Reviewed by Julie C. Graham
Kathleen Jamie writes about what’s in her own backyard and, not too far beyond her yard, some of the Scottish Isles. She notes things that most of us would overlook, like the way that ospreys and peregrines both lay eggs in nests vulnerable to falcons and that the male of both of those species protects the nests. Or that when salmon go back to their original home in order to mate, they do this by using their sense of smell, which brings her to wonder what the Braan, the river she is observing, smells like to the salmon.
Jamie falls in love with things that most of us wouldn’t pay attention to, and for me that is the joy of her writing. She doesn’t put herself into her writing. She observes, and shares what she observes in microscopic detail, but with all the loving kindness that you or I might write about our beloved’s face if we were asked to describe every detail of it. Jamie does this for bird wings and the sound of the corncrake and spiders’ webs.
Woven into these observations of her natural surroundings are human dramas: a boat ride in a storm, a solstice gathering among friends, her mother’s babyhood pneumonia, her grandmother’s decrepitude.
Jamie doesn’t shy away from language not universally used in the English-speaking world. These are real words, but they harken back to Scotland. Instead of reducing her vocabulary to the lowest common denominator so that all is understood by all, Jamie asks us to go on a poetic journey. Sprinkling in these local words adds magic to her essays.
Beside the sheep fanks was the shepherd’s bothy, no bigger than an allotment shed, and beside it lay three huge round floats… The rain was turning heavy now, but we began walking over the machair, inland into the wind… It was [Tim] who saw in a grassy rut, the handful of fluff that was lapwing chick while its parents flipped in the air overhead; he who pointed out the way the starlings launched themselves mob-handed into the wind.
The essays in Findings are magnificently braided. “Sabbath,” is one of my favorites. In it, Jamie takes a few days off before school term begins and goes walking and biking in the headlands near her home, staying at a youth hostel. She needs to find some peace to think through the impending placement of her grandmother in a nursing home. Walking and biking around the headlands, her interactions with one of the hostel guests and her research and decisions about the nursing home are woven together into one magnificent essay. She uses mirroring techniques so that one part of the essay reflects other another, giving the reader a satisfying feeling of completeness.
In one paragraph she ties her various observations together. And what we learn in this paragraph, without her telling us directly in any other part of the essay, is that having to deal with her grandmother makes her wonder about her own death:
At the end of the road there is a burial ground, enclosed in a stone wall. But we know that. There are other roads, which may end variously. There might be a five-bar gate, with a hand painted sign opening onto common grazing. It may end at a well-known beauty spot. Possibly, a pick-up truck is waiting, or even a bridge to nowhere, or an old folk’s home with tartan carpets, or a strange wild building on top of sea stack, demiting stone by stone into the waves far below. The road may end in Sabbath silence and wind, or nothing at all.
Jamie’s keen observations show a spiritual relationship with the world at large. She is able to convey to the reader her wonder and her respect for the experiences of humans, animals, plants and nature without getting in the way. It gives us reason to trust her, and to listen to what she has to say.
Could I explain to Phil that… I had not prayed? But that I had noticed, more than noticed the cobwebs, and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?
Kathleen Jamie pays great heed to the world around her, and her findings, small and large, afford the reader a more expansive view of the natural world and the human heart.
Julie C. Graham is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She lives near Santa Monica, California. Check out her essay “Trailblazing Women Explorers,” a discussion of the memoirs of solo women adventurers, now available in two parts at the online arts and literature magazine Storyacious.