Helen Macdonald’s earlier book “H for Hawk” has been recommended to me by many people over the years. I’ve found the adjustability of the font in Kindles to be an eyesaver but the library’s ebook is not in Kindle format . Today, at least for me in the United States, the Kindle version is available from Amazon for $4.96 so I’m indulging myself. Then I see she has a new book! It’s also over 60% off but starts at much higher price point so is still $9.45. Under my max of $10, but geez. Read the review and decide. Wouldn’t you rather read this than yet another book about our current political situation?
“What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge!”
That’s the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, in 2008, memorably assailing the stereotypical English nature writer. I wonder if he has ever recovered. Does he hobble over the hill now, a bit sheepishly? That tourist, she depicts him, who struts into the country, pen drawn, ready to “discover” the wilderness, to tame it with his “civilized lyrical words.”
He’s a soft and obvious target, almost too easy to clown, but Jamie’s criticism is subtler than it might first appear. It’s not his maleness that incriminates him; it’s those two adjectives, so delicately damning — “lone, enraptured.”
We see “solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature,” Helen Macdonald writes in her new book, “Vesper Flights.” “But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own.”
What’s that coming over the hill? The polymathic Macdonald — historian of science, naturalist, poet, illustrator and one-time falcon breeder for the royal family of the United Arab Emirates. Macdonald is the author of the internationally best-selling memoir “H Is for Hawk” (2015), winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. She could be the twin sister of the Lone Enraptured Male (“From Cambridge!” applies), but instead her work is an antidote to so much romantic, reductive writing about the natural world as pristine, secret, uninhabited — as a convenient blank canvas for the hero’s journey of self-discovery.
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. At one point, she mentions a fox allergy discovered while “skinning a road-killed fox to turn into a rug.”
Macdonald describes her new book as a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of wonders that is itself “concerned with the quality of wonder.” The book required moral courage: “Some of the ways in which I try to talk about class, about privilege, about climate change — I think I would have been too scared to have done that a few years ago,” she has said. If such an admission feels surprising, given how common are her critiques of Brexit and the mounting xenophobia in her country, it’s wise to remember that she’s a writer with a preternatural drive for self-concealment.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of August. See the full list. ]
As a lonely, often bullied child, she took to heart the instruction of T.H. White’s Merlyn: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something.” She cared for animals but she used them, too, she writes, to make herself disappear: “If I looked hard enough at insects, or held my binoculars up to my eyes to bring wild birds close, I found that by concentrating on the creature, I could make myself go away.”
In “H Is for Hawk,” she took this talent to an extreme. Mourning her father, she went into seclusion to train a goshawk — a singularly intimidating, murderous bird that embodied everything Macdonald wanted to be: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.” They hunted together, Macdonald snapping the necks of rabbits the hawk would otherwise eat alive. She drifted deeper into the hawk’s world. She became a feral thing.
The essays in “Vesper Flights,” several of which were first published in The New York Times Magazine, are short, varied and highly edible, some only a page or two long. Macdonald experiments with tempo and style, as if testing out different altitudes and finding she can fly at just about any speed, in any direction, with any aim she likes, so supple is her style. She writes about migration patterns and storms, nests as a metaphor for the domestic and the danger of using nature as metaphor at all. I was reminded of the goshawk, so thickly plumed, so powerful that it can bring down a deer, and yet it weighs only a few pounds. These are the very paradoxes of Macdonald’s prose — its lightness and force.
The pieces carve similar paths. Macdonald examines how an animal or natural phenomenon illuminates something in her own life, or on the national stage. An essay on her childhood habit of collecting nests twines with her youthful skepticism of domesticity, how nests render birds — exhilarating in their freedom — suddenly so painfully vulnerable. A riff on hares winds into a meditation on global warming. And then, in almost every essay, an unusual move: She takes a step back to confront what it means to use the natural world as a mirror, and how we might learn to appreciate the nonhuman in its own right.
That step back, that act of revision, of re-seeing, provides the book with its chief animating drama: Macdonald getting things wrong. She cheerfully charts her errors in judgment, her bungles, her myopia. “Vesper Flights” is a document of learning to see, of growing past useful defenses of diversion and escape.
For its wry self-deprecation, “Vesper Flights” is a book thick with sorrow, an elegy in the midst of the sixth great extinction underway. Macdonald weeps when holding a falcon egg and discovering that if she makes a clucking noise, the chick coiled within, ready to hatch, will respond. She weeps when she sees the beloved meadow of her childhood mowed down to stubble. She weeps when a swan walks out of a river and sits down beside her, haunch to haunch, like a large, companionable dog. She weeps when she sees “Jurassic Park” on a movie screen for the first time — “It was miraculous: a thing I’d seen representations of since I was a child had come alive.”
It’s not mere grief, as if grief is ever simple. These are tears full of surprise and recognition. At the sight of an eclipse, she weeps again: “I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience.” What is this emotion but relief — to feel the intellect bypassed, the odd, unsung pleasure of experiencing human life as small and contingent — “continuous with everything on earth,” as Eula Biss has written.
It is awe, but no need to wait for an eclipse — Macdonald presents it everywhere for the taking, in the underground networks of fungi, in fog, in deer that “drift in and out of the trees like breathing.” It exists in birdsong and the “cobra-strike” of a heron stabbing at a fish. It’s in the pages of this book, in the consciousness of a writer admiring the world, so grateful for its otherness.
Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.
Vesper Flights: New and Collected Essays
By Helen Macdonald
261 pages. Grove Press. $27.