‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn


2019, 284 p.

Disappeared places have their own special allure, especially when they have sunk to a watery death. I think of towns shifted or submerged during the building of a reservoir (like, for instance Bonnie Doone which was covered by the Eildon Dam or Tallangatta which reappeared when the Hume Reservoir sank so low). Then there are the ‘lost’ lands covered over by the waves. Think Atlantis, or the Theosophists’ Lemuria: huge land masses, supposedly supporting sophisticated civilizations, which are now the stuff of legend.

Rather less legendary, however, is Dogger Bank, which is mentioned every morning on that strange, soporific radio item, the Tide Report on the BBC in England. Dogger Bank is the last remnant hint of Doggerland, which existed in the North Sea and English Channel 18,000 years ago, making what we now know as the United Kingdom a contiguous part of Europe. It was not a land ‘bridge’, which suggests a narrow and tentative link between UK and Europe. Instead it was a fertile plain, with its own coastlines and rivers, with humans roaming across it. It was not a route from one place to another, but a territory in its own right.

People have known about Doggerbank for centuries. Particularly low tides have exposed the remnants of old forests, and the continual calving of the eastern English coastline reveals an ongoing array of fossilized remains and flints. But recent developments like windfarms and extractive industries tell us more today about Doggerbank than we have ever known before. Huge machines have been scooping up the ocean floor, bringing up bones and artefacts, and oil exploration companies have made their geological surveys available to academic archaeologists and palaeontologists, a source of information that they could never, ever have afforded themselves. (So maybe there is something to be said for oil exploration after all).

Julia Blackburn is not a geologist, palaeontologist or archaeologist. She is a poet and author, but in this book she walks the Suffolk and Norfolk coastland of the eastern UK, picking up stones, shells, bones and flints as she walks. She is not alone in this: people have been picking here for years. She talks to these collectors, who show her their hoards, giving her bits and pieces. They exist in a wary relationship with academics, who they often perceive as being too keen to sweep up artefacts to store them away in universities, where they may remain almost as hidden as they were under the ocean for years. But sometimes there are finds which transcend this uneasiness, when the collectors realize the significance of what they have found for the human story, and it becomes a shared endeavour between collector and academia.

This is a beautifully presented book, which has colour plates showing the ice, coastline and river formation of Doggerland 18,000 years ago; the receding ice and flat plain, fractured with rivers and tunnels at 15,000 years ago; the gradual encroachment of water 13,500 years ago; the emergence of a recognizable UK at 10,000 years before present; and the remnant Dogger Island in the middle of the North Sea at 7,000 years ago, the connection between UK and Europe severed. It’s a human story too, that stretches back 1.8 million years, through Homo Erectus, Homo antecessor, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, some signified by a few stone tools or human footprints fossilized into the land surface.

There seems to be a spate of beautifully written environmental histories and essays that have been published recently. I’m thinking of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, David Sornig’s Blue Lake (my review here) and Vicki Hastrich’s Night Fishing (review here).

But it’s also a very human story because of the way she tells it. Her search is narrated almost as a conversational journey, as she meets with this person and that, and as she relates her own reminiscences of places and items she has herself found. Collectors and academics share their enthusiasms with her, and indirectly with us too. There is a lot of science in this book (and her list of acknowledgments at the back of the book demonstrates her debt to academia) but it’s written very much in layman’s terms. Her response to the academic literature is expressed in 18 ‘Time Song’ poems, which intersect the text, each preceded by a black and white drawings by Enrique Brinkmann.

There’s another story here too, a deeply personal one. She tells us in the preface that her second husband died a few years ago. We learn that she had met him when she was eighteen. He was Dutch, and for four years they crossed from one side of the North Sea to the other. They broke up, she married someone else and had children with him. After an absence of 27 years, they met again and married. During their first year of married life they again criss-crossed that North Sea to each other, him living in Amsterdam, her in Suffolk. Like Doggerland he was present, then disappeared; reappearing again and then absent for ever. In many ways, this book is a love poem to him and he is always just below her level of consciousness, just below the surface. Her final, beautiful Time Song is written to him. ‘Time’ is elapsing, but her exploration of Doggerland shows her that things can pass and yet persist, and that the universe has its own rhythm and trajectory, quite independent of us.

There was a pale and almost transparent moon in the sky this morning. The air has become very autumnal. It will soon be my husband’s second death year but because of the strange mathematics of absence, his age no longer increases with the passing of time. At night I sometimes stretch out my hand towards him and wait until I am almost convinced that an answering hand is there, even though I cannot feel it. I’m sure this is quite usual. It’s what people do. (p.11)

This is a beautiful book, contemplative and wise.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

4 responses to “‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn

  1. Nice. I don’t know about Dogger Bank at all.

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