"Vesper Flights," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Sep 6
Helen Macdonald presents a satisfying collection of 41 new and previously published essays about humankind's relationship with the natural world, or what she calls “the glittering world of nonhuman life around us.” Macdonald introduces “Vesper Flights” as a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities “concerned with the quality of wonder. “
This naturalist, poet, illustrator and author grew up in Surrey, England where she wandered forests as a child and collected seeds, feathers and skulls of small animals. She rescued wounded animals, including crows, bullfinches, and a badger cub, turning part of her bedroom into an animal infirmary. These childhood influences and interests are well developed in her adult writing.
Even though the book is not autobiographical, there are disclosures about the author throughout. For example, she intriguingly reveals that whenever she enters the woods as an adult, she walks on tiptoe “so as not to terrify the mushrooms.” She is in awe of the invisible mycological networks that knit each forest into a symbiotic community, a “place full of life hidden from our own.”
Essays in the book are short, varied and lead the reader through a whirl of wonder and melancholy that may conjure up reminiscences of personal encounters with nature.
Macdonald takes particular delight in birds, especially in “A Cuckoo in the House” about how cuckoos trick other birds into sheltering them, and the title essay about mysterious swifts and their amazing twilight ascents into shelter—“a pouring sheaf of identical black grains against bright clouds... akin to angels.”
By using metaphors, Macdonald distinctively relates the natural world to current political issues. In “The Human Flock” she views the stately sight of thousands of migrating cranes in Hungary and relates the scene to the migration of Syrian refugees.
In an essay about the English tradition of “swan upping,” she describes her own participation in a swan-catching excursion on the River Thames one month after the Brexit vote and explores the relationship between natural and national history.
Compared to some of her earlier essays, her political opinions about Brexit and the rising xenophobia in England reveal a new backbone to her writing. For example, her observations about a drove of hares is transformed into a meditation on global warming. “Some of the ways I tried to talk about class, about privilege, about climate change—I think I would have been too scared to have done that a few years ago.”
“Vesper Flights” also is an elegy mourning six ongoing extinctions. One especially fine essay ruminates on the disappearance of spring, “increasingly a short flash of sudden warmth before summer, hardly a season at all.”
Acknowledging that nature exists everywhere, not only in places where humans do not live, Macdonald argues that there are many decisions humans can make to live more responsibly with nature. These include: designing houses that provide crannies where swifts may nest; turning off lights in cities at night to keep migrating birds from getting confused; demanding that a prairie, home to numerous forms of life, be made part of a new subdivision instead of being covered by concrete.
“Vesper Flights ” is an impressive volume about the juncture of the non-human and human realms. It is a captivating and informational compilation of essays about observing and learning from the natural world.