in order, catalogued, dissected, rattled enough to ensure they fall back into place in a way that makes them catch the light that little bit more. And there is light – so much light – in “Surfacing”. It lingers at windows and turns pink at the close of day. It is on mountains, in silent meditation with ravens and bees; it falls from the sky, sun- or moon-born onto the hair of a Dubliner, an ancient settlement, a kittiwake; light falls as “a cold glow” above grasses between tenements in the city Jamie’s daughter sets out from into adulthood. Shafts of it fall through cracks in the walls of noodle houses, on a trip that is a cusp moment; full of rebellion, revolution and deep connection. Light falls from shooting stars, it is flicked on by Chinese police, it lingers in the room of a soulful, brave woman long after she has fled. The light is halved, it is “barn-like”, it is over the hills in the midst of political unrest; “the light was always shifting there”.

There is no sense of Jamie hiding her fears for the future of this planet, and I am humbled by the balance she strikes between anxious honesty and the nudge towards us all just getting on with it; doing our bit as best we can muster. In Quinhagak, climate change means “the land is losing its grip on itself, the more ready to surrender to the sea”. The spinning, hurtling earth is being painted here – captured in this very moment in which we are living – giving back that which we have given her; there are “echoes and falling rocks”.

What are we to do with these things, Jamie asks; how must we treat the palimpsest of life that is left in the wake of time? We are shown ripples of many forms, leftovers and remains, in these essays, from the youngsters learning the old crafts of their ancestors after the excavation in Quinhagak to the layers of domestic dwellings in the Links of Noltland, from the thin margins left by farmers to the eternal spirals found from the same era in utterly separate lands. There are things both lost and found, pieces of pottery, fragments of history, collected stories, bones washed up, stones unearthed, memories, words, language and much more, buried deeper than we imagine they could ever be. There is naming here too, and looking: “It’s a matter of looking, of knowing what you’re looking for.”

Things both are completely and are not at all what they seem here. We are given visual tricks, fog, disappearance, duality and masks: “If a seal face looks out from a man’s face, is he a man or a seal?… The both at once.”

 One had to make allowances for this extraordinary light … transformation is possible. A bear can become a bird. A sea can vanish, rivers change course. The past can spill out of the earth, become the present.

There is fetching, and hatching, making and finding, recording and learning, spilling and bursting out; there is the fullness of life and living, no matter how compromised and damaged the landscape may be. There are people and creatures. There is weather and landscape, observation and its telling – Scotland in the singular beauty of winter from a train window, the Ttundra in the spring that followed the absence of a winter – an eagle in the summer gloaming, Orcadian winds that cause “exceptional and unprecedented” erosion; there is the storm that brings the squalls of rain that send the archaeologists home.

There are low tides, high cliffs, big waves, quiet humans, black butterflies, corrupt governments and so much in between. And there are in-betweens aplenty – of people, place and idea; the gaps and hidden things are hauntingly beautiful in the afterglow of observation. The use of “you” in the collection is absolutely captivating. The you is Jamie, us; the you is the whole and delicate world.

On that wet August afternoon – the day the government tried to suspend parliament – the day this joy of a book arrived at my door, another important thing happened, too. A sixteen-year-old activist from Sweden arrived by boat into New York. She had journeyed over tumultuous waters for two weeks and had been ridiculed by grown adults at almost every step of the way. Greta Thunberg, when asked why she has taken the course of action she has, answered – simply: “So that people will somehow open their eyes.” Every time I see her, my insides sing that Ivor Cutler song: “Women of the world, take over. Because if you don’t the world will come to an end, and we haven’t got long.”

We haven’t got long, but we have got long enough – there is still time; there are still those like Kathleen Jamie who are listening and looking closely – and there are still those of us who are so very grateful for that.

Yet another thing happened on the day I received this book. Instead of running my usual route, along the river Foyle in search of the same herons and lapwings, the same light on the same reeds, I felt compelled, after reading only the first chapter; to run a different route. I made my way around the football pitch instead of along the stream – up a hill with empty energy drink cans and one discarded stiletto – into a copse, burnt grass and shards of glass from Tesco own-brand vodka bottles; no light to be found at all. And then she comes – wild and beautiful – in flight in the least likely of settings (in my tiny mind); a mottled brown and white moth. I follow her path, above broken things that speak of the poverty here, of our need – and now she is above a dash of red; the first fairy ring I have ever seen outside of Scotland. I go home and I look her up – that moth, and I find she is an “Oak Beauty”. It is very specific to this wooded, broken city of mine; even as I think I am open of mind and eye –that moth, like Kathleen Jamie; tells me to come closer still.

Nature is not somewhere we go into. Nature is not just “my” river, or the tundra, the highlands, an island, an empty beach or a perfectly sculpted wood-land. Nature is not always silent and a bringer of healing – it is not for any one type of person, with any particular background. Nature is that burnt grass that birthed those almost unreal fly agaric. It is that moth as she jolted me out of my (creeping in) small-mindedness, and desire to box her off. It is the humans of my home town that are responding to trauma through addiction; the human desire to feel numb sometimes – to ease the worry and the pain, and the sadness; sometimes. I hope that that moth danced for them, too – whoever drank and smashed those bottles – and that they noticed her.

Yes, the light may have changed – but it is still there; the light is still there in this world. This world that so many of us still love, beyond all measure.

Last night, I went into my concrete back yard – in search of the only patch of cloudless sky, in search of stars. The man “in charge” of this country had just lost his first vote as prime minister. Rebels trying to make him see sense have been removed. The House of Commons is unrecognizsable; farce and chaos battle it out there – underneath sleeping Conservative animals.

Slowly, burning through the grey fog – the stars. Less than a moment later, under the stars, close enough that I could feel it in my bones; a loud deep shot. Then the siren. I awoke today to find out that the bomb was one street over from me. I think, for most of the morning, that I am not ready for this again – that the North of Ireland cannot cope with it all; this dark and darkening time. I bluster about the house, sinking into the depths – a place I cannot bear to reach again. In the bathroom – not quite bogging dirty but getting there, I watch a spider pushing her eggs from the shower switch to the crack in the corner of the roof; slowly, with intention – the egg sac the same colour of blue as the first Winter Pages journal on my shelf; the same colour as my eyes after crying. (There has been too much weeping now; enough already, child.)

I straight away want to tell Kathleen Jamie, and the whole world. I light the fire, cursing this storm, head full of worry about the melting, the burning, the breaking; full of guilt at my part in it all but I am shivering and I have no real choice. The flames seem almost to dance in time with the howling winds shoving the trees around outside, and I am comforted by it, by the fact that the winds still howl – and I still love them, despite it all.

On the counter, right beside my laptop, an exquisite moth has died. It is stretched out like a painting – nothing at all like Jacob Rees Mogg – who in turn is nothing at all like Mog the forgetful cat, but this thought cheers and strengthens me. I recall, all at once, the burglar in Judith Kerr’s book, who – despite having tried to rob the family – is given tea to calm him down. This detail – so simple, so kind – has stayed with me for decades.

“We challenge the government with beauty. Not fighting. Not politics.”

We need more beauty, we need to fill our eyes and feeds and thoughts – we need to fill our everything – with beauty. Beauty, and the act of noticing; the act of looking – is a form of rebellion. It is a language – a way to connect; a way to save those things that we have not yet lost.

It is still there, that breaking and bruising – that sorrow and deep, dark ache – but I am listening to Kathleen Jamie, now; with everything I have – “and now there is a moth” – and now, I see it.


Kerri ní Dochartaigh lives in northwest Ireland. She writes about nature, literature and place for publications which include Caught By The River, New Welsh Review and The London Magazine. Her first book – ‘Thin Places’ – will be published by Canongate in Spring 2021.



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