Reviewed by Rebecca Johnson
Kathleen Jamie’s essay collection begins with a vast silence, a freedom from all human and animal interference, among the ice cliffs of Greenland. “A mineral silence that presses powerfully on our bodies”, as she describes it. This silence forces you as a reader to focus. It draws you into the place and her description of it, into your own mind and senses, so that you become aware of yourself as a living body, and into the book itself through her quiet style of delicate attentive listening and precise observation. It creates an intensity that she sustains throughout, as this is a book about listening and looking, sensing and perceiving at an almost hypnotic level. It is a task that Jamie seems to suggest is the essence of being alive, as it is for other living creatures: being in our animal senses, experiencing and responding to the natural world. The visceral and emotional awareness of bodies in landscape.
In essays ranging across her native Scotland and its islands, to Shetland, the Orkneys and the Hebrides, and further afield to a Norwegian whale museum and beyond, Kathleen Jamie explores myth, history, scientific understanding, and cultural responses to the natural world as well as her own sensory experiences. She sees it as a ‘conversation’, a dialogue of co-existence in which she learns about her humanity – not always a happy lesson, sometimes a brutal, shameful or humbling one – and the ways in which people respond to and explore the non-human and the reasons why they do so, as well as trying to understand the lives of the creatures she encounters. She dismisses sentimental approaches to nature: It’s ‘not all primroses and otters’, she points out, while examining cancerous tissue with a hospital pathologist; she does not shy away from death as part of life.
As you would expect of prose writing from a poet, beautiful descriptions spangle her sentences. Writing of icebergs: ‘They are a blue you could fall into, as you could have fallen forever into the silence of the morning.’ Or of a gannet colony: ‘Here they were in the air, gannet, gannet, repeated like a stammer, the whole idea of gannet amplified and displayed.’ Or when she moves into the sublime, experiencing the evanescence and transience of animate life in remote places: ‘I had the sensation I always have on Atlantic islands, in summertime, when the clouds pass quickly and light glints on the sea – a sense that the world is bringing itself into being moment by moment. Arising and passing away in the same breath.’
This lyrical appreciation of the natural world contains within it a subtle anger, a witnessing of loss, which is also an awareness of time and the changes that have been wrought on bird populations, animal and human communities. Yet here she doesn’t carry through the implications of her observations to engage with political concerns: she does not indulge in polemics. She is forever the observer, never involved or passing judgement. Again, this may be a reflection of poetic technique, but I found it frustrating in essay form that she did not pursue the potential of the ideas latent in her descriptions, instead backing off into ambiguity, even contradiction, or leaving underlying implications to hang. Only in her last lengthy essay on whaling does she allow her views and emotions more scope.
Kathleen Jamie’s fascination with, love for and awe of whales ripples throughout the book. She describes the exhilaration of sighting killer whales off Rona; she cleans and admires whale skeletons in the Hvalsalen in a Bergen museum, imagining herself into their seaborne bodies; and, in ‘Voyager, Chief’ she visits whale jaw and vertebral relics dotted around the Scottish landscape to tell the story of the now extinct whaling industry – a history of which I was completely unaware. These remaining artefacts have something akin to religious meaning for her and she sees them as a form of atonement for the shame of the wholesale slaughter of these awe-inspiring and magnificent creatures for whale oil and flesh.
This is a lovely book, full of gentle joy and anger and an almost spiritual wonder for and affinity with the natural world. It is written in crystalline language that enhances perception, and explores the essence, ultimately, of our human existence in relation to the rest of the natural world.