Monday, May 14, 2018

Ways of Seeing

Kathleen Jamie's essay collection, Sightlines, took me far from the landscapes and creatures I'm accustomed to -- in a good way -- and made for bracing reading, like a breath of chilly salty air from across a northern ocean. Her essays are set in Scotland, and Norway, and other places far from the relatively benign temperatures and landscapes of my native Florida.

I confess to not having devoted much time thinking about pelagic birds  -- petrels, gannets, albatrosses, and the like -- who spend most of their lives on the open ocean, far from land, or to learning much about whales beyond their obvious majesty and the precariousness of their populations.

Jamie's thoughtful collection brought new perspective to this shoreline reader. Shadowing scientists of various disciplines, she visits places I will probably never set foot in -- such as the Hvalsalen (Whale Hall) of the Bergen Natural History Museum in Norway, filled with gigantic skeletons, or the tiny island of Rona, far in the northern Atlantic, home to seals, puffins, terns, and the like -- and makes me feel a connection, as if I've been there.

Part of her magic is her eye for the singing detail.

How whale bones collect a stubborn dust that requires hand cleaning, because they continue to ooze oil long after the creature's life and flesh have been stripped away.

How overflights can reveal places ripe for archaeological investigation, because modern crops grow unevenly over the soils disturbed by ancient farms or villages, leaving a footprint visible from the air.

How the unexpected appearance of a pod of killer whales can make a dedicated science team shout and run and stand dumbstruck in awe at the beauty, power, and mystery of Nature.

I loved it, every word.


Perhaps if you were some sort of purist, if you carried a torch for "the wild" and believed in a pristine natural world over and beyond us, you might consider it an intrusion to catch a bird, and make it wear a ring or a tag. Perhaps you'd consider that their man-made burden violates them in a way. I admit there was something uncomfortable about the metal ring, soldiering on while the bird's corpse withered. But when I got the chart out, traced the route, measured the distance, and understood that yes, of course, on a southwest bearing, you could swoop via certain channels from the North Sea through to the Atlantic, on small dark, wings, it was because this one ringed bird had extended my imagination. The ring showed only that it was wedded to the sea and, if anything, the scale of its journeyings made it seem even wilder than before.

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.   

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