FindingsGiven that the essay can be a performative little genre, the variety hall act of the literary world, I am compelled to grant enormous kudos to Kathleen Jamie for crafting something so lovely out of the perspective of the introvert. In the eleven essays that make up Findings, Jamie is on her own, often in the most distant and desolate locations in Scotland and the Hebrides, watching through binoculars or a telescope at small things far away, and meditating on the cycle of destruction and renewal that governs our lives no matter how hard we try to cover it up. Little things, finely wrought and deeply pondered become rich and complex in her crystalline prose. These are quiet essays, even when the subject is her husband sick in hospital with pneumonia; she eschews the footlights of the stage to take her seat in the stalls and maintain her calm, thoughtful viewpoint. It turns out to be a very illuminating one.

After the sensational hustle and bustle of so much of our contemporary literature, it can take a while to settle down into her voice. The first essay concerns a long, slow midwinter journey to Maes Howe on Orkney to visit a Neolithic burial tomb. Her hope is to witness the miracle of early architecture that is the sinking sun of the winter solstice illuminating the inside of the main chamber. But cloudy weather ruins the effect and the journey is made in vain. On first reading, I had the odd sense that nothing had happened, and the essay felt blank and inconsequential. But then the subtlety of Jamie’s writing took effect. Darkness has a bad press, according to Jamie, being relentlessly linked with evil, melancholy and death, but this is clearly a poorly informed view. Hoping to experience both pure darkness and pure light, she is thwarted; the night spent sailing to Orkney is full of the artificial brightness of human dwellings on the coast, whilst the visit to the tomb is spoiled by clouds. But multiple, tender ironies arise as Jamie makes her journey, from the surveyors and the brilliance of their 21st century lighting inside the burial chamber to the sound of Elton John being piped through the ferry, singing ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. I began to realise that there was a gentle but insistant playfulness at work, wonderfully alive to the symbolic potential of the moment.

The essays are full of lovely touches that bring the natural world into harmonious parallel with the human one. In ‘Crex-Crex’, which concerns the near extinction of a once tremendously common bird, the corncrake, Jamie goes to the island of Coll to seek them out in a nature sanctuary:

It’s not ideal weather for corncrake viewing. The sky’s overcast and threatens squalls, the breeze is too fresh. A wind above three knots, and the corncrakes don’t like to come out. They don’t like flying, don’t much care for wind and rain, don’t want to be seen in public – the kind of bird who’d want to be excused games.’

In ‘Skylines’, Jamie ascends Edinburgh’s Calton Hill with a telescope, intent on paying close attention to the tops of buildings in the city, the weathercocks, stars, crosses and antennae of different ages, most of which are ignored or invisible to the passers by on the streets. Again I feared there might be too little to hold my interest for the duration, but I underestimated the clarity of Jamie’s vision, her eye for the intriguing:

There is a woman, though, who sails aloft on the dome of the Bank of Scotland HQ. The bank stands at the top of the Mound, bearing down upon the prosperous New Town as though to remind it of exactly who’s boss. In Scotland’s capital city, Fame faces firmly south. Green with verdigris – not an unbecoming shade – and draped in robes, she holds in her hands two laurel wreaths. She is about to cast them away, to bestow them onto some unsuspecting pedestrian far below. For all the grandiose Baroque nonsense beneath her bare feet, Fame stands as stylish and bored as a cruise passenger playing quoits.’

This is the strength of Jamie’s writing, the simplicity of voice married to the richness of her perspective. In my favourite essays, ‘The Braan Salmon’ and ‘Sabbath’, there is the most delicate thread of a theme running through the observations. Watching salmon leaping upstream – and watching those watching them do so – Jamie is forced to ask uncomfortable questions about the inspiring image of tenacious nature at work, when it becomes clear that the river has been tampered with to prevent the salmon returning to their breeding grounds. And in ‘Sabbath’, she juxtaposes a summer of difficult family events – her young daughter’s head wound, her mother having a stroke, her grandmother needing to be put in a home – with a few days of pure isolation spent walking to clear her mind before the university term starts. Would it help, she wonders, if we all were forced once again to respect a Sabbath, a day in which we did nothing but allowed the stirred up emotions of life to settle?

Kathleen Jamie’s publisher had all sorts of difficulties deciding how to categorise her essays, which made me cheer because being able to put a book firmly on a shelf in a shop does not necessarily do anything for the quality of the book, or the reader’s delight in reading it. But essentially, these essays are about the way we interact with nature, our inevitable thumbprint on its dead and disappearing elements, the amazing beauty and grandeur we can find if we take the time to look, the pleasure it bring us to see ourselves and our habits reflected in the natural world. If there isn’t a category for that already, then perhaps there really ought to be one.

30 thoughts on “Findings

  1. Beautiful post Litlove. I’ve found a great deal of solace in nature and realized over these past few years that being outside, whether in sun or gloom, is completely restorative to me. This sounds a wonderful book of essays.

    • Kathleen, I would certainly recommend this one to you – I can see you enjoying it. I need to get out more this year, as I agree with you that nature can be hugely restorative.

    • Lol! I know just what you mean – the lure of the Outer Hebrides is strong… Have you read Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence? I didn’t like it as much as these essays, but it has some very interesting parts.

  2. Oh these sound wonderful! A perfect summer accompaniment to the sound of bees buzzing in the garden. Oh, and I see it was published in the US by a local to me press so it will be easy to find when I want it. Yay!

  3. Lovely sounding collection, thanks for sharing. And I must confess that I think “corncake” is a smashing name for a bird who begs off virtually all bird endeavours! I know that’s not quite the name but I like it better. Wonder if the bird namers would consider a revision? 🙂 Happy New Year; I’m always glad to drop in and find you here sharing your wise reflections!

    • Lol! There are probably few enough left that they could take a vote on it! I’m so glad you said that the name was your tweaked version – I was thinking I’d made an error and would have to go and check my typing! 🙂 Happy, happy new year, dear Melissa! I hope it’s a wonderful one for you.

  4. Thanks for an eloquent review. I admit I haven’t heard of Jamie, but now I want to go find this book. I love the subject matter. And from the excerpts you’ve quoted, I’ve appreciated the writing style as well. For some reasons, she reminds me of Annie Dillard.

    • Yes, I can see absolutely why you’d make that connection. I haven’t read enough Annie Dillard to be sure, but my feeling is that it’s a very good call. I’m sure you’d appreciate her gentle, wise voice, Arti. I’d love to know what you think of the essays!

  5. I have been enjoying some of Kathleen Jamie’s poetry and hadn’t realised she’d written essays too. I should like to read them.

    I have always been a fan of retaining the Sabbath, although I imagine that for people with demanding jobs it’s enormously helpful to be able to shop on Sundays. Perhaps the answer is to ban demanding jobs…

    • Heh, you do make me laugh! Although banning demanding jobs is actually an excellent idea and one we should consider seriously. I’m in the position of thinking I must read her poetry, so we can compare when we’ve both caught up with each other! 🙂

  6. This sounds like a wonderful collection, and I hope my library has it. I’m thrilled you’re doing more essay reading since I love essays but don’t really know which authors to turn to.

    • Eva, I tend to feel exactly the same way. I haven’t read many essay collections over the past few years, and 2013 is the time for change. Essays are fantastic in the right hands. I’d love to know what you think of this – given that, like me, you loved The Morville Hours, I’d say you’d definitely get on with this well.

    • Neil, it was a very good call. I need to get back to your suggestions and work my way through the rest now! And I think you are quite right about nature writing suiting the essay format. It repays persistent, gentle attention.

  7. Kathleen teaches at my University. I had a poetry class with her where we all shared our writing aloud together, it was a great experience ! 🙂

  8. I thought I was in the midst of lots of good books at the moment, but you are making me want to read these, too! I have been wanting to read more nature books–this sounds really lovely and thoughtful. I’m glad to see from Stefanie’s comment that it has been published here, too!

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  10. Coincidences, coincidences. I am reading this collection right now and have just read the ‘Braan Salmon’, which left me emotionally choked and a bit breathless. I picked it up after reading Jamie’s more recent collection ‘Sightlines’ last year. I absolutely loved that – it was a bright spot in a very poor reading year for me – and I had to read ‘Findings’ as soon as possible.

    As you say, it is the magic of her similes that catches you out. You are bobbing along on this sea of lovely prose about nature and all of a sudden she introduces a bogey that pulls you up – like a cruise passenger playing quoits, or a bird being excused from games – and you think ‘yes, yes, yes that is absolutely right.’ It is such a different way of seeing the natural world through the eyes of the unnatural world; she connects our world of stuff to the world of light and dark, birds and trees and wild places in such a way that it makes me reevaluate everything. Amazing, amazing.

  11. I just finished reading this and really warmed to it, I like that she is something of a novice bird-watcher, so we can watch with her and learn as she learns and observe as she tries to improve that skill as well.

    She offers us nature writing of the “creative non-fiction” type, not so much the facts, but sharing observations with a poets sensitivity and gentle use of evocative language. It is her language that elevates the essays and drew me deeper in, never faltering, despite the fairly uneventful happenings. And I’m very intrigued about those shielings, I had never heard of them, they sound like a whole way of life that has been lost.

    I am looking forward to reading her next collection Sightlines whihc from what I have heard is excellent as well.

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