Kathleen Jamie’s Nature Writing
I used to be on very good terms with Kathleen Jamie around the time I was studying medicine at Glasgow and she was emerging as a talented poet: I still have a copy of her first volume Black Spiders (1982), published when she was barely twenty, with its black spidery dedication. Her interest in travel emerged in the stunning Bloodaxe volume The Autonomous Region (1993), with photos by Sean Mayne Smith, and has developed into politically-aware environmentalism in her two attractive prose volumes from Sort of Books: Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012), which is reviewed below. Both books have been influential and widely read, Findings alone selling in excess of 30,000 copies.
“I mean, everyone wants to escape their own lives sometimes, don’t they?” asks Kathleen Jamie, harassed mother and frustrated writer, in an uncharacteristic plea for affirmation from the reader in one of the best, and longest, essays in her new collection: “Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda”.
And escape she eventually does, with the intention of sailing to that isolated rocky archipelago west of the Outer Hebrides. The story of St Kilda, she observes, “is like a modern myth.” In fact, the millennia-old occupation of the islands that came to an end in 1930 in is an exemplary development disaster story, with the successive arrival of infectious diseases, men of the cloth, the Royal Navy and tourism robbing the islanders of their Stone Age self-reliance. A fragile ecosystem was destroyed by well-meaning civilisers. Its attraction for Jamie, initially at least, seems to have been that it was remote—“where an adventure could unfold”—but close enough to allow for a return to domestic responsibilities. The weather prevented her getting there, and the “gurly” sea. The second time, the skipper of the yacht decided to sail back to the mainland shortly after approaching the landing point at Village Bay. “You don’t want to be at St Kilda in an east wind,” he warns her.
Time passes; her children grow up; and she travels to other islands where contact with long histories of human occupation bring her “to distrust any starry-eyed notion of ‘wild’ or ‘remote’. Remote from what? London? What was London?” (Her defiance resembles Philip Larkin’s: asked once by an interviewer why he had decided to settle in Hull—“so far from the centre”—he riposted: “The centre of what?”) Then, after telling a friend about her failed attempts to land on St Kilda, she gets an invitation to join an official mission to chart the “cultural landscape” of the archipelago in connection with its new status as a World Heritage Site. She spends several days with the surveyors looking for “cleits”, the stone storehouses that dot the islands. Once she gets her eye in, she sees them everywhere. Every single one gets mapped with its GPS coordinates. And then she has what might be called her “fractal moment”—she realises that “St Kilda, far from being an escape … was instead a place of comment and note.” With the wind rising, she has to choose between leaving a couple of days earlier than planned, or staying on for perhaps another full week before the boat returns. So she leaves. “It wasn’t as if I had work to do, like the surveyors. To linger on St Kilda just for the sake of it would merely have been romance.”
This evacuation of her own presence as a writer—as if her being there in the first place was not already a romance—shares its self-deprecating tone with the essay-writing which distinguished her first collection Findings (2005). Sightings—in the same eye-catching format by the same publisher—is a book which re-orientates Scottish culture towards the north. Jamie’s explorations of St Kilda are joined by a piece on another island on what was then the periphery of the known world, and also visited by the Gaelic writer Martin Martin: (North) Rona, with its tiny austere oratory in the North Atlantic. She writes with particular sympathy about birds, in particular a dead storm petrel found there, its identification ring still attached, and on the spectacular gannetry at Muckle Flugga, off Shetland—“I’d always quite fancied the gannet life.” Her article on observing the northern lights from a boat in Scoresby Sound on the east Greenland coast is intensely visual in its luminous eerie effects—“marshmallow pink” icebergs collide in the frightening “mineral silence” of the “teal green” sea. (Her descriptions reminded me at times of the Arctic Expressionism of Lawren Harris, the Canadian painter who was a moving force behind the famous “Group of Seven” artists in the mid-twentieth-century.) She finds it is a relief to register the “intellectualism” of the aurora borealis after the bergs’ “passivity”.
This leads her to consider human dealings with those large marine mammals of the order Cetacea, or rather their relics as displayed in the Hvalsalen or whale room of the Bergen Natural History Museum, whose “doorman skeleton” brings out a flash of humour, as does the sign “Do not touch the animals.” A bit late for that, adds Jamie. Words like “decimate” or even “hecatomb” fail to describe the giant scale of the slaughter that befell the whale population in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, long before human populations realised that they would have to husband the resources of the planet for the sake of survival itself. It could even be said that the development of kerosene and the incandescent light bulb saved the whales: blubber was the “surplus” that fuelled the early phase of that vast outpouring of productive energy we call capitalism, being used for all kinds of things from lighting and lubrication to the manufacture of soap, paint, explosives and even margarine. (In Dundee, the British capital of the whaling industry, whale oil was also used to soften jute fibres prior to their carding and weaving by machines into sacks and bags.)
The only essay to leave the book’s northern geography visits an unspecified prehistoric “cueva” in Spain. It is about the pull of the cave as a kind of uterus: other essays go down into archaeological digs, museums, even a pathology department. “The Woman in the Field”, which is an extended essay about her unearthing of a cist-grave as a summer “teenage antiquarian” and her simultaneous early emergence as a poet (see the short lyric “Inhumation” in Black Spiders), strikes a rare false note with a strained motif about the cellar-graves of Dresden in 1943. Many of her observations hum with unexpected overtones: her tautly lyrical description of a lunar eclipse shares a mood with James B.V. Thomson’s fabulous line: “The light of the moon is the trance of the world.”
The lyric surge of Jamie’s beautiful bare yarns derives a lot of potency from her candidness. “I sail on the surface of understanding,” she admits in her skirting of the “white nihilism” of the Greenland Ice Sheet. In fact, she knows a lot more than she lets on: her piece on Greenland mentions the “katabatic winds”—powerful, densely cold winds tumbling down the glaciers—that drive her back to the warmth of her cabin. The unfamiliarity of what is a jargon term (in the best sense) suggests there may be a conflict, at some level, between her powers of evocation and the overriding need in a systematic description of a natural scene for lexical precision and verbal concision: it seemed to me that her article about visiting a pathology lab in a hospital is her least successful essay, precisely for those reasons. (Consider Miroslav Holub’s essays on microbiology and the life sciences, which offer all the analogies between body tissues and surrealistic landscapes a reader might want, but go beyond his professional expertise to offer genuinely new insights into “the pathological”.)
In general, Jamie aims consistently for precision of observation studded with the occasional couthy Scots word, as if attentiveness could somehow make amends for the despoilment of the natural world—“God knows, someone has to plead for the non-human.” She is certainly not alone in a conservationist ethics that seeks to extend its sense of justice to the protection of other forms of life. And she is confident enough in that mission to risk the pathetic fallacy: St Kilda on her second view is “semi-conscious under … cloud.”
In spite of the academic world’s domination of the essay, it is, in its original sense of being an endeavour, the least rule-bound of literary forms: it is much more about process than outcome, something for reading rather than consulting. It is Jamie’s grasping of that simple truth that makes her writing more than the label “nature writing” suggests; it is steeped in the pleasures of getting “your eye in”—that is, training the eye to see, and not only cleits. And that entails, as she says in an aside on the magpie moth, getting “your foot out of your eye.”
© Iain Bamforth. Expanded review of Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines (Sort Of Books), Times Literary Supplement, 2012