Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines – and a kestrel

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines. Sort Of Books, 2012

This was lent to me along with Findings – an earlier (2003) Kathleen Jamie book of essays mostly about the natural world. My post on that one is HERE.

Kathleen Jamie Sightlines coverThis is another highly entertaining collection of meditations and observations on topics ranging from wildlife to Neolithic caves and burial sites, to the whale museum in Bergen and what diseased cells look like under a microscope – nature isn’t just ‘out there’.

Jamie doesn’t only describe things and places: she uses them as the starting point for philosophical, even spiritual musings on their significance – as moments in the historical process that she inhabits at the time of witnessing them.

She loves to project herself back to the times when these marks on the landscape (and human consciousness) were made – as in the essay on her participation at the age of 17 in an archaeological dig of a Neolithic/Bronze Age ‘henge’ site in southern Scotland. We learn as much about what Kathleen Jamie (and the other drifting youngsters helping with the dig) was like at that time as we do about ‘The Woman in the Field’ whose skeleton is discovered.

The lucid, rhythmic language, as in Findings, is evocative – these are a poet’s prose sketches. It’s also idiosyncratic. As early as page 3, in the opening essay on her cruise to the Arctic to see the Aurora Borealis, there’s this, as the visitors land on a windswept ‘goose-plain’:

It’s a stern breeze, blowing from the land, inscousant now, but…it carries a sense of enormous strength withheld.

‘Inscousant’. I looked it up: neither the OED or various Scots dictionaries online recorded it. Google turned up a reference which turned out to be a post by another blogger, writing about this very passage! From the context it seems to mean the opposite of ‘strong’ – is it a typo for ‘insouciant’ (there are a few minor typos in other essays), a dialect word no dictionary recognises, or something Jamie made up?

Jamie is rather fond of other Scots expressions, like this, in a short impressionistic essay on the moon and its cycles:

Of course time passed. As the shadow crept onward, upward, smooring the moon’s light as it went, I half understood that what I was watching was time…

The Scottish National Dictionaries online has an entry on this (I include the first couple of literary citations; I’ve omitted some of the technical stuff):

v1intr. (1) To be choked, stifled, suffocated, to suffer or die from want of air…esp. to perish by being buried in a snowdrift. Vbl.n. smooring, death by suffocation.

Ayr. 1790 Burns Tam o’ Shanter 90:
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor’d.

Slk. 1807 Hogg Shepherd’s Guide 121:
Smooring. This is occasioned solely by the shepherd’s not having his flocks gathered to proper shelter.

 

The unusual vocabulary adds pungency to the otherwise plain, clear style, in keeping with the reflective tone.

Jamie digs deep into her own psyche or soul to discover how the outer world she explores resonates within her. So in that Arctic breeze, exhorted by her guide to listen to the silence, she hears it: ‘radiant’ and ‘mineral’, ‘deep, and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose.’

In my post on Findings I singled out Jamie’s gift for imagery; her simile here draws upon the earlier part of the essay where she’d been given a goose feather, causing her to reflect on how these birds had recently flown away from where she was standing: ‘To my mind, geese only travel north, to some place beyond the horizon. But this is that place. From here, they go south.’

What a wonderful way to show how she’d reached the earth’s roof. And it’s a notion delicately and even slightly humorously evoked in that simile, where she subverts the cliché about geese being clamorously silly.

Elsewhere in these essays Jamie brilliantly describes the dynamics and drama of a gannetry (a rocky island on which huge groups of gannets nest), and remote islands where a female killer whale teaches her young how to hunt seals.

Tidal creek in February sunFinally, as has become my custom since the pandemic changed how we live, a few images from recent walks.

We’re lucky to live very near to some beautiful tidal creeks. I’ve posted on this one before – it’s one of our favourite local spots. On the day I took these pictures the weeks of cloud and rain briefly ended and a spring-like sun shone.

Hovering kestrel A kestrel hovered just a few yards away from us, its raptor gaze fixed on the land way below.

On another walk in a local park I saw a cluster of these lovely violet-purple flowers in a cultivated bed. The shape of the bells resembles bluebells’, but the rest is more hyacinth-like. According to my flower identification app, they are hyacinths. I’ve never seen them this colour before – then we saw some more on another walk on a local country lane. Strange, isn’t it, how something previously unknown suddenly starts appearing often.

Tidal creekTidal creek

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.