“This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse.”
When I read that line I realised that Jamie had latched on, somehow, to my very thoughts, and I realised that most of my reading this year, my most rewarding reading experiences, has been aimed towards this particular goal. Reading, for me, for everyone possibly, is a way of learning, it is a way of learning how to be in the world because we read how people behave and decide how we want to behave and we learn how to be those things through books. Jamie is an excellent example of someone who has learned how to notice, but not to analyse. It is, perhaps, the ultimate way of being in the moment, of observing something and enjoying it for what it is – seeing the bird looping in the wild air and not wanting to capture it by naming or description but simply observing the way it whoops and whirls. It is a state I have been struggling to overcome, it is not my nature to just watch and accept I am always trying to capture and own. I saw two birds walking along a wall at the side of the railway line last week, two black and white birds with long orange beaks, and they were walking single file and they looked beautiful and strangely hilarious and my first thought was ‘wow’ and my second was ‘what are those’ and the answer is oystercatchers, but I would rather the second part had remained somewhat unknown.
Findings is a series of essays by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. There’s no particular theme beyond Jamie’s desire to see, to observe and be present in the world. It begins with Jamie’s foray into light and darkness, her questioning of the ways in which we perceive darkness as something negative, an absence, a place of death:
“I imagned travelling into the dark. Northward – so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail by night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out The darkness through which might shine the Beacon of Hope. Isaiah’s dark: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’
Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness are we not? When my son was born, a midwinter child, he cried pitifully at the ward’s lights, and only settled to sleep when he was laid in a big pram with a black hood under a black umbrella. Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closed down with the cones of our retinas. I mean, I looked up ‘darkness’ on the Web – and was offered Christian ministries offering to lead me to salvation. And there is always death. We say death is darkness; and darkness death.”
She travels to the Orknay Islands to Maes Howe, a Viking tomb which captures the midwinter sun yet the trip doesn’t quite work out as she’d hoped. In other essays she watches peregrine falcons and ospreys, she hunts the elusive corncrake (which many will remember from Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun), she watches salmon attempting to leap, unsuccessfully, up a burn, she visits an abandoned island where she finds the decaying body of a whale and hacks the head off a dead gannet with her Swiss Army knife. She visits the Surgeons’ Hall and observes the many body parts which are collected there, the misshapen and tumorous, and leaves in tears. Here, where her husband is extremely sick with a fever, she observes the cobwebs gathered under the gutter of her house:
“Under the gutter of our house are many cobwebs, each attached at a slightly different angle to the wall. It’s an east-facing wall, so on sunny mornings the cobwebs are alight.
The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe. One cobweb after another – a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys. He biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist’s hand-span. I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group.”
The essays are at once detached and highly empathetic. Jamie has a beautiful way of writing, whether she is writing of tumbledown old shielings or the Edinburgh skyline, she has a fresh gaze and an eye for the unusual and whilst some of her subject matter can seem harsh or lurid – as when she hacks off the head of the gannet – there is an underlying reverence which elevates the experience to something more than mere violence. Jamie is one of those writers who can capture the magnificence and extraordinary beauty of the natural world and bring it dispassionately, or passionately, to life, a secular Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver. I remember being entranced the first time I read this book and that entrancing withstands, or in fact benefits from, re-reading. It is a gorgeous book, sparse and wonderfully written and it was exactly what I needed this week (it’s been a rubbish week) to remind me of what’s important and what the world offers us when we step outside the everyday.