Saturday 11 August 2012

Sightlines-Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie
Sort Of Books

When I first got my copy of Sightlines and ran down the contents list I felt I had to jump to the essay titled The Gannetry. It was good, solid nature writing but it didn’t propel me to read the rest of the collection. Months later I finally sat down to read the whole book. 

In the first essay, Pathologies, Jamie gets agitated during a talk on the growing distance between humanity and nature at an environmentalist conference. Her mother had just died, “eventually of pneumonia”; Jamie knew that we are a part of, not apart from, the nature that she writes about. This not being a wallowing biographical essay, she investigates the commonality between nature and humanity by visiting a pathology lab where she studies human tissue under a microscope in the same way she looks at birds or inspects the layers of earth on an archaeological dig. I read Pathologies while eating my breakfast. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re squeamish, although it says a lot for Jamie’s writing that I could still look my eggs in the eye while reading about a colon being sliced into toenail shaped bits. Lucky for me, like all the best writers, Jamie defies clich├ęs and consciously steered clear of food metaphors. As she travels through her essays and around the world, Jamie stumbles on many examples of humans’ attempts at claiming Nature as the other: the whalebones strapped to the ceiling of the Hvalsalon, the burial remains of The Woman in the Field, the empty houses on the abandoned Scottish islands, the tiny ring on a storm petrel put there by the British Museum. But by reading her essays one after the other you can spot the thread that tethers us and every living thing - no matter how small - to the world.

But these essays are not just nature writing; they are not easily categorised.  Jamie writes about everything and anything: travel, memoir, archaeology, biology, anthropology, history. It feels as though her interest in archaeology has best prepared her for her writing though; she roots out her subject and never fails to find the subtle layers of meanings that others might miss. Her subject doesn’t seem to matter. It is her writing that sells the book and there are some brilliant turns of phrase: on a trip to St Kilda she notices, “Once, a whale arched from the water below, blew and rolled down again, a black sigh.” Sightlines vividly brings to life that cold Northern world of uninhabited Hebridean islands and elongated Scandinavian days and nights.

But it got me thinking, should a book of essays be read from cover to cover or jumped about in? The organisation of the essays must play a role in engaging the reader, so the weaker essays get dropped into the fat at the middle of the book. Reading The Gannetry – an essay halfway through Sightlines – hadn’t inspired me to read the other essays. On my second approach, reading Pathologies did. Unfortunately, there are themes that continually roll through her essays and reading Sightlines wholesale feels like sea-watching. At times I did get sick of it. So I was grateful for essays that broke up the collection. La Cueva is an outstanding essay, a dry-break from the sea-life, a trip down into a cave that brings alive the history of consciousness. Maybe it’s my fault for reading cover to cover and not picking essays to read apart from each other? Maybe that’s the nature of essays.

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