Review | Vesper Flights, by: Helen Macdonald

When I saw Helen Macdonald had a new book coming out, I pre-ordered it very quickly on the strength of H is for Hawk and her PBS special of the same subject-matter. The new Vesper Flights is great. It released a couple of months ago, and is highly recommended to fans of MacDonald, and British nature writing.

MacDonald burst onto the scene of American popular non-fiction with her big hit H is for Hawk in 2014. I was leant a copy by my blogging partner, ahem – Mom, somewhere along 2017/2018 and enjoyed it greatly. Macdonald has a very unique voice that anyone who has read H is for Hawk knows about. She can write with the best nature writers, but has an irrerevent style all her own. Part British tongue-in-cheek humor, part punk-rock.

With Vesper Flights, Macdonald has compiled a couple dozen short essays from years of articles in various publications like The New York Times Magazine, The New Statesman, and Aeon. It amounts to around 260 pages of bite-size – often avian-themed – morsels of Macdonald goodness.

With her previous work in mind, I got off to a bit of a slow start in this book. I think it is because some of the first chapters are musings without a lot of great punch. However, the author’s style, wit and brilliance of prose kept me engaged enough to keep going. I’m glad I did, because by mid-book you hit the chapter titled “Deer in the Headlights”. This is just 2 chapters before the epynomous “Vesper Flights”. In it, there is a paragraph that oozes with Macdonald’s award-winning style. Only a quote will do it justice:

“As I approached a tangle of briars growing over a fallen tree I saw a small, slow curl of smoke rising from behind it, glowing palely on its ascent through rays of winter sunlight. It was exceptionally unsettling. I moved closer and was treated to more incomprehensibility; a sweeping arc of something like upraised bone, something whose rising breath I had been watching leapt up and crashed away into the trees. My heart kicked and raced and for a long while afterwards the wood seemed made anew, fretted with rich possibility, and for a long while after that my life also.”1

This goes on to tie into a point that there is a quality about deer unlike most other fauna, for the author, that make them representative of a certain magic. She admits to a “purposive” ignorance of deer, which she’s since realized is her attempt to keep them mysterious so she can be pleasantly surprised by their majesty.

A couple chapters later, the title chapter “Vesper Flights”, keeps the hits coming – so to speak. This one, again, makes some deeper connections to Macdonald’s musings on the natural world, to societal concerns. We find a strong thread, in fact, anchored by this chapter – throughout the book; humans want to project their fears and social concerns unto the animal kingdom. The swift is a bird, among many others, which have received such treatment over the years. Then, their unique qualities of constant flight somehow upend our xenophobic need to demonize certain species in this odd nationalistic moment in time.

My other favorite part of this book comes in the last few chapters. In the chapter titled, “Dispatches from the Valleys” we learn of the author’s years spent on a raptor sanctuary farm with a ramshackle house and landlord. Macdonald relates some wild personal tales, but ultimately reflects on an experience of spooking a near-wild herd of cattle by dressing in a homemade ghillie suit and startling the herd off for good. She says, “…The point is that I would never have fled the farm without the … cattle.”1 Furthermore, “On my travels I’ve talked to many strangers about grief, and birds, and love, and death. And many have been generous enough to share with me a meaningful encounter they have had with an animal…Each encounter has heralded a sublte but tectonic shift in the way the person related to the world, and so oftern they have involved animals appearing at a time of great hardship for the witnesser, and in places they should not be.”1

This leads to some further commentary on the elusive nature of animals in the human quest for spiritual knowledge. It gets pretty deep, but does speak to my own experiences in nature, and the redeeming and uplifting powers therein.

“Vesper Flights”. Macdonal, Helen. Grove Press. 2020.

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