Helen Macdonald is a British writer, poet, naturalist and historian of science. Vesper Flights was published in 2020 and is a collection of forty-one of short essays that point the reader to ways of seeing the world from a different perspective to their own.
Hard science gives us evidence of the harm that results from our interaction with the natural world. It helps us to understand the rate and scale of the loss of the decline of species and habitats, why it is occurring, and what we can do to prevent it. But we need more than statistics – we also need literature to communicate the value of things and to inspire us to fight to prevent the loss of these things.
In these essays, Macdonald looks at a diverse range of subjects where humans intersect with the natural world. From egg collecting and field guides to hunting mushrooms and twentieth century spies, her observations are unique and fascinating.
The connections to politics, refugees, memory and personal experiences are insightful and helpful for understanding the natural world and our relationship with it.
I was introduced to the author’s writing when I read H is for Hawk. Her writing stands out from the average type of science book in that she makes you care about her subject. It is ‘hard science’ with the addition of beauty, real life, and emotion. It’s not often that an author combines scientific knowledge and literary skill, but Helen Macdonald does this well and frequently alludes to historical events and literature.
She shares her early childhood interest of seeking intimacy and companionship in nature, where the natural world felt like family to her.
‘It was a long time before I understood that even the simplest of field guides are far from transparent windows on to nature. You need to learn how to read them against the messiness of reality…
There’s an immense intellectual pleasure involved in making identifications, and each time you learn to recognise a new species of animal or plant, the natural world becomes a more complicated and remarkable place, pulling intricate variety out of a background blur of nameless grey and green.’
In her essay, High-Rise, Macdonald tells of turning up one night at the Empire State Building and waiting in line self-consciously, because she’s the only person wearing a pair of binoculars around her neck. She has come to meet a researcher from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and she recognises him when she gets out on the eighty-sixth floor because he is also holding a pair of binoculars and is looking up at the sky.
They have come in the hope of seeing a wildlife phenomenon that happens twice a year almost unseen above the city.
‘The highest buildings raise you above the mess and chaos of life at street level; they raise you into something else. The sky may seem like an empty space…But like the ocean, this is a vast habitat full of life.’
These essays really do help you to see things from a different perspective:
‘For a falcon, a skyscraper is simply a cliff: it brings the same prospects, the same high winds, the same opportunities to stash a takeout meal.’
We cherish our cities for their appearance at night, but it rakes a terrible toll on migrating songbirds: you can find them dead or exhausted at the foot of high-rise buildings all over America.
I thought the last couple of essays were not as cohesive as those earlier in the book but overall Vesper Flights is well written and engaging. Helen Macdonald makes the natural world accessible to the beginner and offers a different perspective to those who are familiar with it.
2021 Nonfiction Challenge @ Book’d Out: Essay Collection