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Helen Macdonald could charm the birds out of the trees

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald

Jonathan Cape, pp.272, 16.99

When Helen Macdonald was a child, she had a way of calming herself during moments of stress: closing her eyes, she would imagine and count through the layers of the earth that lay beneath her, and then the layers of atmosphere above her. ‘It had something of the power of incantation,’ she writes in Vesper Flights, an essay originally published in the New York Times Magazine and now the title piece in this new collection of essays. Much like her previous book H Is for Hawk, this volume sees Macdonald weave together personal reflections, natural and human histories and fragments of autobiography to create nature writing that is at once intimate and expansive.

Some of the essays in Vesper Flights take Macdonald to extraordinary places. ‘In Her Orbit’ sees her journey to the Andes to write about a SETI scientist who is searching for clues about life on Mars, billions of years ago, by studying extreme habitats here on Earth. More often than not, however, Macdonald stumbles upon the extraordinary much closer to home. In ‘Nests’, she recalls discovering that ‘if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back’.

These stories often unfold within the intersection between the natural world and our own, and pay special consideration to the meanings we impose on nature and wild animals. In ‘Deer in the Headlights’, she writes about the popularity of deer-adorned homeware in the UK following the financial crash of 2008:

When a country is hurting it so often grasps for ideas of itself in a longed-for past, and a simple motif like a stag’s head can function like an upholstery button to pleat together a whole slew of useful meanings.

The extent to which class and economic privilege factor into, and shape, our attitudes to the natural world and how it ought to be interacted with, is a theme that recurs in several pieces. ‘Birds, tabled’ considers the sometimes frowned upon, traditionally working-class pursuit of bird-keeping — specifically the keeping in small cages of native British songbirds — and its rarely scrutinised, upper-class corollary of waterfowl pinioning (cutting the last joint of a bird’s wing to stop it from flying): ‘I have always wondered if a pinioned goose on the lake of a stately home might be experiencing hardships of the same order as that of a goldfinch confined to a cage.’

Vesper Flights is a book of ideas and urgent, beautiful writing. Macdonald writes that ‘literature can teach us the qualitative texture of the world’, and this is nowhere more evident than in ‘The Student’s Tale’. Preceded by a piece about migratory birds, this essay positions the reader directly within Macdonald’s account of her meeting with a Syrian refugee: ‘You are young,’ she writes, ‘you are a student, an epidemiologist, a Christian, a refugee. You want to help people so much it hurts my heart.’ Elsewhere, she reflects on ‘all the stories we tell about refugees and how they are always one story or another… easy pigeonholes to fit people who have been forced to take wing’.

She recalls once being told that ‘every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write’. Her hope, she says, is that her own work is ‘about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference’.

This sentiment is plain to see in ‘The Student’s Tale’ and is, likewise, present throughout the book. There is, in all of the essays of this collection, a determination to understand the actions of others, from egg-collectors to bird-keepers; but, most of all, there is an eagerness to glimpse over the boundaries that separate our world from that of animals. In a particularly moving passage, Macdonald exchanges a moment of eye contact with a rook and writes:

Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else sent a glance across the divide and stitched me back into a world where both of us have equal billing.

As a collection, Vesper Flights is not perfect, while the individual essays almost always are — some breathtakingly beautiful. There are moments where the shift in tone between pieces feels unnatural, and you get the sense that the book could have been leaner and more focused. This is forgotten as you read on, however, and, transported by Macdonald’s prose, it becomes clear that
she is a writer whose every word is to be cherished.

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