- - Thursday, August 22, 2019


It’s hard to categorize Julia Blackburn’s “Time Song.” 

It’s definitely non-fiction rather than fiction, though that judgment denies that the shaping hand of an author fictionalizes everything. But let’s go with the broad classification of non-fiction and fit “Time Song” into it.  

Partly it’s a memoir of the author’s fascination with the drowned terrain of Doggerland and the animals and humans who lived there in past eons. This leads her into paleontology, paleoclimatology and much more about the very distant past. Yet she is alert to the present, and wonderful at describing the birds and plants and topography of the watery lands where her explorations take place.

She notes the oddity of her topics herself, explaining, “Trying to see through the fact of absence is what this book is mostly about.”

The book is full of absences. Doggerland itself is one. It was the antediluvian chunk of Eurasia that connected the British Isles to that vast continent. Doggerland now lies under the forbidding grey North Sea. But when it was above the waves it was “a paradise for cave lions, sabre-tooth tigers, bears, bison but mammoth were by far the most common animal,” according to one of Julia Blackburn’s informants.

She writes, “I must imagine great herds of them grazing, drinking from the rivers, and in the summer month of July walrus hunting for clams and molluscs in the soft mud along the coast and beluga whale breeding in the shelter of the estuaries.”

Conjuring this scene would not have been hard because years of beachcombing had yielded her numerous bits of mammoth bone. She had also found bones of rhinoceros and deer and bear, fossils of clams and sea creatures, and most significantly flints and bones worked into tools once used by humans — all these on the east coast of England.

Making such discoveries is easier than it may sound. The cliffs and dunes of this eastern shore are constantly worn away or broken off by storms, exposing the remains of long-buried creatures or caches of tools made by the people who hunted and gathered in these parts. Much of the land that the sea sweeps up is deposited further south, and so the coastline is ever-changing, and every beach for dozens of miles can be scattered with ancient remains for those with eyes to spot them.

Among these are professional academic researchers, who avidly explore this region, but a huge number of skilled amateurs do so too, and many have made important discoveries. Among them the author describes Bob Mutch, who having suffered a neurological disorder, took to walking Suffolk beaches to strengthen his muscles, and began discovering bones and flints. 

Julia Blackburn describes him working with his autistic friend Adrian: “Bob wasn’t strong and he would just prop himself on the sand and watch and sort out the material as it was brought to him. Adrian always had a bottle of brandy and blackcurrant juice against the cold and he would wade out into the sea to sift the gravel where a river had once flowed. Nothing could stop him, he’d go on working in a howling gale, even if the waves were coming in waist-high. He’d go on like that for hours.” 

After seven weeks of this work they discovered flints that were shown to be 700,000 years old, and therefore of major historical significance because they were “the earliest evidence of human habitation in Great Britain.”

These first residents fascinate the author. She visualizes them movingly, imagining them hunting caribou or making flints or preparing food. Like the great herds of animals, they are among the “absences” that her books is about. 

Another vital one is her husband. On an early page she notes his decease. Later, brief references recall him; then at the end of the book she writes about his death and how she and her friend painted his coffin in bright colors.  So, this book is about mortality: The deaths of those we know and love, as well as the too-big-to-count myriad of animals and insects and sea creatures and people who once lived. 

Julia Blackburn studs her book with poems she calls “Time Songs” illustrated with odd monochrome drawings by Enrique Brinkmann. She explains these “songs” as a way of handling material that would be boring in expository prose. In the last one, she addresses her husband on the anniversary of his death, writing “I think it’s all right/ The world will continue/ even if we have gone/ and that is surely something/ to smile about.” 

There’s wisdom here and throughout her book. Most importantly she makes vast periods of time credible by her descriptions of landscapes and fossils and ancient artifacts Most amazingly, in her beautifully imagined scenery and activity of a world that has long passed under the waves she persuades us that it is still there — just absent. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Julia Blackburn

Pantheon, $27.95, 304 pages

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