Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Kathleen Jamie, Findings. Sort Of Books, 2003

Another book loan from my friends the owners of those imperious cats, Igor and Phoebe.

Kathleen Jamie Findings coverKathleen Jamie is a Scots poet. This book of short essays ranges in topic from birds and other wildlife, archaeological sites in Scotland and the Hebrides, to her husband’s grave illness after pneumonia, the view of Edinburgh’s lofty steeples and weathervanes, and its medical museum.

To call her a nature writer is to oversimplify. In an essay called ‘Markings’ she traces the cup-rings – circular carved shapes – scraped into the rock by Neolithic settlers thousands of years earlier, then visits the abandoned shielings – the high summer pastures for cattle, and the shelters their owners lived in while they grazed there long ago. As often in these essays it’s evident that Jamie studied philosophy. These aren’t so much ‘nature writings’ as meditations arising from her experience in nature and with people. Her poet’s sensitivity to place and language is revealed on every page.

Here for example she ponders describing places like this as ‘natural’ or ‘wild’, even ‘wilderness’ – but concludes that this ‘seems an affront to those many generations who took their living on that land.’ Whatever caused them to abandon their shielings, they left subtle marks. ‘What’s natural?’ she asks herself. We’re having to ‘replant the forests we cleared, there’s even talk of reintroducing that natural predator, the wolf.’

Most of her sentences are like that: lucid, colloquial, unforced – natural, perhaps. Not overtly ‘poetic’ or florid.

She’s alert to the sounds and sense of every word she uses, and deploys them with unobtrusive precision. It would be good to hear these pieces read aloud. Many of her words are of Scots origin, wild and natural as the things they signify: those shielings; machair – from an old Gaelic word for Hebridean grassy plains; creels – wicker baskets or lobster pots; sheep or cattle fanks – holding pens.

She imagines the shieling women eating bannocks  and whey – flatbreads cooked on skillets.

She uses metaphor and simile sparingly, but when she does they’re just right. Some examples I savoured: in the title essay she sails with a group of naturalists to the Sound of Shillay (from the Gaelic for ‘seal island’); she describes walking on the beach and sometimes flushing a flock of feeding shore birds:

I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.

The title of the essay ‘Crex-crex’ is taken from the Latin name for corncrake. This shy brown quail-like bird is now very rare, having been hunted to extinction on the mainland. She stays on an island in the Outer Hebrides, one of its few surviving haunts. Her bird warden guide Sarah locates some and invites her to listen to their rasping call:

What does it sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile.

Now and again Sarah stops and tilts her head, all attention: ‘when she stops to listen she reminds me of a thrush on a lawn.’

Sometimes she relishes the opportunity to subvert over-used images, as when she enters a Neolithic burial chamber, a ‘dim stone vault’ (she’s fond of punchy, evocative monosyllables):

There is a thick soundlessness, like a recording studio, or a strongroom.

Not ‘silent as a tomb’. This is ‘a place of artifice, of skill’, you feel the ‘self-assurance’ of the artificers who built this place, perfectly orientated to face the setting midwinter sun, whose rays would hit the tomb’s back wall in ‘a complicit kiss’.

She delights in the findings on another island: a gannet’s skull, sawn off from the body with her knife. Part of an aeroplane’s wing, of all things. Everything intrigues her – and hence, her reader.

She doesn’t single out and describe these findings as curiosities worthy of exhibition in a museum. She muses and makes connections that probably result from her training in philosophy. In ‘Darkness and Light’, for example, she ponders the semantic force of these words and our human reactions to them.

Peregrine falcon, from John Gerrard Keulemans – Catalogue of the birds in the British Museum. Volume 1, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11058956

One of the best pieces relates her delight and anxiety in watching a pair of nesting peregrine falcons (and later, ospreys and an exotic crane in flight). She manages, without forcing the juxtaposition, to liken the precipitous ‘stoop’ of the peregrine on her prey – by diving down on it from above so it never knows what hit it – to the screaming Tornado jets that pass overhead, back from the war in Iraq. Later, her son asked her if they were going to be bombed. “No,” I said. “We will not be bombed.”

She hangs out of her window in her nightclothes one morning, scanning the sky for her peregrines with her binoculars. Her children demand their breakfast. This is a naturalist who feels guilty about making them wait, hungry, as she yearns to see where the female raptor will head.

Even cobwebs, observed by her door, glinting in the morning light, lead her to meditate on life and death as her husband fights for breath in hospital, his lungs infected.

 

 

 

 

Crawdads, house martins and a Bentley

Another book recommendation from Mrs TD was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (Corsair paperback, 2019; first published in the US in 2018). I was sceptical when I started reading, thinking it was turning into a fictional misery-memoir/romantic murder mystery (not a particularly digestible mixture). Mrs TD said to persevere.

I did, and found myself enjoying it. The murder mystery is quite tightly plotted, and there’s a colourful depiction of Kya, the young protagonist whose abusive father drives all her siblings and even her loving mother away from their squalid shack in the middle of a North Carolina coastal swamp. When the father abandons her too, when she’s only about ten years old, she learns to fend for herself and develops a fierce independence, tempered by a fear of being taken in by the authorities. Their success in getting her briefly into a school teaches her only that she was right to be wary of ‘civilisation’.

The romantic part of the novel is a bit contrived, I thought. Kya is a sort of Little Mermaid figure, out of her element in the world of ordinary people, as they are in her world. They call her disparagingly ‘The Marsh Girl’, and spread rumours that she’s feral and dirty.

But she still falls in love with one of the young men from the nearby town, and he with her. As with the mermaid, their story is fraught with danger and difficulties. The complication involves another relationship that veers badly out of control for her.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the vivid realisation of the natural world Kya is so at ease in. Owens has previously published non-fiction in her role as a wildlife scientist in Africa – this is her first novel. Her naturalist’s expertise is well deployed without becoming too intrusive. She’s able to make the reader see and hear the birds, insects and other animal and vegetable life in the teeming, lush swamp.

Kya also reminds me of Mowgli, more at home among the wildlife than with humans. The gulls are her closest friends. The herons watch her with curiosity and fearlessness. The swamp creatures copulate with and eat each other with heedless abandon. Some of this (a little crudely) points up what’s going on in the human story.

I suppose it was an ideal escapist read for these trying times. I’m still struggling to engage with more demanding reading; this novel provided an insight into a completely different and unknown world.

The language often had me turning to Google: local terms like ‘hush puppies’ (not the uncool shoes), ‘po’boys’ and ‘crawdads’. These are crayfish, and the expression in the title about where they sing is a local saying for something like ‘over the rainbow’ or ‘back of beyond’, because of course crayfish don’t sing. I don’t think they do.

View from the country towards the cityJust to finish here’s a picture from my walk early this morning. The recent sunny weather has been replaced by grey and cloudy skies mostly for several days here in Cornwall. This is the view towards the city from a field a half mile or so from my house. You might just be able to see through the haze the spire of the cathedral, piercing the horizon in the middle of the picture. The Carvedras viaduct that I wrote about here recently is also just about visible towards the right.

Yesterday we made a rare trip to the supermarket to buy provisions for ourselves and an isolated neighbour. Only one person per household allowed in at a time, so I prowled the carpark while Mrs TD did the food shopping (we take it in turns). The timing was good: I saw the first house martins of the spring, two of them slicing the sky over the rooftops in scimitar swoops.

Also spotted in the carpark: a middle-aged man in rock-star shades parked an enormous blue Bentley. A few minutes later the young security guard who’d been supervising the socially-distanced queue walked up to the car, opened its doors with the keyfob remote, and started taking pictures with his phone camera. He told me he’d praised the car to the owner as he entered the store, and the guy handed over the keys and told him to go take a closer look. “Really?” the young man asked. “Sure,” said the man. “It’s only a car.”

This young man was so excited he FaceTimed a friend and filmed himself in front of the car, and sitting in its opulent leather seats. “It’s like driving your lounge,” he beamed at me. He couldn’t believe the owner could be so offhand about handing him the keys to this expensive car the size of a battleship. It made his day – and (with the house martins even more so) mine.