title: Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Kathleen Jamie
genre: essays/narrative nonfiction
source: my personal library
“That’s what we see. What we listen to, though, is silence. Slowly we enter the most extraordinary silence, a radiant silence. It radiates from the mountains, and the ice and the sky, a mineral silence which presses powerfully on our bodies, coming from very far off. It’s deep and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose. I want to quell my mind, but I think it would take years.” (4)
I love reading about nature and the environment, but I’m fairly hopeless when it comes to the complexities of the sciences. Math has never been my strong suit, and as soon as any scientific article veers into the land of formulas and equations, I can already feel my heart start racing and the tears welling up in my eyes. When my high school physics teacher announced to my class one day that most people did OK one our latest assignment save a few who, in his opinion, had the scientific insight of a pile of leaves waiting to be raked in his backyard, he was referring to me (unfortunately, a true story). For these reasons, I tend to gravitate toward more lyrical than strictly academic writing on the sciences, which is why I love Kathleen Jamie.
Jamie’s work reminds me a lot of the work of Elizabeth Kolbert, whose environmental journalism strikes the perfect balance between the narrative and the academic. In Sightlines, Jamie is able to take us to parts of the global off-limits to those of us who happen to not be field-biologists, archeologists, or millionaire travel enthusiasts. Within the span of 300+ pages, Jamie takes us to see the Aurora Borealis, to the remote archipelago of St. Kilda off the coast of Scotland, to the Hvalsalen (or Whale Hall) in the Bergen Natural History Museum of Norway. With each page and each essay, I kept thinking to myself “I absolutely picked the wrong career. I want to have that experience and write about that!”
What really drew me in to Jamie’s work was her gift for descriptive language. She has an ability to really paint a clear, vibrant, vivid picture of these amazing, remote places…and her prose! Perfect balance between the poetic and the academic. Comme ça:
“Gannets glitter. They’re made for vision, shine in any available light, available to see and be seen. Their eyes are round and fierce, with a rim of weird blue, and they are adapted to see down through the surface reflections of the sea. There, they take what they need–and what they don’t. Less patrician poet, more bargain-hunter. ‘A butter scoop, a battle-door, a golf-ball, some toy whips, some little baskets and a net- makers needle’ are just some of the oddities found in gannets’ nests,–but that quaint list was compiled a century ago, when an ornithologist called J.H. Gurney published an earnest, learned book called simply The Gannet. All that was then known of the bird’s history and natural history is there. A battledoor is a sort of tennis racket, and what would a gannet want with one of those? But the acquisitive habit continues, hence the shredded polyprop rope and nylon net. Sometimes the youngsters get entangled in this stuff, and die like that, hanged from their natal cliffs before they can fly.” (82-83)
Rubric rating: 8.5. Absolutely picking up Findings, Jamie’s other collection of environmentally/travel-themed essay collection.
- Read 75 books (7/75)
- Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read: Europe, North America)
- Read titles from 20 countries ( 4/20 countries read: Italy (Sardinia), America, England, Scotland) Jamie is native to Scotland, and the majority of the pieces are focused here…I don’t think it would be quite fair nor in the spirit of my goals to count all of the countries she visits!
- Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (6/10) Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood, Doris Lessing, Kathleen Jamie