Peter Reason reflects on the evocative quality of Kathleen Jamie’s Nature writing. Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie. Sort of Books, 2012. ISBN: 9780956308665
Those who have read Kathleen Jamie’s first collection of essays, Findings, will remember the close-up quality of her writing: always quietly observant and thoughtful, sometimes domestic, often linked with her experiences as a mother of young children. She watches peregrines nesting from her kitchen window, writes about spiders and fever, and visits Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh to examine pathology specimens, as well as following trails and visiting islands and clifftops. This is Nature writing as intimate encounter rather than as heroic adventure.
In the London Review of Books she rather caustically, and some would say unfairly, criticised Robert Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places as the writing of “a lone enraptured male”, too conservative, too romantic, and indeed too self-centred for her taste. Not ‘wild-minded’ enough. She is interested in the wild not as something we stride over but as a “force that requires constant negotiation”. The wild will come to us, she argues, in childbirth, in fever, in the smaller and sometimes darker moments of life.
Jamie’s second volume, Sightlines, like Findings, consists of a dozen or so essays describing and reflecting on the world about her. This takes her further afield, to the Norwegian Arctic, a gannetry on Shetland, cleits in St Kilda, and wildlife and ancient remains on Rona – but also to a pathology lab in Dundee and to watch an eclipse of the moon from the window of her house. Whether it is icebergs, whale skeletons, the corpse of a dead petrel, or Helicobacter pylori studied on a microscope slide, the reader is taken to an intimate view. We are brought not just to see through Jamie’s eyes but to feel through her perspective as well, which often means connecting the wild that we reach out for with a wild that is always with us.
I am an unashamed Kathleen Jamie fan, and have been returning often to her essays with the question, “What is it that makes this writing so beautiful and so evocative?” Just to open the book and read the first lines – “There’s no swell to speak of, just little lapping waves … All along the shoreline lie trinkets of white ice, nudged up by the tide…” – we are led into the gentle adventure. The party from the ship cruising the Norwegian Arctic are taken inland across the “hummocky goose-plain” to a higher spot, where their guide invites them to sit for a while, keep quiet and listen.
Jamie tells us how she found herself listening not just to the silence, but through the silence, which she describes first simply as extraordinary, but then more startlingly as a silence that “radiates from the mountains, and the ice and the sky, a mineral silence which presses powerfully on our bodies … deep and quite frightening”. The silence becomes not just what is heard and not heard, but a synaesthesia: the aural is interpenetrated by the visual and the kinaesthetic. We are taken directly into her experience of silence that is so close to, and that illuminates, our own.
So what is it about this writing that is so compelling? It is partly Jamie’s presence. In all the stories, she is completely there, with her observations and reflections, yet never obtrusive. She never insists, never forces us to see through her eyes, and yet she leads us to do so. She draws what is familiar towards us, so we see it afresh, and she makes the unfamiliar feel as though it could become known. The writing is close at hand, with detailed reflections that are not unnecessarily decorative or over-elaborated; yet on close study they are full of evocative metaphor: “radiant silence”, gannets “interrogating the sea”, the Earth’s shadow eclipsing the surface of the moon “translucent, like black silk”. Hers is a poet’s eye, in this prose just as in her poetry: the award-winning collection The Tree House and, just published, The Overhaul.
Reading Kathleen Jamie shows us that we are participants in our world. Her writing teaches us that we make false distinctions when we separate the wild and the not-wild, the extraordinary and the everyday. She brings together the world of rocks and icebergs and aurora with the world of emotions, memory, hopes and fears. She does not preach, for there is here no heavy or explicit environmental message – indeed, she seems rather wary of environmentalism. The wonder, the strangeness and the beauty stand for themselves and remind us how precious they are.