Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Book Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.

‘Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see,’ Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie cautions, midway through this delicate, thoughtful collection of essays. ‘That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.’

Jamie, an acclaimed poet and essayist, has made attentiveness her mantra. Having trained herself to observe the mundane, Jamie is adroitly placed to bear witness to the wonder: Leach’s petrels swooping over Rona, a blustery, long uninhabited isle 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, or a fibreglass whale jawbone that sits 600-metre high atop Berwick Law, on Edinburgh’s picturesque purlieus.

Sightlines, like her previous collection, 2005’s Findings, comprises a series of carefully constructed essays on the living world. Findings was a remarkable book, and one that defied categorisation: does a Scot writing about winter on Orkney or corncrakes on a Hebridian island constitute travel writing? Nature writing? Memoir? All three? Sightlines retains its predecessor’s unusual shape and structure: there are knowledgeable essays about the whale rooms in Bergen’s Natural History Museum and orca spotting off Shetland, all accompanied by artful black and white photographs.

But Sightlines is an altogether more self-conscious work than its antecedent, aware that it is, in a more definite sense, nature writing. Jamie is also more self-consciously a nature writer. The two opening essays – the weakest in this short collection – find the writer among icebergs off Greenland and shadowing a pathologist in Scotland, respectively. The word nature, and what this slippery term, means is a recurring concern in these early essays. Nature, says Jamie, is ‘not all primroses and otters’; pinning down what exactly it is proves more difficult.

‘The Woman in the Field’, an essay, largely, about a teenage summer spent as a ‘digger’ at an archaeological site, finds Jamie on safer, more revealing ground. Personal, observant and occasionally darkly funny, as when she describes the unwanted attention of ‘Pete the Lech, a patchouli scented, lank-haired hippy, lustily hopping from dig to dig in the late 1970s.

Like Seamus Heaney, Jamie sees a symbiosis between archaeology and poetry, a shared unearthing what others would rather left alone: ‘The opening of the cist under that thunderclap was thrilling, transgressive. So, in its quiet way, was writing poems’. Until Findings, Jamie was best known as a poet and, at times, her spartan, evocative prose could easily pass as poetry. School children filing past the whale room in Bergen are ‘a quick bright shoal darting through’. Stringy sinews from a patient’s liver, ‘reminded me of climbers’ gear abandoned on a rock-face.’

Jamie has said in interviews that British nature writing ‘vanished’ in the 1960s, but in its themes and approaches Sightlines often calls to mind the work of Richard Mabey, the septuagenarian naturalist and author. Both share a strong, almost elegiac, environmentalism that goes beyond conservation into a concern about the future of the planet.

Written in the first person, with a great deal of reflexivity, ‘nature’ is never conceived of as something ‘other’, something ‘wild’ or ‘remote’ – indeed the very notion of the remote is thrillingly deconstructed in a brilliant, searingly honest essay on St Kilda, a rugged island in the Atlantic abandoned by its population in 1930, which has since become a poster child for the unkempt wilderness.

There is a pleasing domesticity to Jamie’s writing, too. Half a short essay-cum-prose poem on the lunar eclipse is spent coaxing her teenage children to look out the window; refurbishing whale bones in Bergen is like ‘spring cleaning your bedroom’.

As in Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, the chimerical north is a constant presence in Jamie’s writing, and her travels: Iceland, Greenland, the Shetlands, the Hebrides all recur. That such places, ‘with such long human histories’, are ‘remote’ is balefully rejected. ‘Remote from what? London?’ Sightlines is of a piece with the recent social and cultural recalibration of Scotland, away from the south and towards the north and Scandinavia in particular, a move that, for many, necessitates political independence, too.

But Jamie’s politics is a far more personal affair. It is a call to arms to watch the world around you, to never forget that non-humans have as much right to the earth as we do, if not more. Sightlines forces you to think anew about your surroundings, to study them with fresh eyes, to take nothing for granted. For that alone, it is well worth reading.

Book Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.
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