Book review: Sightlines

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ALTHOUGH widely known and highly praised as a poet, Kathleen Jamie’s prose volume, Findings, brought her to a new audience and was published to equal acclaim. Sightlines continues in the same vein, or along the same tributary.

Jamie was included in Granta magazine’s issue proclaiming “The New Nature Writing”, alongside Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey and the poet Paul Farley. And indeed there are some pieces in Sightlines which are clearly “nature writing” – a luminous account of visiting a gannetry and glimpsing a pod of killer whales, for example.

But Jamie seems more interested in the intersections between the natural and the cultural, the human and the animal. The opening essay, Aurora, describes a visit to Greenland, and it unpicks the very human desire to give “meaning” to nature. The icebergs “suggest nothing but a white nihilism”; and although some people claim they have a particular, specific odour, Jamie smells “nothing but colossal, witless indifference”. The Northern Lights, “changing without moving” are by contrast, “like watching fluidity of mind” but “the flickering and pulsing of our own minds, our own mutability, tells us that’s enough… enough natural wonder, enthralling, mysterious, wild”.

The second essay, Pathologies, is a modulating transition from the first. Infuriated by an academic conference on the environment – as if in resistance to the “ooh-ah” epiphany of some nature writing – Jamie investigates the body as natural, as animal. To counteract her feeling that “it’s not all primroses and otters”, she dissects a cancerous colon and attends an autopsy.

The writing here manages an almost balletic poise. On one hand, there is a marvellous series of images and similes as the healthy and sick swathes of cells, under the microscope, become pastoral scenes and estuarine sandbanks; and bacteria “graze” on the “unseen landscapes within”. But this is balanced against an acute awareness that these vistas represent illness, death, and our inevitable sense of our own mortality. We can agree on preserving the panda or the polar bear, but the tuberculosis bacillus presents a thornier dilemma.

In subsequent essays, Jamie returns to the fissure between the natural and man-made environment. In her writing about remote islands – St Kilda, but also Rona – she looks at the way in which nature “reclaims”, although this is more ambivalent than a re-flourishing or re-sanctifying “back to the wilderness”.

Indeed, her take on St Kilda is gloriously unsentimental: there is neither a “lost idyll” nor is St Kilda now “untouched” – its power station, its eager scrutiny by satellites give the lie to such a primitive notion of the absolute distinction between “wild” and “civilised”. There are also two spectacular pieces on whales; or rather, on whale bones. Jamie visits the refurbishment of the Hvalsalen – the Whale Hall – in Bergen and the penultimate essay is almost a psychogeography of whale bones in landscape: the entry to the Meadows, North Berwick Law, the Whitby Arch and many others. It shimmers with clear-sighted ambivalence: when she realises the whale bones on North Berwick Law are now fibreglass, she writes “no doubt this is right and good... if we are adjusting our relationship with these greatest of animals, and with the non-human world as a whole, if we are now refusing to slaughter or torture any more whales, does it mean that when we do reach out for the natural, in wonder or shame or excitement or greed, what we must touch is a man-made substitute?”

The overlap between human and animal is explored subtly in The Storm Petrel. At first, the ring found on the dead petrel is “something uncomfortable... soldiering on while the bird’s corpse withered”. But having reported the find to the British Museum, the data – that this “ounce of a bird had made twenty-four trips the length of the Atlantic” – there is awe.

Other pieces cover topics such as the wind, a lunar eclipse, the extended light in February. These are not just non-human, but non-living aspects of nature. There is such a precision, of both thinking and seeing, displayed in these works that you would have to be a very obtuse kind of reader not to realise that Jamie is a poet.

John Berger has described Jamie as a “sorceress of the essay form”. But to me this seems oddly inappropriate. In common parlance, it evokes the idea of illusion and the changing of shape, and yet Jamie’s work consistently brings the reader back to the real.

Sorcery derives from the Latin sors, meaning lot or fate, the sorcerer (or sorceress) being one who influences destinies. Jamie, by contrast, in these exquisite essays, says a lot more about accepting: “You are placed in landscape. You are placed in time. But, within that, there’s a bit of room for manoeuvre”. «