Just when a reader might lament that the conventions of nature writing are too self-righteous, alarmist, or elegiac, along comes a book from across the Atlantic to revive the intensity of experiencing nature and the way language can help to locate it. Whether writing about darkness and light playing in the Neolithic ruins in the Orkneys, human body parts displayed in glass jars at Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons, or gardens that grace that city’s rooftops, Kathleen Jamie is a clear-eyed and lyrical witness. Nature is no utopia apart from what troubles us — war, sickness, and laundry. Yet in Jamie’s writing, postmodern irony (the cell phone ringing in an ancient tomb, plastic sand on a New Zealand beach) is not a lament but an extension of her observational precision.
Jamie’s language is lit with metaphors that draw elements from opposing domains into eloquent equations. The religious and naturalistic are joined when corncrakes are described as “little gods of the field.” The wild and the domestic cohabit when an osprey nest atop a Scots pine becomes “a ridiculous toupee.” And the biological and technological dance together surprisingly well on a beachcombing excursion during which, along with a whale’s scapula, she finds the wreckage of a crashed airplane. “Just the door, insulated with four inches of yellowish foam. Blubber, if you like.” Add to this the pleasure of words still bearing their Scots and Gaelic pasts: “burn,” “howe,” “cairngorm,” “shielings,” “sheep fank,” and “shepherd’s bothy.” These words, so unfamiliar in American idiom, carry the reader into the landscape where they were born.
While Jamie wonders “if durability is still a virtue, when we have invented plastic,” her diction reveals the durability of language in taking account of inner and outer experience.