A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 20 September 2014

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

Earlier this year I discovered a penchant for nature writing, and since then I have been exploring different writers, sticking with my commitment to read female writers (though Rings of Saturn is calling me from the shelf. Next year, next year). Something about the wonderful cover of Findings called out to me - perhaps it was the sense of space, the starkness and freedom suggested by the lone peregrine banking over the hills. I’m immensely pleased it did.

Findings is something of a find (ha ha, do you get it?!); if you love books which are factual, observant, perceptive and beautifully written there is much to offer in this beautifully formed book. As a starting point Sort Of Books, the publishing house, have produced a beautiful book (I may mention here, as it’s worth mentioning, that Sort of Books also print some equally beautiful books by Tove Jansson). It is robust, it has a weightiness to it. The cover is striking yet hardy, which seems to encourage the idea of taking the book out there to read in the wilderness, the green mound of the world at your feet. Frankly the book is a work of art in itself, a pleasure to hold and a credit to any book shelf.

But I’ll stop gushing (but it is lovely) for a moment to tell you about the content, which is equally beautiful. In Findings, Kathleen Jamie casts a fresh eye over the seemingly ordinary, creating a book which is both a travel book and a nature book. Her prose is instantly arresting, as evidenced here in the opening chapter ‘Darkness and Light’:

“Mid-December, the still point of the turning year. It was eight in the morning and Venus was hanging like a wrecker’s light above the Black Craig. The hill itself – seen from our kitchen window – was still in silhouette, though the sky was lightening into a pale yellow-grey. It was a weakling light, stealing into the world like a thief through a window someone forgot to close.”

There is a lyricism to this prose, it seems to relax the reader into it; the literary equivalent of watching waves break gently on the shore. In the course of this first chapter, Jamie describes a visit to a Neolithic chambered cairn called Maes Howe on the day of the solstice, the only time when the light shines along the interior passageway and onto the tomb’s back wall. Whether Jamie was able to view this successfully is something I’ll leave for you to find out when you read the book yourself, but she describes the experience with great intelligence and humanity, focusing as much on the two men she finds surveying the tomb as on the history and mystery surrounding the tomb and its occupants.

Don’t be misled into thinking, however, that this book focuses solely on the natural world, though I think it’s fair to say that the focus is on observing the natural, with Jamie bringing a unique perspective and her beautiful prose to bear in drawing out things we might otherwise never have noticed. She discusses the peregrines and ospreys as they cling to their dwindling existence against the ever-present threat of human encroachment; she explores the Royal College of Surgeon’s, Surgeon’s Hall, with its macabre exhibits; she discusses her husband’s dice with death through fever, a memory prompted by encountering a spider’s web one morning. By far my favourite chapter was the title of the text, Findings, in which Jamie explores an uninhabited Scottish island and describes the things she finds there including a crashed aeroplane, multitudes of plastic, driftwood and the decaying body of a whale, which she describes here:

“It must have been on the shore a month or two, the whale, because it was half blanketed in the orange coloured weed. Half sinking or half emerging out of a bed of sand and weed. The body was rolled in the motion of a wave, and there was one dark orifice, like a cave, in its mouldering head, perhaps an eye socket. It was the heaviest creature I have ever seen, dead and out of the water’s buoyancy, a massive failure. I thought about touching it with just one finger, furtively, the way a gull pecks, and I wish now I had, because I’ve never touched a whale and probably won’t get the chance again.”

In many ways this typifies the character of the book. In one sense the subject matter is grim, macabre, and yet Jamie brings a kind of celebration to it. She asks us to view death with different eyes, to consider that which is cast off – a deformed limb, a gannet’s skull – for its potential. She does all this whilst bringing both an honesty and a freshness to every subject she encounters be it a decaying whale, a peregrine falcon, a stone circle or the Edinburgh skyline. In each encounter she marries the intellectual with the personal, sharing her own connection with the item or place alongside its own history. There is something very soothing about the way in which she conveys everything, she has a marvellous way with words and a unique ability to find the beauty and meaning in everything.

Findings is a wonderful book to read. It is sharp yet contemplative, a meditation in book form. One to own and one to read regularly.

Findings receives an inspirational 9 out of 10 Biis.    

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