Julia Blackburn has always collected things that hold stories about the past, especially the very distant past: mammoth bones, little shells that happen to be two million years old, a flint shaped as a weapon long ago. Shortly after her husband’s death, Blackburn became fascinated with Doggerland, the stretch of land that once connected Great Britain to Continental Europe but is now subsumed by the North Sea. She was driven to explore the lives of the people who lived there—studying its fossil record, as well as human artifacts that have been unearthed near the area.
In Time Song, Blackburn brings us along on her journey to discover what Doggerland left behind, introducing us to the paleontologists, archaeologists, fishermen and fellow Doggerland enthusiasts she meets along the way. She sees the footprints of early humans fossilized in the soft mud of an estuary alongside the scattered pockmarks made by rain falling eight thousand years ago. She visits a cave where the remnants of a Neanderthal meal have turned to stone. In Denmark she sits beside Tollund Man, who seems to be about to wake from a dream, even though he had lain in a peat bog since the start of the Iron Age. As Doggerland begins to come into focus, what emerges is a profound meditation on time, a sense of infinity as going backward and an intimation of the immensity of everything that has already passed through its time on earth and disappeared.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
JULIA BLACKBURN is the author of ten books of nonfiction, including The Three of Us, Old Man Goya (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist) and With Billie (winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award). She is also the author of the novels The Book of Color and The Leper's Companions, both of which were short-listed for the Orange Prize. She lives in England.
Read an Excerpt
‘Oh,’ I say casually, as if in answer to a question, ‘I’m writing about a country called Doggerland. It’s also known as North Sea Land because that’s where it was, under what is now the North Sea. It emerged after the last Ice Age and with the warming of the climate it became a wonderfully fertile place of rivers and lakes, gently rounded hills and sheltered valleys, reed beds and salt marshes in the lowlands, trees on higher ground and a profusion of life: fish, birds, animals and humans as well. These were a people who left few traces of their passing. They hunted with weapons made from wood, bone or stone; they had canoes cut from the trunks of trees; they had dogs working with them and sometimes buried their dead alongside their dogs. But as the ice went on melting the sea levels rose dramatically – you can’t believe how fast, it could be more than two metres within a century – so the land was inundated, familiar places submerged or made inaccessible. Seven thousand years ago, Doggerbank was still there as an island and then it too was gone.
‘And,’ I continue, carried forward by the idea of it all, ‘I am also writing about what happened in this same area long before the last Ice Age. I go back to the first humans who were here, close to where I live: a cache of worked flints was found quite recently near a holiday camp and then a bit further up the coast there is the little flurry of footsteps fossilised in what was once the soft mud of a river estuary. Five people pottering about some nine hundred thousand years ago; they were probably collecting plants and shellfish.
‘Mammoth,’ I say, ‘great herds of them moving across the grassy steppes when Britain was part of the Eurasian land mass. I’ve collected quite a lot of mammoth bones, along with those of other extinct creatures; it’s best to go looking after a storm has scoured the edges of the cliffs to reveal whatever secrets they have been hiding, but I often forget to go then. I did pick up a lovely stone axehead just recently. It looks like nothing much until you hold it in your hand and feel how well it fits, how sharp it is.
‘Of course I ask myself what on earth I think I’m doing, rattling around like a ghost in such distant landscapes of the past, and this is what might be the answer, or at least part of the answer. I am not especially afraid of my own death, but I am afraid of the death of forests and oceans, the contamination of water and air, the sense that we are heading towards a catastrophe from which there will be no escape. I comfort myself with the knowledge that this is nothing new: the climate has often shifted from extremes of heat to extremes of cold; oceans rising to cover the land and shrinking to reveal it in a different form; living creatures emerging in all their strangeness and determination to survive and some of them manage to hold on, but others do not.
‘I wonder now if it makes more sense to imagine infinity going backwards in time, rather than forwards. When you look at it that way round, you no longer have the vague dread of what the future holds, instead there is the intimation of the enormity of everything that has gone before: a solemn procession of life in all its myriad forms moving steadily towards this present moment. You can almost hear the songs they are singing.
‘There is something else. My husband died a few years ago. He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.’
Table of Contents
OLD TIME: 1
MIDDLE TIME: 119
NO TIME AT ALL: 205