Vesper Flights

by Helen Macdonald

reviewed by Olive Fellows

As nature books go, Helen Macdonald’s 2014 memoir, H Is for Hawk, was as big and successful as they come. Her story of throwing herself into the process of training the notoriously hard-to-tame goshawk in the wake of her father’s sudden death resonated with readers, bird enthusiasts or not. With rave reviews and a couple of major book awards under its belt, H Is for Hawk is a tough act to follow.

In 2020, Macdonald released her highly anticipated follow-up, Vesper Flights, an essay collection composed of new and previously published pieces. The introduction presents the book as a literary Wunderkammer. These collections of unusual objects, highly popular in centuries past, were meant to inspire curiosity, even awe, and certainly would have been conversation starters. Macdonald’s comparison is an apt one. The topics of the essays, like the pieces in a Wunderkammer, are wide-ranging and based in the natural world; each has the purpose of sparking a larger discussion based on an initial observation.

In “Swan Upping,” Macdonald writes about the yearly British tradition of catching the swans on the Thames for identification purposes. The author is inspired to reconcile her positive feelings about tradition with her concerns about the nationalism that led to Brexit. The increasingly violent collision between the human and animal worlds becomes apparent in “Deer in the Headlights,” in which images of cars striking deer are painted with stomach-churning detail. The clearing of a cherished meadow from the author’s childhood in “Tekels Park” symbolizes frighteningly rapid environmental change.

Macdonald’s vision for this collection is fittingly encapsulated in the eponymous essay, where she explains the still somewhat mysterious ascent of swifts. These small birds spend most of their lives airborne. Twice a day they soar up high, out of human sight—for several reasons, as it turns out. “What they are doing,” Macdonald explains, “is flying so high they can work out exactly where they are, to know what they should do next. They’re quietly, perfectly orienting themselves.” Just as the birds seek the clear atmosphere and the bigger picture by zooming out, Macdonald turns to the natural world for a grander view in order to see where humanity stands and where it can go.

Although Macdonald can’t have foreseen what the release year of Vesper Flights would bring, its timing has been fortuitous. As a pandemic continues to tear across the world, more and more people feel the pull of nature, an erstwhile friend, perhaps long ignored in favor of the demands of the world. This poignant essay collection is the perfect mediator to join our hands with nature once again.

Macdonald makes it clear in her work that nature is her ultimate teacher. Her humility in the face of the vastness of the world around us is one of the many things that makes her so likeable. When you sit down with a Helen Macdonald book, you can trust that there will be no ego and no lecture. Though her voice is clear and her presence is deeply felt, the author is happy to give up her starring role in her own book, letting the natural world shine. By doing so, readers can step more completely into Macdonald’s shoes. It’s clear to see, in her life as much as in this book, that nature leads.

Alas, not every essay in the collection is equal in power, and the titular essay seems misplaced at the midway point—an essay that completely summarizes the spirit of the collection demands its rightful place at the front. But the raw emotion that Macdonald brought to H Is for Hawk, giving the book its electricity, is all over Vesper Flights. Of course, no other book of hers, now or in the future, is likely to recapture the singular magic of her last release. (Indeed, given that her memoir is centered around life-shattering grief, it would be rather cruel to ask for another book of its kind.) But for fans of H Is for Hawk, this new essay collection is likely to please. Though many of the essays tackle big-world issues, the thoughtful concern with which Macdonald approaches them inspires hope, and the company of this author for a couple of hundred pages is a comfort. In a year like this, consider this collection balm for the soul.

Published on February 11, 2021