I missed out on reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawke a few years ago when it first came out to great acclaim. No good reason, just one of those things, so I was determined not to miss out on Vesper Flights. Especially since Macdonald was fortunate enough to get Chris Wormell to once again illustrate her book cover with one his stunning linocut bird images. Looking at this cover for the past six months has been a delight – a thing of beauty and peacefulness in our world gone crazy with Covid.
From everything I read about it, H is for Hawke, is part memoir, part bird training book that covers the period of time just after the death of Macdonald’s father. Vesper Flights is a much broader array of unconnected essays and articles, or as Macdonald describes it in her Introduction,
this book is a little like a Wounderkammer [a cabinet of wonders]. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder….To rejoice in the complexity of things.
In any collection of essays, about any topic, there are bound to be some that are stronger than others, or that resonate with a specific reader, more than others. Macdonald is a nature writer, so we have essays on birds, the environment, boars, hares, eclipses, insects, mushrooms, radio signals and much, much more.
For my own benefit, I have pulled out the main ideas and/or favourite quotes from each essay below, plus noted my favourite essays and any personal connections.
- A personal essay about her childhood desire to be a naturalist, thanks to birds and their nests.
- Observations about how birds repurpose our things for nest building.
- Is it a skill or instinct?
- The history of egg-hunting in England.
Nothing Like a Pig:
- Boars to be precise.
- Expectations and stories versus the reality.
- ‘we have a long history of territorial anxiety over wild animals intruding on our spaces.’
- yet we feel guilt when animals ‘become so rare that their impact on humans is negligible.’
- a brief, personal story about autism, classification and the connection between animals and humans.
- An excursion to the Blue Mountains, Australia.
- how to use a field guide – ‘ask the right questions of the living organism in front of you.’
- Macdonald’s childhood story of the meadow she grew up exploring.
- ‘that messy stretches of species-rich vegetation…are better, than the eerie, impoverished silence of modern planting schemes.’
- one of my favourite essays – personal, evocative and heart-felt.*****
- The effects of high-rise buildings and laser light shows beamed into the sky on migrating birds.
- birds can be pulled into the mesmerising light, leaving them confused and in danger.
- another favourite piece memorable for it’s images of birds adjusting to the man-made built environments that pop up in their flight paths, but also of those that don’t manage to adjust and who now face a perilous future.*****
The Human Flock:
- Eurasian cranes migrate from Russia every autumn, to spend a few weeks in north-eastern Hungary, feeding on the remains of the maize harvest.
- ‘language fails in the face of immense flocks of beating wings.’
- flocking birds can ‘create bewildering optical effects.’
- murmurations – the precision flying and turning of a flock, especially starlings.
- ‘the sheer profusion of beating wings makes it hard for predators to focus on any single starling in a murmuration.’
- ‘watching the flock has brought home to me how easy it is to react to the idea of masses of refugees with the same visceral apprehension…to view it as a singular entity, strange and uncontrollable and chaotic.’
- where Macdonald meets and talks with a refugee – ‘a student, an epidemiologist, a Christian, a refugee.’
- ‘We so often think of science as somehow subtracting mystery and beauty from the world. But it’s the things I’ve learned from scientific books and papers that are making what I’m watching almost unbearably moving.’
- The queen bee only mates once in her whole lifetime, storing the sperm to use later to fertilise her eggs.
- Migraines – the one who has a migraine is a migraineur.
- Only 30% of migarineurs experience a visual disturbance – like Macdonald, I have only ever had one such scintillating scotoma. A psychedelic moment where the tiles in my bathroom swirled around, moving in and out of range at an alarming rate. Once was more than enough!
- ‘In the midst of a migraine, not knowing is very much to the point. Pain wipes you free of knowledge, makes understanding utterly redundant. There’s nothing to know or understand.’
- prodrome – the aspects of a migraine that precede the pain.
- ‘failing to identify the symptoms of your migraines while you’re having a migraine may itself be a symptom.’
- postdrome – after the pain subsides – like Macdonald I also find this time a creative time.
- ‘though it makes me feel weak, muffled, slow and stupid, it’s inside it that writing comes the easiest.’
- Macdonald wonders if we view climate change much the same that migraineurs fail to recognise their symptoms.
- An interesting article that I learnt quite a bit from and felt a common bond with a fellow migraineur.*****
- Thetford Forest
- ‘mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi‘.
- ‘There’s a special phenomenology to walking in woods in winter….It’s a quietness that fosters an acute sensitivity to small sounds.’
- ‘A winter wood reveals the bones of the landscape it grows upon‘ which is not something I really know about in Australia. Only some of the trees in our forests are deciduous. But after our last ghastly bushfire summer, we also saw our forests stripped back to the bare bones. The silence was deafening!
- ‘witnessing a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality.’
- ‘primal awe‘
- ‘there’s a hole in the sky where the sun should be‘
- ‘there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out again.’
- Natalie Cabrol – an astrobiologist & planetary geologist specialising in Mars & a director of the Carl Sagan Centre in the SETI Institute.
- Salar Grande, Chile – I had to google it to see for myself – ‘there are flats similar to this on Mars‘.
- Altiplano, Bolivia – ‘life is less easy to find here.’
- Laguna Lejia – ‘this is like Mars three billion years ago.’
- ‘the Earth itself is in no danger whatsoever. “It will survive whatever we throw at it. What is in danger is the environment that made us possible. We are pretty much cutting the branch we are sitting on.”‘
- One of those extraordinary essays where you are reminded and astounded by the jobs that people do, the passion and drive they have to discover and learn new things and the lengths they will go to do so.*****
- Hares came to England around the same time as the Romans.
- Hares do not burrow, making a series of depressions called forms instead, from which they can ‘see everything and be invisible.’
- or how a naturalist finds out she is allergic to horses, dogs, foxes, deer….and most other quadrupeds.
- Swan Upping at Cookham by Stanley Spence.
- the relationship between natural history and national history
- swam upping is cutting the last joint of one wing to render them flightless
- ‘swan upping is a progress in the old-fashioned sense, a journey upriver that claims the right not only to own swans but to own their meanings, the meanings of the river, the meaning of Englishness.’
- Droughts are making nest-building difficult for many species.
- ‘The years following the financial crash of 2008 were marked by a growing glorification of myths of Englishness…when a country is hurting it so often grasps for ideas of itself in a longed-for past.’
The Falcon and the Tower:
- Ireland and peregrine falcons nesting on decommissioned cooling chimneys.
- ‘Falcons haunt landscapes that speak to us of mortality: mountains, by virtue of their eternity; industrial ruins, by virtue of their reminding us that this, too, in time will be gone, and that we should protect what is here and now.’
- ‘Matters of life and death and a sense of place in the world tied fast together in a shiver of wings across a scrap of winter sky.‘
- ‘they rise higher and higher until they disappear from view. These ascents are called vespers flights, or vesper flights.‘
- Swifts make these flights twice a day – evening and dawn – to find out where exactly they are.
- ‘To orient themselves correctly, to make the right decisions, they need to pat attention not only to the cues of the world around them, but also to each other.’
In Spight of Prisons:
- Glow-worms & nature reserves
- The title comes from Robert Boyle (17th century) who found that a glow-worms glow went out when kept in a vacuum, ‘the light of his experimental glow-worms, trapped behind glass, was akin to “certain truths” that shine freely “in spight of prisons”.’
Sun Birds and Cashmere Spheres:
- Golden orioles & poplar stands planted in the 1950’s by match-stick manufacturers.
- ‘They had been a visitation, living in a little snippet of economic history, settling gold on the papery branches, making the fens obliquely glorious with their song.‘
- every swan has a different pattern of yellow and black on its bill.
- ‘It’s impossible to regard the natural world without seeing something of our own caught up in it.’
- Wicken Fen – outdoor living museum – ‘walking in them [nature reserves] is an act of virtual time travel.’
- Learning to listen then watch ‘knowing where an animal is but not knowing what it is can be better than seeing it.’
- petrichor – the smell of newly wet land as a storm approaches.
- Sarah Wood | Murmuration x 10 | 2015
- British officer, Peter Conder survived a WWII prison camp by watching goldfinches.
- During WWI, Henry Eliot Howard realised that birds had territories and that their song was territorial.
- ‘when things collapse, when ideas fail, when economies slide, when newsprint is crisp with fears of invasion and the loss of who we are. We mark ourselves on our maps to consider our territory…We turn inward. Seek ourselves in the mirror of the countryside. See nature as refuge. As ours. As us.’
- birds as feathered proxies, transcending human borders.
A Cuckoo in the House:
- 60% of cuckoo population has been lost in the past 25 years.
- Maxwell Knight – spymaster, broadcaster & naturalist. The connection between bird watching and spying ‘national and natural histories blurred.‘
- ‘our understanding of animals is deeply influenced by the cultures in which we live.’
- on the tagging and tracking of animals.
- ‘to see the world as an animal does: a place without politics or borders, without humans at all, merely a series of habitats marching climatically from cool northern mountains to the thick rainforests of Angola and Congo.’
- Dutch elm disease and the effects of international trade on the natural world.
- Reminded me of the section in Richard Powers The Overstory that highlighted this terrible destruction of an entire species of tree. I was devastated when Macdonald related how elms and chestnuts still try to grow, sending up new shoots, but they get to a certain height, a certain stage and the blight kicks in again.
- solastalgia – Glenn Albrecht – the emotional distress we feel when our home landscapes become unrecognisable through environmental change.
- will the next generation of children see species loss and environmental change as ‘normal’?
A Handful of Corn:
- the issues of feeding birds and other animals in our backyards.
- ‘when we feed animals, we want it to be on our own terms, not theirs.’
- the social/class divide – ‘there are acceptable animals and unacceptable animals, as there have been deserving and undeserving poor.’
- hawfinches ‘reminds us how seamlessly we confuse natural and national history, how readily we assume nativity in things that are familiar to us, and how lamentably easy it is to forget how we are all from somewhere else.’
- Bird Fair vs Bird Show
- ‘our attitudes towards nature are shaped by history, class and power.’
- Beautiful writing –
- ‘It sings of seeds and thistledown, of mates and flights and the fragility of eggs in a moss-and-cobweb nest, and of territorial battles and parasites and sparrowhawks and scarcity and stress.‘
- wildlife hides for observing in their natural habitat ‘sometimes the window in front of me resembles nothing so much as a television screen.’
- meditative patience.
- for her friend Stu.
- Lovely – ‘as night falls, our senses stretch to meet it.’
- on hand-raising orphaned swifts.
- sentimental acts of compassion with no conservation benefit or ‘an intoxicating process of coming to know something quite unlike you, to understand it well enough not only to keep it alive but also to put it back, like a puzzle piece, into the gap in the world it left behind.’
- Brief but laugh-out-loud funny family story.
- It reminded me that family stories are the things we have left after losing a loved one. Retelling the stories, keeps our loved ones close to us.
Dispatches from the Valleys:
- how animal encounters can become personally significant during times of trouble – personal truths – emblematic.
- Shortly after my father-in-law died, on our first visit back to our mountain home, where we were staying, when we first heard the sad news, we spied a kookaburra sitting on a bare branch outside the kitchen window. He looked at us, we thought intently. He stayed quite a while. We named him Bruce. He regularly returns to that same branch. We say ‘hello Bruce’ each time. And each time we are drawn back to that night when we got the phone call. And each time we feel, that just maybe, this kookaburra is somehow Bruce’s way of letting us know that he is okay wherever he may be now. And that he is still with us.
The Numinous Ordinary:
- faith, god, rapture, grace, beauty, mystery and love and those moments in nature and life that rise above the ordinary.
- you cannot go searching for them, they just happen – unpredictable – a revelation – unexpected – unrepeatable.
- A front gate from my childhood, that when I stood on it and swung it to and fro gently, my childish weight would pull open the hinge just enough for me to peer inside to see the oily insides swirling, marbling and gliding in the dark. I found this purplish pool hypnotising and mesmerising. It took me out of myself; I forgot where I was. I was almost giddy with pleasure and some unfulfilled desires. Last month I drove past the old house for the first time in over a decade. We stopped and took a photo. I walked up to the gate. It was still the same one, with the same hinge. For a moment I was, again, giddy in a swirling purple slick of memory and desire, expectation and desire, wonder and fear. Something bigger than myself. Something stranger and unknowable. Something a little bit magic.
- the difference between harm and care.
- the power we have over other things and the power we have over ourselves.
- ‘animals don’t exist to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.’
If you’re still with me after all of that, bless you!
I am not a twitcher. I can only identify confidently a small group of birds in the wild. I will probably never sit in a hide to watch animals in their natural environments. But I get it. I understand how this could become your thing.
I used to keep a detailed record of the plants in my garden – when I planted them, when they flowered each year, when I pruned them. I measured rainfall. I took endless photos that documented the seasonal changes in my garden as well as the play of light and shadow at different times of the day. One day I hope to have the time to devote myself to such a task again.
For now, I read books such as this.
Nature writing in the hands of someone who is clearly passionate about her topic, is a magical thing. When she is also able to make her words soar with poetic purpose, then each essay, each chapter becomes something to savour slowly. Vesper Flights is not a book to rush.
I do not give many books a five star rating, because it not only means that the book is magnificent, moving and personally meaningful, but it’s also a book I believe that will be reread at some point and is therefore, a keeper.
If you don’t believe me, see Kate @Books Are My Favourite and Best for another rave review.