Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I’d seen Helen Macdonald give a reading at one of the festivals that had gone online in 2020 or ’21, from the title essay of this book, and I decided to buy it with my birthday money. Vesper Flights is one of the longer pieces in the book and contains some enchanting imagery related to swifts and their flight. Many of the essays feature birds, as you might expect from someone who is known for a book called H is for Hawk, but there are also fungi, deer, a wild boar and a fair few people.

I started reading it a couple of days before Christmas, thinking it would be just the thing for the six or seven hours’ return train journey to see OneMonkey’s dad. It’s a little less than three-quarters of an inch thick, about 260 pages, but what with my slowed-down reading speed and pauses to look out at the scenery of North Yorkshire and County Durham or ponder what I’d read, I only got halfway through. The other half then took me another three weeks, an essay or short musing slipped in between work and tea or washing up and bed.

The book is one that might be referred to as not really a nature book, in Richard Smyth’s 2017 essay on the limitations of nature writing. All the pieces except one (The Student’s Tale) contain ‘nature’ if you like – observations on a species or habitat, information about a study carried out in the distant past, an account of a trip to a nature reserve – but few of them are solely about the species or habitat in question, though the paperback says ‘nature writing’ on the back cover next to the price. Many of the pieces put me in mind of the kind of article I might read in the weekend edition of a newspaper, not because the topic particularly interested me but because I was idly browsing and the first paragraph caught my attention. Indeed, I believe a lot of them were written for The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman, i.e. for a general readership.

This is a book then for the curious non-specialist. Someone with a passing interest in nature, perhaps, eager to read descriptions of it by someone more deeply immersed – a casual dipper, willing to be drawn in. Or someone like me who shies away from Latin names and technical terms (despite being a trained scientist who has studied Latin) but is keen to learn more about the wondrous things they see while out walking, or watching from an upstairs window while working from home. And Macdonald does talk of wondrous things, and of the need for both science and a dash of magic, of awe.

In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

Helen Macdonald, The Numinous Ordinary in Vesper Flights

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the accessibility of most of the experiences in Vesper Flights. Sometimes it feels as though nature writing is all about wealthy chaps communing in the wilderness (see Richard Smyth’s other delightful essay, The State of Nature). Although there is a trip to South America and to the Empire State Building in Vesper Flights, for the most part these are urban and suburban adventures in the UK. Watching peregrine falcons on the other side of a metal fence at a disused power station, or a small flock of migrating birds outside a shopping centre, doesn’t feel like the preserve of a particular strata of society. However, that the author is middle-class and Cambridge educated does come forcibly to the fore in Birds, Tabled which is mainly about caged songbirds kept by ‘the working classes’, and which I found patronising and slightly offensive. It reminded me that authors assume a shared understanding of the world with their readers, and when that isn’t the case the reader can feel excluded at best. It’s also good evidence for why the recent push for working class nature writers isn’t as daft as some people seem to think.

Because this is nature-based writing for a general readership, Macdonald often weaves topics together to make the reader look at the world differently. For instance, migrating birds and migrating people, or the onset of migraines and the onset of climate catastrophe. One theme that recurs is how our cultural context shapes our interpretation of animal behaviour, which was interesting. Current affairs naturally creep in (the dates of each piece for context would have been nice, but I say that about most collections) and you can spot recurring fears and preoccupations like Brexit, the plight of refugees, Donald Trump – if you’re not centre-left some of it will start to irritate you, I imagine. I found The Student’s Tale jarringly out of place: a nicely written piece but I bought this book as ‘nature writing’ and couldn’t understand why an account of an epidemiology student seeking asylum in the UK had been included.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I learnt some scientific and historical facts, I looked at a few things differently, and on the way I enjoyed some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of animals and places, that were at times quite magical. I haven’t read many books that would be classed as nature writing and purists might dismiss this collection but if it encourages a wider readership to take notice of their surroundings and the effects of their choices as homeowners or consumers then that has to be a good thing.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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