Posts tagged ‘Kathleen Jamie’

January 16, 2022

Islands of Abandonment – Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

by Team Riverside
Islands of Abandonment book cover.  A house on stilts stands in the sea

Paperback, William Collins, £9.99, out now

I read Islands of Abandonment in hardback during one of the lockdowns last year.  I was transported to wildly different newly-wild places around the world, even as I couldn’t stir much from home: a former military base on a Scottish island; an abandoned agricultural institute in the Tanzanian mountains; the drowned homes and fields of the Salton Sea in California.  Flyn explores what the natural world can do when left mostly alone by humans.  She focuses on places that were once hubs of human activity, where decaying buildings and landscape changes are the inheritance of the land. 

The book features evocative colour photos, including a series of four Google Earth shots showing the transformation of a regular suburban home in Detroit into a ruin with trees growing through it alongside disappearing sidewalks.  It made me think of the loss of people’s homes and communities, alongside the resurgence of other kinds of lives.  Flyn’s descriptions are as vivid as the photos.  She visits an abandoned canteen near Chernobyl: “The whole room is dominated by an enormous stained-glass scene that takes up the entire far wall: a moon rising in the west, into a sky of electric blue and crimson; and in the east, a burning sun, haloed in purple and orange and gold.  Around and between, four godlike women rise, in simple robes, cups over each breast: the seasons”.

The attention and respect Flyn gives to non-human life reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s transformatory book Braiding Sweetgrass (see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/07/14/braiding-sweetgrass-indigenous-wisdom-scientific-knowledge-and-the-teachings-of-plants-by-robin-wall-kimmerer/).  Flyn’s attempts to see the whole of the life, both non-human and human, in the places she visits echoes Robin Wall Kimmerer’s approach.

Often in these ostensibly abandoned places, some people remain.  They might be caretakers, witnesses, those in search of a different way of being on earth.  For example, former lab technician and current informal caretaker Martin Kimweri attends the former science facility in Tanzania, and looks after the many white and black mice whose ancestors were kept by the scientists.  Flyn also comes across those who have stayed in their homes as other people left and the world changed utterly around them, as well as people who travel out into these spaces looking for something new.  She is sensitive to these stories, which are necessarily those of outsiders.

As a woman who likes exploring places on her own, I appreciate Flyn’s solo venturing.  Islands of Abandonment can be read as nature writing, adventurous travel, conservation literature or reflections on how cultures deal with the end of civilisations.  It’s no wonder that authors including Kathleen Jamie and Adam Nicolson have praised Islands of Abandonment (the hard to classify nature of the work reminded me of both these authors, see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/08/24/surfacing-by-kathleen-jamie/).  Flyn’s thoughtful responses to what and who she sees make this a thoughtful and strangely positive read. 

Review by Bethan

August 24, 2020

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Sort Of Books, £9.99, out nowKathleen Jamie SURFACING.png

My favourite in this collection of essays is ‘In Quinhagak’, where Scottish nature writer and poet Kathleen Jamie travels to a small village by the Bering Sea, mainly home to Yup’ik people.  She makes genuine connections with people she spends time with there, noticing different ways of experiencing time, and alternative ways of relating to history and land.  She finds the Yup’ik people’s ownership of their land, and care for it, intriguing, contrasting it with the almost total private ownership of land in Scotland (p. 89).

In ‘Links of Noltland 1’, working alongside archaeologists on remote Orkney, Jamie gets to see Neolithic treasures near their original sites, including the famous Westray Wife (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westray_Wife).  She is invited for dinner with a group at a colleague’s house.  After dinner, “…the others were sprawled on their orange sofas watching some old Quentin Tarantino film on Netflix.  They looked like the seals hauled out on the weedy shore.  If seals could watch Netflix, they would” (p. 154).  The humour throughout the book reminded me how much I loved her raucous poem The Queen of Sheba (https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/queen-sheba).

Inevitably, the climate emergency shadows everything.  Jamie is thoughtful about it, and is not defeated.  She notes impacts observed by people living on land they have been familiar with for generations.  “We all know it.  We can’t go on like this, but we wouldn’t go back either, to the stone ploughshare and the early death.  Maybe that’s why the folk here don’t embrace their Neolithic site much.  It’s all too close to the knuckle.” (p. 156).  Early trips to Tibet, and memories of her mother and grandmother, make this a wide-ranging and always interesting collection.

As a huge fan of her previous collections Sightlines and Findings, I had asked for this for my birthday and was delighted to get it.  Reflective, enjoyable, and enlightening.

Review by Bethan