Monday, August 24, 2020

Antlers of Water - Edited by Kathleen Jamie

I had been anticipating 'Antlers of Water' for a long time before I got my hands on this copy, and have very much enjoyed reading it. It's been the best anthology of nature writing I've come across since Little Toller's Arboreal which I now want to get back to and read again (which will have to wait, unfortunately my flat is currently without water due to failed pumps and I've had to seek refuge elsewhere). I think that in some ways 'Antlers of Water' is a braver, or possibly I mean more daring, collection but without being able to check that's maybe unfair.

I also really hope that this book becomes what it feels like it's meant to be  - the first volume of an on going series. It is billed as the first ever collection of contemporary Scottish writing on nature and landscape with 24 contributors if you count Jamie's introduction, which I do. It's representative, but can hardly be comprehensive and it would be fantastic to see the work here keep being built upon.

Even the sub heading of 'Writing on the Nature and Environment of Scotland' doesn't entirely describe this collection, two chapters are made up of photographs, one set comes with some explanation, the other does not. David James Grinly's images in the chapter 'Signs for Alva' made me work to try and decipher them - something I'm by no means sure I've done satisfactorily, but then this isn't a book to rush so it doesn't matter if I don't get everything straight away.

The need not to rush it is something to consider - the chapters are short, but the voices are so different that I found I couldn't satisfactorily read more than a couple a day, and there are several that I've bookmarked to return to, particularly Malachy Tallack's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Solastalgia' which felt like it was worth much more consideration than a single reading would yield.

Alec Finlay's 'From A Place-Aware Dictionary' is another one that wants a bit of time spent on it. Reading lists of words and the definitions granted them isn't the same as reading anything else. At first glance I only started to pick up on the slyness of his work and it's humour along with the many other things in it. It's also chapters like this and 'Signs for Alva' that refused me as the reader the chance to be complacent or to skim through the book. They demand a different sort of attention and the variety of work here is one of the things that makes 'Antlers of Water' so exciting.

Something else is the fairly equal gender split between writers. I'm not used to seeing so many women's voices in collections like this and it's refreshing, most powerfully again because of the variety of expression. Some write about motherhood, just as some of the male contributors write about fatherhood, but the collection is to well chosen and curated to allow for lazy comparisons between contributors. The same is true for the view of Scotland it gives, because it both does and doesn't feel like a distinctly Scottish book and again it challenges lazy assumptions about wild Scotland.

For now the chapter that I've found most troubling and compelling is Sally Huband's 'Northern Raven' which was partially reprinted in the times earlier this month concentrating principally on the more sexist aspects of Up-Helly-Aa. The full piece packs much more of a punch. It's brave to talk about the darker aspects of island life when you're in the middle of it because it will almost certainly cause some resentment, but these are also things that need saying. The raven as a symbol is a bird that's at the heart of Shetland's idea of it's Viking heritage - which does nothing to protect the actual bird from those who see it as a threat to lambs. It's an uncomfortable but necessary piece to read.

Jim Crumley's 'A Handful of Talons' was an easy going treat by comparison, and an excellent edition to my small private anthology of writing about Sea Eagles. It is altogether a book that challenges and soothes in equal measure. Highly recommended.

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