It’s hard to avoid words like ‘luminous’ when describing Helen MacDonald’s writing. There’s a soft glow that emanates from it, akin to the work of E.B. White, who also wrote beautifully about insects, animals and birds. Her sentences breathe and pulse like the living things she describes. An oncoming migraine is “a spray of sparks, an array of livid and prickling phosphenes is like shorting fairy lights”, an unborn falcon is “something that had not yet known light or air, but would soon take in the revealed coil and furl of a west-coast breeze and cloud of a hillside in one easy glide”.
In her last book, H is for Hawk (2014), Macdonald wrote about the death of her father and how she coped with it by training a goshawk. It was nature writing of the highest order, but also something more: a distillation of grief so pure it transcended the gloom. Her latest, Vesper Flights, is a collection of 41 essays, some of which have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Statesman and other publications. They're mostly short pieces—four or five pages on an average—and deal with nature in one way or another. But they also intersect with Macdonald’s life (several essays begin with her travelling, or already at her destination) and with the world at large.
By dint of when these pieces were written, Vesper Flights is a window into a Brexit-ing England and a world consumed by the refugee crisis. “I’m fascinated by the relationship between natural history and national history,” Macdonald writes—and the history she describes is often unfolding around her. In "Swan Upping", she ponders how heritage traditions might be appropriated by nationalists in post-Brexit England, even as these “skilful interactions with things that are not us” gradually win her over. The geese she observes in a Hungarian village in "The Human Flock" makes her think of the razor wire put up a hundred miles south by Serbia to keep out Syrian refugees. In "The Student’s Tale", she meets a refugee, an epidemiologist from an unnamed country; in "Murmurations", a lost passport leads to a meditation on wartime Britain. "Cherry Stones" starts with a paragraph about immigrants who’ve come to England because of food shortages in their countries of origin—before revealing the immigrants as hawfinches.
Most stunningly, in "Symptomatic", after describing with painful eloquence over a few pages the effect of migraines, Macdonald moves on to climate change (a frequent topic through the book). The turnover is so smooth that I was well into the paragraph before my brain could fully register the subject matter had changed. “For many years, a great fatalism would overtake me when I felt the first twinges of an oncoming migraine,” she writes. She relates this to denial of the climate crisis, saying: “Apocalyptic thinking is a powerful antagonist to action. It makes us give up agency, feel that all we can do is suffer and wait for the end.”
A science historian and naturalist, Macdonald has a knack for describing natural phenomena in precise, colorful ways. A drinker moth caterpillar inches forth “like a cautiously mobile moustache”. Hawfinches, “with coppery eyes set in an ink-black bib and mask”, remind her of “an exquisitely dressed pugilist”. One black-throated blue warbler is “so neat and spry he looks like a folded pocket handkerchief”. “Wood pigeons feast on the black fruits of ivy, clambering awkwardly on thin twigs and later depositing bright purple droppings under their roosts,” she writes in "Berries". “As winter progresses, some berries ferment and become alcoholic, and it’s not uncommon to see faintly disoriented birds wandering around beneath affected shrubs.”
Macdonald’s late father makes a couple of cameo appearances in the book, including a hilarious starring role in "Goats". Stu from H is to Hawk is paid tribute to in Eulogy, but the melancholy of that book has been replaced by wisdom and wonder. MacDonald’s writing doesn’t suffer from being in bite-sized pieces—I like that it allows her to range over a variety of subjects. “I am far from an industrious soul,” she writes, “except in my capacity, perhaps, to pay close attention to things.” In the days after reading this, I found myself noticing bird calls and spiderwebs in the backyard. Vesper Flights will reward your close attention.
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.
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