Review: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Natural history documentaries sometimes make me think that everything in nature has been seen, that everything can be brought into our living rooms and shown on a screen. But there is much about the non-human realm that remains mysterious and cannot be so easily fixed on film. I was reminded of this fact while reading Helen Macdonald’s virtuosic collection of essays. In her intro she writes that she is “concerned with the quality of wonder”, and page after page she achieves this quality seemingly effortlessly.

Each of these essays – many short, some longer – starts with a time and a place, like Nests which opens the collection, which considers Macdonald’s childhood nature collection. She looks at the urge to collect birds’ nests and how its fortunes rose and fell along with Britain’s, falling out of favour post-World War II. Class plays a role too; Macdonald describes one motivation for collecting as “one in the eye for the elite and all their rules about what is and what is not an acceptable way to relate to nature.” Macdonald is a “historian of science”, she studies “how we have always unconsciously and inevitably viewed the natural world as a mirror of ourselves”. Animals can never just be animals in their own “life-worlds”; they come bound with all the meanings we have invested in them, for good and for evil. Their meanings are particularly fraught in this moment of history when they have become auguries of all the terrible things we are doing to the environment. Such meaning looms over the entire collection, but is not its entire purpose (unlike the recent Australian anthology Living With The Anthropocene).

This is a very British collection. Various pieces consider such English activities as fox hunting or “swan upping”, in which the Crown’s swans on the Thames are counted each year. She revisits haunts of her childhood and younger years, like Tekels Park, an estate owned by the Theosophical Society where she discovered in the estate’s meadows “a child’s way of looking at nature: one seeking intimacy and companionship”. But now the meadows are mown and the estate is bisected by one of the nation’s motorways. Motorways and their numbered designations feature in a number of these essays, a symbol of the transformation of the landscape and the way roads both connect us and run rough-shod through the softer contours of the landscape.

British wildlife are the stars here. Boar, deer, badgers, and a variety of birds: swans, hawfinches, orioles, wax wings, and, above all, swifts, the birds that undertake the “vesper flights” of the collection’s title. A vesper is an evening prayer, and a vesper flight, scientists have recently discovered, is the pattern of flight swifts undertake in the night, apparently simply for the purpose of locating themselves in the world. Swifts, for Macdonald, are the “closest things to aliens on earth”, with their “deep eyes like reflective astronaut visors”. They come from a different world, one shaped by air currents and weather, where they might not touch ground for several years after fledging.

Flight and the atmosphere are preoccupations throughout. One of the ideas I learned of was the field of aeroecology, or the study of organisms that live in the atmosphere. It turns out it is a busy place up there. In the wonderful essay High-rise Macdonald climbs the Empire State Building in New York to watch birds migrating overhead:

Birds invisible to the naked eye swim into view. And there are birds above them, and birds higher still. It strikes me that we are seeing a lot of birds. An awful lot of birds.

This interest rises to the celestial in the sublime paired essays Eclipse and In Her Orbit. In the first Macdonald considers eclipse-watching. 19th Century scientists considered an eclipse a “test of self-control”, and Macdonald superbly conveys the primal terror of “a hole in the sky where the sun should be” and the communal catharsis of “watching the sun climb out of it” again. In the latter, Macdonald travels to the Atacama Desert with astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol, who studies the harsh environment to understand what life might be like on other planets. Whether it is the rarefied air or the volcanoes hovering over the high plateau like UFOs, Macdonald made me truly feel that perhaps we don’t need to go so far to find alien life:

There is a sense that reality is unreliable here, as if I could put a hand to the air and it could slip right through to another universe if I weren’t paying sufficient attention, or paying a little too much. As if I could free another reality by rubbing corners of air together like trying to open a recalcitrant plastic bag.

Macdonald also has politics in her sights, particularly the “storm of history” that birthed Brexit and Trump. Another of her purposes is to encourage the “finding ways to recognise and love difference.” This is made literal in The Student’s Tale, in which Macdonald profiles an anonymous Iranian refugee, documenting his ordeal as he crosses into the UK and is held in detention. This essay emerges from The Human Flock, which considers the appeal of watching flocking birds, which itself follows High-rise. Flocking, migration, movement, flight: this is a collection that draws much of its power from its arrangement, placing ideas alongside each and letting them converse without overtly moralising, in much the same way as Ali Smith brings characters into dialogue with each other to examine the same politics in her seasonal quartet.

The essential wonder of this collection is Macdonald’s ability to make the familiar strange, or make the unfamiliar knowable. To pick but one tiny passage, here she is observing Bearded Reedlings (which are adorably absurd by the way); they “flew in like musical slurs across the water and landed to catch like little spherical burrs in the reeds.” This collection is full of such moments of startling lyricism. A run of essays towards the end beginning with Eulogy made me laugh out loud and gave me goosebumps, which is everything I want to feel when I’m reading. They are revelatory – disturbing, comforting, provoking – in what they say about “grief, and birds, and life, and death”.

Gay rating: 2/5 for an essay featuring Maxwell Knight, a closeted Cold War spy who raised a cuckoo.

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