Sunday, 22 July 2007

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

In a further quest for something other than a novel, our Scots groupie suggested a 'sort of book' for our July book group choice: Findings, by the award-winning Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie.

Jamie obviously loves the Scottish landscape and wildlife and this book is a series of 'essays' that investigate different themes. Whether they were essays or not was a subject for discussion: all agreed they probably were although not of the 'school essay' type. So, fond of getting it right in my head, I looked up the word in the trusty OED
essay: noun 1. a short piece of writing on a particular subject.
2. formal an attempt or effort
essayist noun 1. a person who writes essays, especially as a literary genre

On a simplistic level I thought the essays were about the landscape and nature but Jamie says Findings 'is a book about being human, conscious, implicated.' She doesn't recognise the idea of 'the outdoors' or of 'nature' because she contends that we are nature, and are not – or should not be - divorced from it.

Well, of course she's right but most readers will probably enjoy her being at one. This comes across in her writing when she feels it imperative to be part of her surroundings, to interact, to get closer, whether moving along on her bike or sitting still up close on a bank.

But whether Jamie is cycling along a lane, on an island, in a boat or by a river bank she is listening as much as watching. We hear the mewing of a buzzard, waves sucking on rocks, the wind sloughing and so the reader is given a very complete picture.

She is a curious, keen and close observer and one who loves to use her binoculars to magnify, her telescope as an eye that can sweep in close. Like a camera. And I found her 'seeing' quite detached: unemotional. Like a scientist. Perhaps that's why she can put her observations into words so clearly.

Although, now and then, we are allowed odd glimpses of Jamie's personal life and views – her husband ill, her daughter's accident, her ageing grandmother: her politics, relationship with her mother.

Jamie doesn't do God, but she has a beneficent view of the natural world and a very philosophical one at that. When her husband was seriously ill she didn't pray to God to save him but concentrated instead on the minutiae of life - cobwebs and the play of sunlight – and wondered if 'noticing', paying heed to small things, was a kind of prayer.

It takes a bit of getting used to, this Kathleen Jamie view of life: she waited for hours to see a corncrake and when she finally did, one expected her to be delighted but she merely remarks 'That's that. I do not punch the air'. However, when an unexceptional man visiting the corncrake field described the small, modest birds as 'little gods of the field' she says she felt like punching the air, obviously delighted with his appreciation of the small things upon which all of nature is reliant.

Reading the book one can understand why Jamie's a lecturer in creative writing: her descriptions of the natural world are sharp and fresh, her similes humorous and original. Corncrakes don't like bad weather and are described as 'the kind of bird who'd want to be excused games'. Brilliant.

Her ability to pare down her writing – which must be part of a poet's art – is impressive in prose and the way in which she leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions shows amazing restraint.

One of my favourite chapters was Darkness and Light, describing her visit to the Neolithic tomb of Maes Howe, Orkney. Quite apart from the wonderful descriptions of the natural landscape – sky, birds, light, wind – she also explains how five thousand years ago the Stone Age builders were so skilled they lined-up a narrow passage so that on a few mid-winter days, at solstice, a beam of sunlight fell directly along that passage and illuminated the tomb. In those days darkness – black - was not associated with death as it is now. She wishes it was still so.

In The Braan Salmon the descriptions of the salmon leaping and the water they are leaping about in is superb. The river Braan is not a natural salmon river: tourists watch the salmon and admire their brio as they try to get back upriver to spawn. Is it survival of the fittest, is a conundrum Jamie raises. Few know that, try as they might, the salmon will never achieve it. It is impossible for them to clear the falls. The fittest fish die in the attempt and those that survive are those that give up and spawn where they can.

Jamie also likes to introduce us to a wider vocabularly: there are the Scottish words, of course, which pepper the text but never exclude the reader but there were also a few words that were new to me. Which perhaps indicates her love of finding out, pushing boundaries: knowing.

Findings was thoroughly enjoyed by the whole book group: 'beautifully presented book', 'an easy read', 'a gem', 'worth re-reading', were some general remarks. More specifically it was described as: informative, clever, with a wonderful sense of place. And every one understood when one groupie remarked that she had been 'transported by the descriptions'.

So, "Beam me up, Scottie", this sort of book is a real find.


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