On the wing

A review of Helen Macdonald's Vesper Flights

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

It’s been six years since H is for Hawk rocketed up the bestseller lists, gave the newly regenerated genre of nature writing a mighty boost, and popularised a whole new type of memoir, one that told a life story through the lens of nature. So the pressure was probably on for Helen Macdonald’s follow-up, Vesper Flights. This is definitively not more of the same; instead, it’s a collection of essays, some of which have already been published in the New York Times Magazine or other similarly august organs. In her introduction, she writes:

“I hope this book works a little like a Wunderkammer. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder.”

Her “strange things” all illuminate her themes of extinction, equality, the illusion of borders, and the assumptions we live by. She writes of awe in the face of nature, but never sinks into sentimentality. She writes of lessons we can learn from nature, but knows it is not there to educate us.

Each chapter is a near-perfect example of the essay form. Macdonald weaves together disparate topics, which all spring from an initial observation of nature, into beautifully wrought jewels of considered analysis. Each is evidence of her deep thinking about the natural world and the ways in which it interacts with the human world.

One of my favourite essays recounts an evening on top of the Empire State Building watching the biannual night flight of migrating birds.

“For every larger bird I see, 30 or more songbirds pass over. They are very small. Watching their passage is almost too moving to bear. They resemble stars, embers, slow tracer fire. Even through binoculars those at higher altitudes are tiny, ghostly points of light. I know that they have loose-clenched toes tucked to their chests, bright eyes, thin bones and a will to fly north that pulls them onward night after night.”

Watching birds from a high-rise building is instructive in a different way from watching them from the ground, she thinks:

“You are set in another part of their habitual world, a nocturne of ice crystals and cloud and wind and darkness. High-rise buildings, symbols of mastery over nature, can work as bridges towards a more complete understanding of the natural world - stitching the sky to the ground, nature to the city.”

And she doesn’t just think analytic thoughts; she writes so elegantly and movingly (particularly about birds). Here, the migrating birds are:

“points of moving light, little astronauts, travellers using the stars to navigate, having fallen to Earth for a little while before picking themselves up and moving on.”

I love a writer who considers that the human world is just as much a part of nature as anything else. And Macdonald accepts we are part of nature, but quite an other part. When a wild boar watches her for a while, she realises:

“Being considered by a mind that is not human forces you to reconsider the limits of your own.”

I can’t find too many limits of her mind, though - at least, they’re not evident in this fairly brief but vastly rich collection. In Symptomatic, she displays that slow unfolding of thought that is so emblematic of the essay (and, if you’ve ever tried to write one, you’ll know is so hard to do!), taking you along with her as she gradually teases out the similarities between her migraines and the sixth extinction we are all living through. I won’t spoil it by laying it out here, but it sheds light on our times in a quite unexpected yet wholly true way.

This is moving and funny and intellectual and very beautiful, and I would urge you to read it.

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Vesper Flights was book number 92 of 2020. I’ve also been reading:

  1. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf

  2. Charmian Clift, Mermaid Singing

  3. Charmian Clift, Peel Me a Lotus

  4. Sam Coley, State Highway One

  5. Kerry Greenwood, Death in Daylesford

  6. Ed. Jennie Orchard, The Gifts of Reading

  7. Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights


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