Kathleen Jamie, the Scottish poet, has written a book that transcends the definition of nature study. Sightlines is ostensibly a series of essays – on gannets and storm petrels, archaeological digs and visits to Atlantic islands. But, subtly linked by her examining eye, they soar out of the conventions that might have constrained them. Jamie presents, scene by scene, a kind of interrogation of the exterior and interior of our lives. She evokes an essential sense of lost contact that is only underlined by the emotional charge of our physical presence as we enter the wilderness – of what we bring to it, as much as what it gives us.
Time is the overarching theme in Sightlines – much as Aboriginal songlines are the bringing together of the ancient unknowable past, updated to the urgencies of the present.
Starting out in the Arctic, she watches as a flotilla of icebergs pass the ship on which she is sailing. They approach “with the hauteur of a huge catwalk model”. “They’re so organic,” cries a fellow passenger. But that is just what they are not, says Jamie. “Their shapes and forms are without purpose… They are huge and utterly meaningless.”
Such is her acuity that I had to skip the pages in which she describes the cancerous organs excised from still-living humans. Instead, I turned with relief to the account of her own excavations as a student in a remote field, digging up a Neolithic monument. “It had lain in the earth for 4,000 years, and our task was its swift and meticulous destruction.”
A sense of paradox and action, of being in the moment, runs through the book. In the whale hall of a Norwegian museum she accompanies conservators as they use toothbrushes to scrub the skeletons of leviathans. Later, in a chapter I found almost breathlessly exciting, she runs around Rona, another remote island off the Scottish coast, as a pod of five predatory orca circle around in search of prey. As a metre-high dorsal fin breaks the surface, she shouts to an unsuspecting seal, “For God's sake, it’s behind you!” – even as she realises the ridiculousness of her would-be intervention, “as if this were all a pantomime, and a fate could be turned by the wave of a magic wand”.
Jamie’s prose is exquisite, yet never indulgent. She has the ability to make us believe we are there, with her. She also has a neat Scottish vocabulary – swithering, gurly, wambling, smir and smoor – words so suited to their task that I had no need of a dictionary to look them up. This is a book that will stay with you, as its sights and sounds have stayed with its writer. Sightlines is a work of intense purity and quiet genius, and we’re lucky to have it.