I read some wonderful books in 2012 (and one diabolically bad one), so it feels unfair to nominate a favourite. But there was a clear winner, as far as I was concerned: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Amazon: uk | .com).
Well, I say there was a clear winner, but I might just as easily have nominated Kathleen Jamie's other collection of essays, Findings, which I read immediately before Sightlines. This earlier collection had inexplicably escaped my notice since its publication in 2005. In the end, though, I decided to nominate Sightlines ahead of its predecessor for the eminently sensible reasons that it was published this year, making it a more suitable choice for a book of the year, and that it is 52 pages longer, yielding 52 pages' more enjoyment.
Jamie writes about nature like nobody else I've read. She is a poet. She has a poet's eye for detail, and a poet's ear for succinctness and clarity. Surprisingly, perhaps, to those of us who don't really get poetry, her prose is remarkably down-to-earth, unwhimsical, and unromantic. Jamie describes things as they are, finding wonder where it belongs: in the factual.
Sightlines is an astonishing collection of nature/travel essays, covering such diverse topics as a cruise to see icebergs in a fjord; a visit to a gannetry; a description of the light in February; trips to the Scottish islands of Rona and St Kilda; and the renovation of the whale-room (Hvalsalen) at the Bergen Natural History Museum. At times, Jamie sets new limits to what we might think of as ‘nature writing’, such as when she makes an itinerary of whale-jawbone archways, and when, following the death of her mother, she is shown around a pathologist's laboratory (complete with body-parts):
I thought ‘we are just meat’, then called it back. Flesh, bodily substance, colons and livers and hearts, had taken on a new wonder. If you had to design a pump or gas-exchange system or device for absorbing nutrients, you would never, ever, think of using meat.
The other thing I love about Jamie's writing is that she does not try to pass herself off as an expert. She is just an ordinary woman, with an observant eye and an enquiring mind. While watching gannets with the ornithologist Tim Dee, she thinks she spots something in the water:
It was probably nothing, so I said nothing, but kept looking. That's what the keen-eyed naturalists say. Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there's nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what's common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.
In some ways, Keep Looking would have been a more appropriate title for this wonderful collection of essays.
I can't wait to read them again.