I admire Kathleen Jamie very much as a poet, but her essays about the natural world and our relationship with it are exceptional. Whether she’s crawling through a whale’s rib-cage in a forgotten museum in Norway, or digging up fragments of iron age pottery in a field, the questions she asks are always significant.
What is nature? Why do we think in terms of ‘primroses and otters’ and leaping dolphins? The bad things are ‘natural’ too - bacteria, cancer tumours, parasites; they’re all part of the natural process of things. ‘Death is nature’s sad necessity, but what when comes for the children?’ In the aftermath of her mother’s death, Kathleen goes to the hospital pathology department and gazes through a microscope at some of the things that kill us and finds that this landscape too, has a strange beauty. Microbes graze on fleshy mounds, cells divide like herds of animals on the veldt, heliobactor pylorus swims in stomach acid - perfectly adapted.
She’s interested in the human history too. The island’s people had survived for over a thousand years - perhaps much longer - a people who knew how to live in primitive places. They kept themselves warm with peat fires and grew ‘a few crops and kept a strange kind of wild sheep, and they ate seabirds, and seabirds’ eggs. They made shoes out of gannets and medicine out of fulmar oil; they stitched their clothes with feathers.’ It was a way of life that could survive the worst nature could throw at it, but not the temptations of the modern world.
A chance meeting with an archaeologist friend changed everything. The Royal commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland was setting up a project to survey the ‘cultural landscape’ of the island, and Kathleen Jamie applied to be one of the volunteers. One of her jobs was to help survey the stone structures left behind by the inhabitants - store houses called ‘cleits’, roofed with living turf ‘like a Neolithic Anderson shelter’. There were more than 1400 on one island alone. With the surveyors Kathleen learned to look at the landscape in a new way. ‘It was like the difference between looking through a window pane and looking at it.’ And beyond the land, the light left shining trails on the water, whales breached and rolled off-shore, and the air was full of wheeling gannets and fulmars.
The thing I like most about these essays is that they look at the landscape and our relationship with it in a way that is totally stripped of romance. Which doesn’t mean not being awed by it - as in Kathleen Jamie’s first encounter with icebergs, the aurora borealis - ‘natural wonder, enthralling, mysterious and wild’.
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the natural world and the way we interact with it.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
Published by Sort Of Books
available on Kindle