"None of us see animals clearly. They're too full of the stories we've given them." Helen Macdonald's eagerly awaited first book since H is for Hawk in 2014 is a "cabinet of curiosities"; a collection of 41 essays, each of which reflects on an aspect of our human relationship with the natural world. It took me more than a month to read. Not because Vesper Flights isn't all kinds of wondrous but because I wanted to savour it, spinning it out it across weeks, one chapter per evening, like a sort of lockdown Forty and One Nights of my very own. The title essay about the magical lives of swifts is one of my favourites. But whether I was reading about nests, or the migration of birds over Manhattan, or ants, or hares, or mushrooms, or numinousness in our experience of nature, each and every essay reminded me what a gifted writer Macdonald is. Her prose is poetry but it also has a drenching kind of a clarity. And this is good because we shouldn't allow ourselves to be lulled by the sheer pleasure of reading her. For these are urgent pieces designed to open our eyes to these terrible times for the environment. "Literature can teach us the qualitative texture of the world. And we need it to," she writes. "We need to communicate the value of things, so that more of us might fight to save them."
Macdonald does much more than simply repeat this as an amusing anecdote. Returning to her abiding theme of border crossings, she points out that as a wild stork Menes was completely free. It was only at the moment he became an animal-human hybrid, of the sort that she has herself longed so many times to be, that he became a danger to the world and so to himself.
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’.
Macdonald is right that we can’t help thinking in symbols and metaphors. But maybe we need to rein this reflex back, and have more respect for nature’s own narratives. In the incomparable rock paintings of the Paleolithic era, our species’ first representations of other animals, there is no hint of them being seen as some kind of mirror. The book’s many moments of symbolic enclosure become literal in an apologia for the keeping of songbirds in cages. Macdonald defends the practice because it is principally working class, and so “levels up” with toffs’ pinioned waterfowl. She also reveres it as an artisan “craft”, though her descriptions of the petting, forced crossbreeding and manipulated behaviour sound more like grooming in its less pleasant sense.
She writes of Maxwell Knight (reputedly the model for “M” in the James Bond stories), who kept a menagerie at his home after MI5. She also describes what happens on “flying ant day”, the mating ritual for the Lasius niger ant, during which the queen flies up and waits for males strong enough to reach her. This might make the book sound like a miscellany, but it’s far more than that. Running through it is the grim knowledge that many species have already disappeared. Above all Macdonald wants to emphasise the natural world’s autonomy from us and to question our assumptions about it. She writes that “none of us sees animals clearly”, but her beautifully written essays go a long way to improving our perception.
How humans, including scientists, have perceived animals has depended on their own societal preoccupations. Vesper Flights grasps for meaning in animals — such as what can birds’ nests tell us about our own homes, although the references to Brexit already feel dated. The book includes trips to an extinct Chilean volcano and Australia’s Blue Mountains. But these are almost superfluous because, from her home near the Fens of east England, Macdonald is a relentless opportunist. She uses her binoculars as mirrors into her own state of mind; she compares the earth’s writhing under climate change to her own migraines.
Macdonald despairs that “so many of our stories about nature are … defining our humanity against it” when she prefers “a child’s way of looking at nature: seeking intimacy and companionship”. ... That may explain her talent for explaining the elements of the natural world that are evocative in our childhood memories: glow worms, cuckoos, even thunderstorms. And if her prose doesn’t have the wild beauty of Kathleen Jamie’s or the eccentric force of TH White – one of her muses for H is for Hawk – Macdonald nonetheless has a good turn of phrase: birds are “like precious stones, but alive”; armies of swifts are “a pouring sheaf of identical black grains”; and she shares that the Danish term for those vast fluid clouds of starlings that flock over roosting sites in the early evening is “black sun: it captures their almost celestial strangeness”.
Macdonald is making it her mission to communicate as exactly as possible what wood warblers and a host of other species are, in the hope that her words are not obituaries. Her description of “flying ant day”, that summer afternoon in Britain when patios become swarming airfields, is a memorable example of her ability not only to itemise the world around her, but to celebrate its essential and profound connectedness. Her focus typically shifts from the extraordinary drama of ant queens taking flight, trailing pheromones, enticing the worker drones chasing them aloft to mate in a fatal last act, to the gulls and swifts and a single red kite drawn to their rising column. The “warm airspace” above a country church spire becomes “tense with predatory intent and the tiny hopes of each rising ant”.
This book is thrillingly full of such moments; it is, too, a powerful – and entertaining – corrective to the idea that the only hopes that matter on this planet are those of our own species.
Underneath it all runs the notion that we find it nigh-on impossible not to project our own feelings onto the natural world, and that our assumption that it lies on the periphery of our own is a nonsense — we, in fact, have plonked ourselves down in its midst. Macdonald picks up on the pride we feel when a robin “chooses” our garden to feed in (it just so happens that our azaleas bloom in its terrority); on our insistence on the “nobility” of stags; the “magic” of hares. It’s ridiculous — as she points out, “we are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us. It does not belong to us alone. It never has done” — but Macdonald never makes us feel stupid; she’s as prone to it as the rest of us. Her close encounter, while heartbroken, with a seemingly sympathetic swan, is testament to that. Perfect to drop in and out of on your staycation, this book will make you look a bit harder at the wonders around you.
Macdonald’s writing teems with other voices and perspectives, with her own challenges to herself. It muddies any facile ideas about nature and the human, and prods at how we pleat our prejudices, politics and desires into our notions of the animal world. There’s nothing of the tourist or bystander in her approach. She has been an amateur naturalist from girlhood — so bird-besotted that she slept with her arms folded like wings. She grew up wandering forests, collecting feathers, seeds and the skulls of small animals. Her bedroom menagerie included an orphaned crow, a badger cub, a wounded jackdaw and a whole nest of baby bullfinches.
Hers is a gritty, companionable intimacy with the wild...
Most readers will enjoy the more autobiographical parts most – and what’s not to like about an anecdote involving staving in the head of an ostrich with a rock and cutting its throat with a pen-knife, much to the bemusement of your employer? But the way different concerns are braided and twisted is done with extreme skill. The ways in which the animal is always fundamentally different, but loaded with our cultural associations is the book’s drum beat.