In her tour-de-force memoir, H Is for Hawk (2014), the English writer and naturalist Helen Macdonald described how she survived her grief over the death of her father by adopting and obsessively training a giant bird of prey. In rich, sometimes anguished prose, she portrayed a relationship with her goshawk that was fraught with animal violence and human need. The forty-one short essays in her recent collection, Vesper Flights, carry the same tension. No longer confined to a single grief or creature, Macdonald’s fascination with the natural world ranges from the habits of cuckoos and glowworms to the biodiversity of trees. A lament for the loss of natural habitats (“the world’s sixth great extinction”) is inevitable here, but overall Vesper Flights is both more celebratory and more subtly conflicted than her earlier book.
Macdonald’s chief subject is birds, and it is tempting to place her in a family of bird-loving naturalists that reaches far back to the delight in local fauna of the eighteenth-century English priest Gilbert White. More than two centuries later, the tradition has embraced the meticulous observation of J.A. Baker’s classic The Peregrine (1967), Peter Matthiessen’s celebration of cranes in The Birds of Heaven (2001), and the naturalist Jonathan C. Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice (2020). But it is telling that Macdonald’s favorite work is T.H. White’s The Goshawk (1951), the story of a harrowing attempt at falconry.
Best known for his Arthurian romances, collected in The Once and Future King (1958), White retreated from human beings into raw nature, which seemed to him to give and demand nothing. Its comfort consisted in its reflection of his own indifference, even cruelty. But his appeal for Macdonald (he is a haunting presence throughout H Is for Hawk) lies not only in his desire to cut loose from the human world: she loves the shock of beauty that he found in nature, the sudden, therapeutic miracles, such as the birth of a foal.
Throughout Vesper Flights, Macdonald pursues her own complicated relationship with nature in language and imagery so opulent that these essays may best be read at intervals. Sometimes her enjoyment bursts out unmediated, as when she writes about starlings—not everyone’s loveliest bird. The collective noun for starlings is a “murmuration,” and their communal singing under a Brighton pier breaks over Macdonald like an epiphany—an instance of the interaction between animal and human that so often fires or consoles her:
I stood on the pier at dusk and watched the starlings coming in to roost, blobs of running oil over the ocean rising in packs to settle in the ironwork under the planked wooden floor, and as they settled in the dark beneath the arcade lights they began to sing and their songs mimicked the fairground music from the sideshows above, the same notes in new avian order, tapes spliced and doubled and whistling, a thousand shortwave radios tuning between circus stations out east, across the Baltic from whence they came.
In another essay, she describes sitting on a riverbank in Cambridge while suffering from a broken love affair, when a swan waddles over and sits beside her:
I watched her, her snaky neck, black eye, her blank hauteur. I expected her to stop, but she did not. She walked right up to where I sat on the step, her head towering over mine. Then she turned around to face the river, shifted left, and plonked herself down, her body parallel with my own, so close her wing-feathers were pressed against my thighs…. That day was when swans turned into real creatures for me, and it has spurred me since to seek out others.
“Vesper Flights,” the title essay of the collection, describes with a characteristic fusion of awe and science the phenomenon of levitating swifts. Every dusk the birds that dart and scream around village rooftops start to ascend in wheeling flocks. They rise up to eight thousand feet, where they sleep on thermal currents in the summer. Like other birds, they can float with one eye open, one closed, putting half their brain to sleep. Macdonald adds that swifts may even fall asleep fully at this height and “drift into REM states where both eyes are closed and flying is automatic, at least for short periods.” Their purpose, it seems, is to orient themselves in the clarified atmosphere, forecasting the weather and calibrating their inner compass for future flying.
Even in Manhattan, Macdonald notes, there is vibrant bird life that exists almost unseen. From the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building, more than a thousand feet up, she scans the cityscape at night. Twice a year, she writes, a tempest of migrating birds sweeps high above New York:
The city lies on the Atlantic Flyway, the route used by hundreds of millions of birds to fly north every spring to their feeding grounds and back again in the fall. Most small songbirds tend to travel between three and four thousand feet from the ground, but they vary their altitude depending on the weather. Larger birds fly higher, and some, like shorebirds, may well pass over the city at ten to twelve thousand feet…. Even the tallest buildings dip into only the shallows of the sky.
The lower-flying flocks feed on the insect life that swarms in the downdrafts of skyscrapers: bats and nighthawks sharing space with gnats and moths. Above 650 feet, says the ecologist Jason Chapman, the distinction between city and country fades away. The songbirds themselves fall prey to falcons, who deposit their carcasses on skyscraper ledges: “For a falcon,” Macdonald writes, “a skyscraper is simply a cliff: it brings the same prospects, the same high winds, the same opportunities to stash a takeout meal.” But sometimes the birds become disoriented by the blaze of lights and glass reflections and drop to earth. Every year more than 200,000 die that way in New York City alone. In the “Tribute in Light” that memorializes the lives lost on September 11, 2001, so many birds are caught in the four-mile beams that the light is intermittently switched off to save them.
Bird migration can be roughly tracked by radar, but the idea that birds migrate at all is relatively new: “In the eighteenth century,” Macdonald writes, “many experts still held Aristotle’s view that birds hibernated during the cold months and believed fishermen’s claims that clumps of live swallows could be pulled from beneath the ice of winter ponds.” In 1822 an unlucky stork, shot down by a hunter in Germany, was found to have an iron-tipped spear from Central Africa embedded in its neck. This celebrated Pfeilstorch, or “arrow-stork,” still on display in a Rostock museum, disclosed where German storks passed their winters.
Today the tagging and surveillance of threatened species is commonplace. Individual turtles, whales, or bears can be tracked by satellite. Even small birds may be mounted with solar-powered transmitters, and some of these creatures, Macdonald notes, can be sponsored and followed on the Internet:
You become attached to them as they make their astonishing journeys. You watch young cuckoos find their way to Africa with no parental help, see loggerhead turtles swim seven and a half thousand miles from feeding grounds off Mexico to the beaches of Japan; discover bar-headed geese migrating over the Himalayas, in doing so enduring extreme and sudden changes in elevation that would disable or kill a human. You can marvel at the bar-tailed godwits that make a nine-day, eleven-thousand-kilometre nonstop flight from Alaska to New Zealand across the Pacific Ocean.
But something in this technology leaves her uneasy. The tagged creature has become a half-human device:
Hybrid beasts, they perfectly fit our modern conception of the planet as an environment under constant watch, where eyes in the sky track animals moving from one country to another and plot them on a map just as they do moving ships and aircraft; a world where Defense Department researchers in the US are working on autonomous flying robots that mimic the flight of hawks and insects, where scientists fit electronic backpacks on giant flower beetles that enable them to be flown and steered by remote control.
A modern analog of the Pfeilstorch, Macdonald suggests, was another stork named Ménes, which received a satellite tag in Hungary in 2013. “After leaving his nest,” she writes,
Ménes travelled south across Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel, landed in the Nile Valley in Egypt, and was there captured by a fisherman and taken into police custody. The stork, carrying a “suspicious electronic device,” was suspected of being a spy.
Released from prison at last, Ménes was found on an island in the Nile soon afterward, a bedraggled corpse.
Many of these essays, when not surveying birds, deal with everyday phenomena: mushrooms, nestboxes, berries. But others describe extreme conditions that are well suited to Macdonald’s graphic and impassioned writing. In a ruined Hellenistic city on the southern coast of Turkey (since become a vacation resort), she describes second by second the eerie half-light shed by a solar eclipse, in that fleeting moment when dogs howl or whimper, stars appear, birds stop flying, and spectators—confronting “something like the absolute”—find all their differences suspended: “When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.”
A stranger planetary experience takes her into the central Andes to Chile’s Atacama Desert. One of the most exposed and arid plateaulands in the world, it is believed by scientists to contain the region on Earth that comes closest to replicating conditions on Mars. Macdonald joins an expedition led by the astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol that is intent on detecting living organisms or their surviving signatures. As the group drives into a desert 14,000 feet above sea level, they are entering a region where, for Macdonald, time seems to be slipping back 3.5 billion years, to the eon when solar winds started to strip away the protective atmosphere of Mars, and water—and perhaps life—was driven underground. On the edge of Salar Grande, a nine-mile-long saline flat, “The salty air makes my face twitch and burn; I blink constantly”:
Close up, the salt flat is composed of broad polygonal plates whose edges are heaped with something that looks like half-melted lemon sorbet, or the dirty, refrozen snow that collects along the roadside in winter. Other salt nodules are heaped in piles like dry and dirty bones, and the ground behind our tents is littered with the detritus of long-abandoned salt-mining operations: boots, open sardine cans, scraps of newsprint, corroded lumps of metal.
Microbes in the Atacama survive in salt nodules and in the heat-resistant remains of geysers, and perhaps too around the volcano whose threatened explosion at last drives back Cabrol’s expedition.
Running like a troubled thread through Vesper Flights is the tension between a profound human need for the solace of animals—birds especially—and the acknowledgment, even the insistence, that they are creatures apart. In “Tekels Park,” a nostalgic autobiographical essay (longer than most), she describes a lonely childhood. Awkward and bullied, she found refuge in the tree-shadowed wilderness and nine-acre meadow beside her parents’ Surrey home: “a place of complex and beautiful safety.” In her memory this rambling estate—a leftover property of the Theosophical Society—is ablaze with butterflies, its ponds full of newts, and overhead fly birds that the child tracks through her binoculars and seeks to name. “So many of our stories about nature are about testing ourselves against it, setting ourselves against it, defining our humanity against it,” she writes. “But this was nothing like that at all. It was a child’s way of looking at nature: one seeking intimacy and companionship.”
The resident humans on the estate are mostly feisty ladies of a certain age, refugees from Nazi Germany or from social convention, and unwitting models, to the small girl, of other kinds of varied, independent life. To salve a growing alienation from her peers, she starts to examine birds and insects with such concentration that she has the illusion of not being there. The countryside brings a fugitive peace:
It’s reassuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things—trees, clouds, hills and valleys—which have no voice except the ones you give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature. But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own.
For the adult woman, the child’s need for consolation in animals, and the recognition that there is no true reciprocity between her and these creatures, generates a creative friction that sets Macdonald apart among nature writers. In an essay titled “Nothing Like a Pig,” she describes encountering a fenced-in wild boar in England’s Forest of Dean. Its red eyes and muscular shoulders notwithstanding, she reaches out to caress it. She knows she cannot understand “boar-intelligence, boar-sentience,” or what the boar thinks of her. She senses its ripple of distrust and withdraws her hand. The boar wanders off, puts its snout to the ground, and wallows onto its side, indifferent to her. It is an episode, in miniature, like the moment at the end of H Is for Hawk when Macdonald parts from the raptor that has soothed her mourning and consumed her book. It simply turns its back.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote that the only way we might understand bats would be to be a bat. Macdonald stresses the need for attempting understanding, but above all insists on the duty to “recognise and love difference.” She takes emotional comfort, she declares, from “knowing that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all.” Even the nursing of wounded creatures—road casualties, oil-soaked seabirds—is above all reparation for human damage. After rescuing an animal that she has the sensation of scarcely understanding, she revels in the act of returning it, eventually, like the missing piece of a puzzle, to its own habitat. Again and again she asserts the separation of animal from human.
And yet. Animals, she knows, “reflect back at us our own assumptions.” In this sense, we use them. They may even become our proxies. Certain lessons about humans, she writes, she was late to apply, lessons that after her father’s death she clean forgot:
I wanted to be something as fierce and inhuman as a goshawk. So I lived with one…. But I also forgot how to be a person, and fell into a deep depression. A hawk turned out to be a terrible model for living a human life. When I was a child I’d assumed animals were just like me. Later I thought I could escape myself by pretending I was an animal. Both were founded on the same mistake.
It is easy to imagine the dependence of the child morphing into the longings of the adult.
Places of natural beauty, Macdonald writes—a forest, perhaps, or a mountain—should not be valued for their therapeutic effect; but this sounds like self-admonition. In the standoff between the “birdwatchers” who view birds and the “birdkeepers” who confine them, she shows a surprising sympathy for the keepers. They tend their caged pets, selectively breed them, above all interact with them. She herself used to keep a tame parrot that behaved lovingly, she writes, with a visiting autistic boy. Once, on a Welsh farm, in a strange act of identification, she camouflaged herself in mud and bracken and stalked into the center of a half-feral herd of cattle that had been grazing peacefully. Then she jumped up and scattered them:
I yelled and yelled at the beasts as they flung themselves pell-mell hell-for-leather up and over the hill until they were all gone, and I knew the entire time that this was, hand to God, the most satisfying thing I had ever done in my whole life, and I limped back to the farm, with my mouth hurting from grinning, buzzing with thistle-prickles and adrenalin, and got myself in the bath, and lay there soaking away the mud, and as the adrenalin subsided, I realised I had absolutely no idea why I had done it.
Later she concludes only that she had wanted to shatter the animals’ bovine complaisance, their obliviousness to the eventual abattoir, as if she wanted them to share in her own terminal sadness. She wanted them to be like her.
The mystification of animals by human associations and desires may have diminished with the wilderness they inhabited. But animals still bear with them the symbolic charge with which they once occupied legend, allegory, and scripture. They still emblazon European coats-of-arms and national emblems. Macdonald’s wild boar is steeped for her in medieval and Greek legend. Snakes are still touched by Satan, lions by kingship. Hares, she notes, suggest some leftover magic. Creatures of dusk and dawn, they live on the ground’s surface, surviving by their eerie speed. They have been credited with shapeshifting, with fixation on the moon, with signaling Easter and the Resurrection.
Swans too have been appropriated by legend, even by royalty. In an essay on the quaint English custom of “swan-upping,” Macdonald describes the annual five-day passage along the Thames in which the swans are caught, weighed, and their legs ringed with owners’ tags. Most belong to the Queen, others to ancient trade guilds. They are treated, after their momentary capture, with ceremonial tenderness. Their killing is legally forbidden, but they are protected above all by patriotic nostalgia, as if they belonged not to themselves but to England: an older, prouder England. The sedentary nature of these mute swans endears them to the English: they rarely migrate abroad. And migrants, of course, are unpopular. Shortly before World War II, skylarks arriving from continental Europe were routinely shot by Norfolk farmers, not only because they raided the wheat but because they had been singing to the Nazis.
Macdonald, averse to the grander pageantry of swan-upping, shifts her admiration to the humbler skills involved in it: rowing, tagging, navigating. Class matters (this is England, after all), and she recoils from privilege. She witnesses the ceremony at the time of Britain’s looming separation from Europe, and for her the innocent-seeming ritual becomes tainted with a perverse national pride in Brexit.
Renaissance Europe saw a passion for Wunderkammern: “cabinets of curiosities” whose open cupboards, even rooms, were filled with a miscellany of purchases. Sometimes these were rich displays of art and craftsmanship, more often a mélange of the bizarre and the exquisite: stuffed animals, mollusks and corals, small paintings and travelers’ exotica (occasionally fake). And it is this galaxy of the wonderful that Macdonald conceives as the model for her essay collection.
But the wonder of Vesper Flights lies not only in the marvelous and the unexpected but in the ordinary, seen anew. It is Macdonald’s intensity of observation and quality of language that produces descriptive passages, even isolated images, that jolt the reader into recognition. The songbirds flying high above New York, viewed as ghostly points of light, have “loose-clenched toes tucked to their chests, bright eyes, thin bones.” Above a derelict power plant in Ireland, a falcon appears, like a slim black anchor, lands, shakes his feathers into place, and now becomes two-dimensional, “a faint chromatic fringe ghosting him with suggestions of dust and rainbows.”
As for the bearded reedling, the males are “legendarily glamorous, possessing grey cowls and long black moustaches,” and the nestlings look made of cashmere, with tiny, waxen beaks and strange, pale eyes: “their legs are long, black and glint like obsidian, and they have huge, cartoon bird feet.” Her sighting of a golden oriole is a fragmented wonder, the distant bird flittering in branches:
I saw him only in stamped-out sections, small jigsaw pieces of a bird…. A flick of wings, a scrap of tail, then another glimpse—this time, just his head alone—through a screen of leaves…. It’s hard to comprehend that in all these views through my binoculars, he was never more than the size of a fingernail at arm’s length.
Perhaps it is Macdonald’s near-reverence for animals that excites her compulsion to draw lessons from them. Sometimes her insights flow naturally from their subject. While birdwatching in Hungary, for instance, and conscious of the razor-wire fence erected to keep out Syrian refugees from the south, she witnesses the approach of a flock of cranes—a blurred mass, oddly frightening, like a crowd of fugitives. Then they land, and separate into distinct individuals: migrants seeking safety and sleep.
But there are times when Macdonald’s thinking seems to falter, or when the essay form itself, perhaps, coerces her toward some pat conclusion. Then her longing for animals to teach us something seems like forced reciprocity. Her analysis of the flight of swifts—some in the upper atmosphere, others nesting on the earth below—concludes with limp observations about the divide between worldly and idealistic humans, and an evocative description of flying ant swarms leads to the sentiment that in the world’s workings she is little more than an ant.
It is less in such analogies, however seductively proposed, that Vesper Flights excels, and more in its graphic descriptions: the reemergence of the sun after an eclipse, the biological exuberance of flocking birds, the foreboding stillness before a summer storm. Hers are some of the most thoughtful, intense, and beautiful passages in nature writing. Even glowworms receive this focused attention. They are, she writes, “both sublime and ridiculous”: mysterious astral beacons that are yet wingless beetles with luminous backsides. Only the females glow. They climb up stalks to attract their mates, then lay about a hundred eggs and die:
Their adult lives are short and made of light—but in their two years as larvae they are creatures of macabre darkness, using their proboscises to inject snails with paralysing, dissolving neurotoxins before sucking them up like soup.
Macdonald trained as a historian of science. She knows that the glowworms’ light issues from the reaction of a catalyzing enzyme in the presence of oxygen. But characteristically, as she kneels beside the insect, transfixed by its bluish fire, “this encounter in the summer night feels more like the workings of magic than chemistry.”