I loved Helen MacDonald’s memoir about grief and falconry, H is for Hawk. Her insightful writing about nature and human emotion really hooked me. That same insight is on full display in her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights.
One of my favorite essays was “High-Rise,” in which MacDonald visits the Empire State Building to watch the migrating birds that pass by it. The top of a skyscraper doesn’t seem like a place you’d go for bird-watching, but some are high enough that they reach the air routes birds use to migrate. Finding interesting organisms in unexpected places is a theme that recurs throughout the book, from flying ants along the roadside on a trip back from the grocery store to halophilic bacteria living in Chile’s Atacama Desert (the most arid place on Earth).
MacDonald is also deeply interested in history, and particularly in the way our relationship to various aspects of the natural world has changed over time. It’s not news that cultures invest certain plants and animals with symbolic significance, but MacDonald presents examples that are less obvious than, say, the bald eagle. In “Field Guides,” she discusses how the imagery and descriptions in field guides have changed over the years. One guide from 1889, for example, described birds in terms of humanlike character attributes. Bluebirds had “a model temper” (this one is particularly amusing given the iconic “mad bluebird” picture!) while catbirds supposedly embodied “lazy self-indulgence.” The first essay in the book, “Nests,” talks about how the practice of egg-collecting became politicized in postwar England. Native birds were viewed as symbols of the country, and stealing their eggs (even if the species wasn’t endangered) was seen as unpatriotic. Another essay, “Birds, Tabled,” presents an ethical debate over the keeping of trapped wild (non-endangered) birds. This is illegal in Britain, and while there may be legitimate concerns about the welfare of wild birds in captivity, it can’t be ignored that the keeping of wild birds has historically been a pastime of working-class Britons and of disadvantaged minorities such as Romani and Irish Travellers.
In her nature writing, MacDonald doesn’t shy away from thorny questions about “who has the right to define what a creature is, who has the right to interact with it, and how.” Nor is she afraid to bare her own feelings. Her frank discussion of her emotional state as a young adult working at a falcon-breeding facility in “Dispatches from the Valleys” was poignant. The deep humanity in her writing makes Vesper Flights a wonderful collection.