Book Review: Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World and Scouting for the Reaper: Stories

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World
Kathleen Jamie
The Experiment, 2013 

Scouting for the Reaper: Stories
Jacob M. Appel
Black Lawrence Press, 2014


Although the movie is nearly unredeemable in its awfulness, one line in Star Trek Generations, hissed by Malcom McDowell to Patrick Stewart, has stuck with me: “Time is the fire in which we burn.”

This metaphor seems appropriate since nothing can escape the reach of time. Look at how everything seems to wither and ash away as the days turn to months and onward to years. That nice deck your dad built by hand? If you don’t watch out, it’ll be nothing but kindling in a few years. That car of yours, a waiting heap of rust. Don’t even get me started on our bodies, as the advance of time turns what once was pert and perky into sag and flab.

Marx wasn’t talking about time, but his epigram of how capitalism burns away the familiar and the reliable in a search for new markets and endless innovation is apt: “All that is solid melts into air.”

Such is the case with Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World and Jacob M. Appel’s Scouting for the Reaper: Stories. The former is a collection of naturalistic essays centered on the bleak reaches of northern Scotland, and the latter, a series of stories centered on an equally bleak Rhode Island suburb. Although the two books differ wildly in subject matter and genre, they share an understanding regarding the nature of time, how it can be a place either of knowledge and enlightenment, or of terrible constraints, an anchor.  The seeming certainties held by these narrators—Jamie, the inquisitive wanderer, and Appel’s seething townsfolk—are simply today’s contingencies. Again, the solid bits of their lives are on the edge of becoming vapor.

Jamie’s work is filled with discoveries, much like the work of a nineteenth-century naturalist. Call her Darwin’s lost sister. Sightlines contains little, coincidental gems such as this:

I found the vertebra of a whale. It was on the low turf of an uninhabited Hebridean island, just up from the beach. It was perfectly bleached, and some yellow sea pansies had taken advantage of the shelter it afforded; they bloomed within the oval where the spinal cord would have passed.

This wonderful bit of imagery is both macabre and slightly quotidian. Anyone who has been out in an unkempt backyard has likely noticed little bits of scrub and flower growing through abandoned tricycles or swing sets. Dandelions poking out from a fallen ladder aren’t all that different from those yellow pansies stretching out over bones.

Aside from the imagery, what really works for Jamie is that her essays, though concise (she’s best known for her poetry), are filled with the weight of time. She journeys throughout the forlorn northern isles of the United Kingdom and around the tip of the Arctic. Here’s how she joins her conversation with the natural world to her curiosity surrounding the past, in her opening essay:

The old sagas say that Viking settlers of Iceland took ravens. Out of sight of land, wallowing at sea, they would release a raven and watch it climb the air until it was high enough to sight land. Where the raven headed, they followed in their open boats. Maybe ravens brought them here, too, in their Greenlandic voyages, a thousand years ago. A thousand years. The blink of an eye.

Time burns away, melts into air.

Jamie, as narrator, is fascinated by the past, especially when she encounters an extensive collection of whale skeletons at Bergen’s Hvalsalen (Norwegian for “Whale Hall”), in a titular essay about a third of the way into the book. This is a natural history museum housing, as many museums do, dead things. The whale bones are suspended from the ceiling, like a baby’s mobile. Jamie is transfixed, absorbed by these relics, and tries to envision the labor and skill involved in killing and displaying these multi-ton creatures. It’s startling, reflecting on the damage done to these sea creatures, but it’s something that happened, and Jamie tries to reckon with that legacy.

Conversely, Appel, while remembering the past, crafts narrators eager to escape its pull.

In one story, “Creve Coeur,” Wade, a portly assistant to his electrician father, attempts to impress a girl who’s out of his league. Now, that’s a story as old as time. Pamella, his object of desire, wants an impressive Christmas light display, one she remembers from childhood. Wade’s just the man to set it up. So he visits the girl, repeatedly, at the same time his married father visits, repeatedly, her stepmother, an old flame. This is an exchange between the father and son, coming home after such visits, that rings of how time can get away:

In one instance, after Pamella told me her step-mom was directly descended from suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I asked my father where Grandpa Abe had come from in Europe. “How the hell should I know?” he snapped. “Who keeps track of these things, anyway?”

Who indeed? Such a funny thing to say for someone who seems trapped by what has come before.

Appel writes extensively about a borough of this Rhode Island hamlet, and all the ups and downs it has encountered in just a few short decades. In the first story, “Choose Your Own Genetics,” the past still lingers, maybe a bit unwelcome, like a party guest who just doesn’t get the hint to get out:

This was a well-tended, working-class community—rough by Creve Coeur’s standards, but not particularly dangerous—where Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants had long since supplanted the last sons and daughters of Erin. Only in the names of a smattering of mom-and-pop businesses did the neighborhood still cling to its roots: Londonderry Lanes, Kavanagh’s Spa & Soda Fountain, a formalwear shop called Donnelly & Regan.

Those bits of Irish are relics of the past, soon to be washed away by newcomers who, ostensibly, will also be washed away.

Jamie, too, finds the echoes of the past in her surroundings when she visits a sleepy, former whaling town, Whitby, that’s awash in whale bones formed into buildings. Harking back to the Hvalsalen’s hanging skeletons, here the past can quite literally encompass you. Her urge to remember is shared by one of the residents. His words, again for Jamie, capture that wonderful blend of the mundane park-bench conversation and deep truths about history:

A man puffing on a pipe sat beside me and we fell into conversation. He said, “This town lives on its past. Trades on it. Without the past it would be nothing.” He said, “If I could travel back in time, just for a day, I’d go back two hundred years to the docks here . . . it would be fantastic to see all the sailing ships, and all the different people . . .”

“When it was a whaling port?”

“. . . Aw, the smell!”

Time and the past, in both books, are something to be understood, something to be feared, maybe even desired, but something you can never escape. Jamie’s journeys constantly bring her to places of immense scope, where time isn’t measured in days or months, but in millennia. She journeys to the Arctic in her first essay and watches the icebergs, formed over thousands of years, slowly drift south. In another essay, as part of a teenage summer dalliance with archeology, she volunteers at a dig and helps excavate a 4,500-year-old, Neolithic henge, a place of worship for Stone Age Scots. She ruminates on the damage humans have done to the natural world, summed up best here during her trip to the Hvalsalen and a conversation with a curator of old whale bones:

The skeleton seemed to emit a nineteenth century glow. You could imagine the kind of light a whale oil lamp would have cast, on the corner of some Victorian street.

“Yup,” he said. “A million whales up in smoke, and this is all we’ve got to show for it.”

The two authors, Jamie and Appel, work with time in very different ways. One takes the long view, understanding how time is a continuum, that bones may one day be scrimshawed, while the other looks at time intruding on the lives of the now, where past mistakes can determine the tragedies of the present. Both outlooks succeed through their engagement with a force no one can escape. They ring true, like a well-wound clock.