Just over a year ago, I stumbled into birdwatching, and it has stuck with me. I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new world that was right under my nose my entire life; I just wasn’t looking. So, when I saw a bird on the cover of Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald on NPR’s Best Books of 2020, I was eager to read it. Vesper Flights is a collection of essays by Macdonald. They all explore the connection between humans and the natural world. There are a number of references to what human beings are doing to nature. I appreciate that Macdonald is a good writer who focuses on things that I find interesting, but the essays were a little hit or miss with me. Some of them I loved, some of them I couldn’t quite understand, and others I just found mildly interesting. On the whole, I prefer one comprehensive story over short stories or essays, so it was hard for me to really get into this book. However, there were moments that felt like Macdonald was once again opening up a new world for me.
“Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.”
Macdonald is from England, so many of her stories are based in England. The one that stuck with me the most was “The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down.” Macdonald is talking about Swifts. These are birds that I had never seen and knew nothing about. I learned that as soon as they leave the nest, they spend their entire lives in the sky. They sleep, eat, and mate in the air. When females are nesting, they fly directly into their nest without landing. Although I’ve been studying birds for a little bit now, I had never imagined a bird that could live so apart from the Earth, whose bed could be in the sky. Macdonald describes how swifts will gather together near sunset and rise thousands of feet in the air in a phenomenon called Vesper Flights. She not only describes this amazing spectacle but calls people to look clearly at what’s happening to the Earth and what we need to do to save it. She’s talking about climate change and the massive decrease in wildlife and extinction of species.
“Swifts aren’t always cresting the atmospheric boundary layer at dizzying heights; most of the time they are living below it in thick and complicated air. That’s where they feed and mate and bathe and drink and are. But to find out about the important things that affect their lives, they must go higher to survey the wider scene, and there communicate with others about the larger forces impinging on their realm….Not all of us need to make that climb…but as a community, surely some of us are required, by dint of flourishing life and the well-being of us all, to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday.”
In preparing this review and reminding myself of what I read, I just saw a glowing Amazon review from someone much older and facing their mortality. It made me wonder how I would feel about this book if I revisited it in twenty, thirty, forty years. I imagine it might speak to me in a stronger way.
“Not everything fits easily into our systems of classification. The world might be, it turns out, too complicated for us to know.”
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