Kathleen Jamie recently spent “valuable minutes” of her life totting up all the books and authors who have been shortlisted for the prestigious Wainwright prize for British nature and travel writing. The tally is 26 books by men and 14 by women. For winners, the ratio is five men to one woman.
Jamie – a poet whose genre-stretching first book of essays, 2005’s Findings, was a much-praised widening of the growing field of nature writing – is aghast at the preponderance of male nature writers. “Only 15 years ago,” she says when I meet her in her home city of Edinburgh, “nature writing was barely there. It seems very strange that this thing that barely existed can suddenly ignite. I hate to say it, but it has been colonised – by middle-class white men. I’m interested in how that’s happened. And if you understand how that’s happened, you understand the whole godforsaken political state of this country.” The cafe table is being softly thumped.
Jamie, whose new collection of essays, Surfacing, has just been published, is not a sore loser. She has never been nominated for the Wainwright because the prize wasn’t set up when her previous book, Sightlines, was published in 2012. And she’s won a bundle of awards over the course of her career, which began before university when she deposited a sheaf of poems on a publisher’s doorstep and saw them published in 1982. But she’s keenly observant not just of the male character of much nature writing but also of its middle and upper-class provenance. “Poetry has got much greater diversity, by a long shot … So why is that? Is it related to land and ownership? Abso-bloody-lutely.”
Despite not hailing from a literary family, Jamie found her voice early. Her father was an accountant and her mother, a solicitor’s clerk, usually had a thriller on the go but Jamie was more inspired by her local library – and punk. “I was 15 in 1977 so you couldn’t avoid it. There was an energy to it that was very attractive.” Did that sensibility stay with you? “Definitely.”
She began writing poetry at school (“Aye,” she says dismissively, “like most poets”) after she read one poet and thought she could do better. It is typical of Jamie that she still won’t name this poet.
John Berger called Jamie “a sorceress of the essay form” and, like her previous works, Surfacing is rich in connections and observations that grant the reader new ways of seeing – from the archeological bones that look “like broken biscuits” in their museum tin, to the Orkney bull “lost in his bull’s dream”.
“I did a long apprenticeship as a poet before I turned to non-fiction. People always say, ‘Oh, it’s astonishing.’ No, it’s not – just read poetry. It’s all in there. Mine and everybody else’s.” But, I can’t help wondering, where does her simile-making come from? “I don’t know. I love it. I’m not always aware of it. If I’m writing something and it just comes out of the tip of the pen, I go, ‘Yes!’”
Jamie’s poetry offers a vivid take on familiar nature. There are mating frogs interrupted by a passing car that crushes them “into one – belly / to belly, tongue thrust utterly into soft brain”. And the swaying seaweed and jellyfish like “lost internal organs” that are visible from a glass-bottomed boat.
To such immaculate small portraits, Surfacing adds the same big themes of global heating and deep time that were tackled this year by the other leading voice in contemporary nature writing, Robert Macfarlane. Once criticised for being escapist, apolitical literature of consolation, nature writing is now grappling with the epic challenges of the Anthropocene, in Jamie’s case via visits to archeological digs in Alaska and Orkney, where ancient settlements have been revealed by climate-induced erosion.
Like her previous books, Surfacing is a collection of what at first appear to be disparate essays. Jamie excavates long-forgotten memories in some, and then writes of two very different digs in northern lands that are as stark and beautiful as any nature writing but also witty and well-peopled – qualities less typical of the genre.
‘The land is being swallowed up so fast’ … whalebones doubling as a clothes hanger at the Quinhagak Archaeological Project in Alaska, visited by Kathleen Jamie. Photograph: Erika Larsen
The Alaskan people are experiencing the climate crisis more dramatically than most of us. “They are moving the entire village I visited because the land is being swallowed up so fast. The tundra is catching fire, which they’ve never seen before. People who for many thousands of years were living with snow and ice have no snow and ice.”
The climate crisis, says Jamie, “inevitably sends you back into the further reaches of time. I’m not knowledgeable about proper deep, geological time. My work is only concerned with 8,000 years, which is nothing.” As she writes in Surfacing, today’s global heating is a mere “warm bank holiday weekend”.
Jamie is not a polemicist but hopes that her writing raises questions. She does not like the “nature writing” label. “Publishers and bookshops want a wee ticket to put on it. That’s not serving us well.”
But she believes such writing can provide an alternative to mega-consumption. “I would like to think of nature writing as a nice little retreat. I don’t want it to be on the frontline. I want routes not to the barricades but to a more thoughtful way, a kinder way – more compassionate to ourselves and other creatures. “I’m not an activist. Maybe I ought to be but it’s really not where my talent lies. An activist knows what they want and they work out how to get it. More ‘creative’ people like me have no idea what we want until it’s done.”
Writing her essay collections is like this, says Jamie: she does not plan particular “topics” – she almost spits out the word – but lets themes emerge instead. “There’s a point working on something when things start to cohere. It’s a bit like scrambled egg. It starts off as liquid in a pan and then it begins to clump. At some holistic moment, which is very rare and very lovely, you think, ‘Oh yes, that’s come together.’ And all you have to do is write it. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Findings touched on her life as a busy mother of young children. In Surfacing, those children have left home – and old memories resurface. Women cannot divorce themselves from their life stages, she thinks: “It’s a bit silly to pretend that the complete chaos of family life is not determining what you can do. What I would like to think I’m doing is insisting on the validity of women’s experience through different phases – young motherhood, older middle age, hopefully old age – so you have a sense of a woman’s life and what you might call deep time.”
Which returns us to women in nature writing. Many more women have been published recently, with big sellers by Helen Macdonald, Amy Liptrot and Isabella Tree. But Jamie still bemoans the lack of young, poor and non-white nature writers. She believes that they don’t often visit the countryside, but there is still nature in cities.
“People are just too put upon, downtrodden, frightened, worried [to write],” she says. “So if you eliminate a whole class, you’re going to eliminate what goes with them – working-class music, acting, literature – a citizen’s wage would enable a cultural flourishing, a human flourishing, which is being squeezed out, especially with the younger ones.”
Jamie sees hope in both Scotland’s political awakening – independence will be inevitable with Brexit, she thinks – and down an alleyway opposite where we chat. “Inside that doorway is Canongate Books and they’ve got a new award, the Nan Shepherd, for nature writing by people who don’t see themselves represented. I’ll be really interested to see what comes out of that – if there is an untapped voice.”
That said, she’s still ambivalent about the “horrible business” of being shortlisted for awards. “Who is being served by this? It’s not the writer,” she says. Although one prize win enabled her to buy a new boiler, she felt she let her family down when she failed to win another. Her husband was gratifyingly angry too. “‘If they want a fucking drama, hire actors,’ he said,” remembers Jamie. “We’re poets, it’s not our job to provide drama.”
• Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie is published by Penguin Random House.