As a fan of Helen Macdonald’s lovely memoir H is for Hawk, I was happy to receive Vesper Flights, a collection of her new and previously published essays, for Christmas. If you have read any of Macdonald’s work, you will know that she is an acutely personal writer, connecting her thoughts about nature to deeper personal feelings, and even modern issues and current events.
Vesper Flights comprises 41 individual essays, so if you want to dip your toe into Macdonald’s writing, and maybe generate a little nature love along the way, this book is a good place to start. I tend to be a cover-to-cover book reader, but it’s not necessary here. The essays in this collection are diverse, ranging from “Inspector Calls” in which Macdonald observes a moving interaction between an autistic boy and the author’s pet parrot; to “Swan Upping,” where the author seeks comfort in the wake of the Brexit vote by researching the traditional swan census that takes place along the Thames; to “Hares,” which is, unsurprisingly, a study of England’s “magical” lagomorphs.
One of the essays I particularly enjoyed is “Eclipse.” Having witnessed first-hand the full solar eclipse that travelled across the United States in August 2017, I embraced Macdonald’s description of the moment the sun disappears: “I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye, intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely.” Weighty reflection on natural occurrences is Macdonald’s trademark: she takes an ordinary (or not so ordinary, in the case of an eclipse) interaction with nature and uses it to explore human emotion and experience.
Another particularly relatable essay for me was “The Falcon and the Tower,” in which the author describes a birdwatching expedition at a Dublin power station. It seems an unlikely place to look for wildlife, but her guide directs her attention to a majestic peregrine falcon, whose hunting territory comprises city streets, golf courses, and estuaries. “What we are watching is a small, feathered rebuke to our commonplace notion that nature exists only in places other than our own, an assumption that seems always one step towards turning our back on the natural world, abandoning it as something disappearing or already lost.”
As I sit here contemplating these essays, I realize that I’ve done this book a disservice. As we (hopefully) near the final days of the pandemic, I am plowing through books with desperation, determined to check them off my list to convince myself I’ve “accomplished” something over the past 14 months. This collection needs a gentler treatment. It should be sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to occasionally reach for it, select an essay, and sit in my yard reading as I listen to birds quarrel at my feeders. It’s not something to get done, but rather, something to soothe our troubled minds. So, fellow readers, pick up this book, but don’t approach it the way I did. Open at random, enjoy a few minutes of tranquility, and then put it down to be consumed another day.