Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights is a beautiful and vibrant collection of essays about many different things, and yet it is all stitched together by one desire, one urge: To expand our understanding of this existence we call home. It is a naturalist’s unbridled gaze into every bird, animal, haunt, star, and landscape she comes across, making it seem as though you are looking at and hearing of these things for the very first time. Some very vital themes run through this book, which make simple connections where none seem possible, propping up a possibility of solutions. For what is a solution if not an entirely fresh and unseen perspective…?

Looking through a child’s eyes, Macdonald starts off with looking for the meanings a nest, a haunt, a perch, a space may hold — and the human connection to it all. It is a thread that appears and reappears throughout the book, weaving together in its subtext unexpected stories.

“These days I wonder about how they seem to be one kind of entity when they contains eggs and a different kind of entity when they contain chicks. How nests and eggs are good things to think about when considering matters of individuality, and the concepts of same and different, and a series. How the form of the nest is a phenotype of a particular bird species, but how local conditions foster beautiful idiosyncrasies. How we humans are intrigued when birds make nests out of things that belong to us: house finches lining their nests with cigarette butts, nests of Bullock’s orioles fashioned from twine, kites decorating their tree platforms with underwear stolen from washing lines. A friend of mine found a ferruginous hawk’s nest wrought almost entirely from lengths of wire. It’s satisfying to consider the incorporation of human detritus into the creation of birds, but it is troubling too. What have they made out of what we have made of this world?

It is the same conflict between vulnerability and strength, and the loss of home and habitat, which she explores further in The Student’s Tale–the story of a human refugee, an asylum seeker, whose place in the world is lost to war, intolerance and mindlessness. Between those two essays, she traverses and closes the artificial difference between one precious form of life and another, with what can be termed as ‘a true love of existence’.

Proud (Zahir, 1995)

Vesper Flights is a book not with one main door but with endless windows, entering through which you find yourself returning to the knowledge that there is brilliance and intelligence beyond the human one–which forms another theme. The pages are filled with diverse and spectacular accounts of other life forms, away from our self-centered meanings and free unto their own: There are swifts who sleep high up in the air, pulled by a rhythm of their own; falcons and rooks who look down at us from their own free perspective; deer who exist not only in their magical appeal to us, but in flesh and bone reality; there are moving murmurations, vast flocks of birds rising together as if in mathematical symphony, and how, then, they disperse into individual birds with hearts and needs and life; forests that have meaning not only in our urge to find peace in them, but that exist as bodies independent and apart from us. Across the essays one realizes the stark narrowness of even our love for the wild—we still behave as though we are their keepers, protectors, savers or even worshippers. But Macdonald persists in driving in the salient truth that man is simply ‘the other co-habitant of this world’ to the forest, to the beast, to the bird. And that there are as many kinds of knowing as they are species here. She brings to us “…the realisation that there is a particular form of intelligence in the world that is boar-intelligence, boar sentience. And being considered by a mind that is not human forces you to reconsider the limits of your own…”

Opening yet another facet in this bioscope, she gives a fascinating account about “a towering column of flying ants” out on their nuptial flight, and the herring gulls out to feast on them.

“It isn’t merely the wheeling flock of birds that transfixes me,”, she says, “or the magic of how the ants have carved out a discrete piece of unremarkable air and given it drama and meaning. It is that motive power behind this grand spectacle is entirely visible. The vast stretch of sky, the gulls, the imperceptible ants, is a working revelation of the interrelation of different scales of existence, and it is at once exhilarating and humbling.”

Natural sovereignty. Individual and group intelligence. The scales of existence. The dimensions. The surfaces. The waves. Vesper Flights opens your heart to a dance of brilliant asymmetry with the symmetry of meaning embedded within ‘life’ and its diverse forms. Just when you find yourself looking differently at the forests, you are thrown up in the sky on the shoulders of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, in the gross heart of modernity, a most startling contrast. There, Macdonald introduces you to “…a wildlife phenomenon that twice a year sweeps almost unseen above the city: the seasonal night flights of migrating birds.

“Through the lenses, birds invisible to the naked eye swim into view, and there are birds above them, and birds higher still. …For every large bird I see, thirty or more songbirds pass over. They are very small. Watching their passage is almost too moving to bear. They resemble stars, embers, slow tracer fire. Even through binoculars those at higher altitudes are tiny, ghostly points of light. I know that they have loose-clenched toes tucked to their chests, bright eyes, thin bones and a will to fly north that pulls them onward night after night. …Something tugs at my heart. I’ll never see any of these birds again. If I weren’t this high, and the birds weren’t briefly illuminated by this column of light cast by a building thrown up through the depression years to celebrate earthly power and capital confidence, I’d have never seen them at all.”

It is both astonishing for the human mind to enter this disparate tie of cityscape and nature–and inescapably necessary. For, our beautifully illuminated cities mean grave danger for these creatures passing overhead at night. Disoriented and confused by a dazzle of light at a time when they need darkness for their navigational machinery to function at its best, they either die or, flying about in spirals, drop down exhausted. In a most poetic effort to revive our link with the natural world, Macdonald suggests: “High-rise buildings, symbols of mastery over nature, can work as bridges towards a more complete understanding of the natural world – stitching the sky to the ground, nature to the city…” For a bird is still as exquisite a life when perched on an electric pole as when it is found dashing through a grove of trees. If you connect with that life, the landscape will transform all on its own. Thus, Macdonald continues to connect the pieces of our broken giant of a world together, the ‘industrial and urban and abandoned site and old factory’ parts of us in a bid to reclaim our connection with the unputdownable life in all those pieces. Her experience at a power station in Dublin, changes forever our relationship with it all:

The Peregrine (Rakhi Varma, 2017)

“…The Poolbeg site is about as far as you can get from a thriving natural ecosystem, but the act of watching a falcon chase its prey above the scarred and broken ground below feels like quiet resistance against despair. Matters of life and death and a sense of our place in the world tied fast together in a shiver of wings across a scrap of winter sky.”

The backdrop of the essays keeps changing like in a spectacular stage-play, and yet we are driven by a single-minded urge towards that one immense field of wonder, where you are filled with a new-found sensitivity towards everything. Every essay is a journey you take inside and out, and everywhere, all at the same time. You are on Earth and yet you are in the midst of what life may have been on Mars billions of years ago. You are in a city but, at within the same span of being, there are volcanic lakes, salt fields, high geothermal sites and the “extremophile life” pulsating in them, living in accordance to rules that bend and break your defined ways of knowing, that stretch and twist your customs to make space for the irregular. Again and again, you find that you are not alone. That your experience may be personal, but it is shared by numerous others. This breaking away and coming together, traversing the blimp between physical reality and the spiritual, is the joyride.

Thus, Vesper Flights is not just a book but a method, a means to free yourself to experience this impossible level of connection. We leave you with this last passage from the essay, Eclipse, which is the perfect end to make another crack in the way we perceive and therefore, feel.

“I check the sun again through my eclipse glasses. All that is left now is a bare, fingernail curve of light. The landscape is insistently alien: short, midday shadows in a saturated world. The land is orange. The sea is purple. Venus has appeared in the sky, quite high, up to the right. And then, with a chorus of cheer and whistles and applause, I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely. Totality is so incomprehensible to your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. You cannot grasp any of this. Your intellect cannot grasp any of this.”

To this great variety of the known and that which can be known, and to this endless way of knowing the unknown, we kneel and kiss the ground.

An Audacious Celebration & Hermes Trismegistus

The urge to celebrate and rejoice, to be euphoric, seems to be a need as primordial as food for survival… The caveman dancing in front of the fire, the shaman entranced below a tree, the master writing a haiku – spread all across time are these symbols of joy. And as I wonder why it is that we need to be in bliss, the answer comes: It frees you from your limited sense of self. You expand. For a moment, you feel godly…

It means, then, that you cannot separate the self from the celebration. One is an expression of the other. You can celebrate only to the extent you are ‘available’ to connect.

So, if you wanted the celebration to go on, and at the grandest scale possible, would you need to be godlike…?

Of course… No doubt. Then, what would it take to be god, really…?

This question takes me back to a well-known passage from the controversial and fantastic Corpus Hermeticum. These are texts dating between the 1st century and the 3rd century AD, and are ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, “the thrice great”. A Hellenistic figure, part god, part saint-scholar, he arose as a syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Alchemy, philosophy, astronomy are some of the subjects dealt within the Hermetica, but what I want to share with you is this. Trismegistus ‘knew’ human beings to be co-creators with god and he declares in no uncertain terms their equal divinity. This excerpt is a gorgeously audacious celebration of the same truth, and here it is for you:

First Latin Edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, translated by Masilio Ficino, 1471 CE.

“If then you do not make yourself equal to God, you cannot apprehend God; for like is known by like.
Leap clear of all that is corporeal and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal; then you will apprehend God. Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are immortal, and that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science; find your home in the haunts of every living creature; make yourself higher than all heights and lower than all depths; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are everywhere at once, on land, at sea, in heaven; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all of this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God.
But if you shut up your soul in your body, and abase yourself, and say “I know nothing, I can do nothing; I am afraid of earth and sea, I cannot mount to heaven; I know not what I was, nor what I shall be,” then what have you to do with God?
Close your eyes and let the mind expand. Let no fear of death or darkness arrest its course. Allow the mind to merge with Mind. Let it flow out upon the great curve of consciousness. Let it soar on the wings of the great bird of duration, up to the very Circle of Eternity.”

Corpus Hermeticum

“If you then do not make yourself equal to god…” It leaves you shaken like an ancient tree caught in a lordly storm. In every line there is a definite method, a coaxing, a dislodging of conditioning from one’s being. Thus, it is not just high and lyrical prose, but a field guide with a map. Follow it and “then you will apprehend God”

But what stops us? Why do we “abase” and limit ourselves in so many ways, I wonder. We believe in ‘drudgery for freedom’. Weekdays for Friday nights. A lifetime of slavery for a few years on a boat or in a cabin, or on a mountainside. Why not take the whole, when it is yours? Rumi says, “You are the entire ocean in one drop…” And yet, we allow ourselves to be taught that we need qualifications to enter the party – “then what have you to do with God?” Because…becoming godly has nothing to do with any kind of ego-centric quality, however grand it may be. Nothing to do either with humility or self-aggrandizement. Trismegistus wastes no time telling you that you need wait for nothing, care for no distance, work for no improvement – and see immediately that to be god is to take a living and breathing look at the Universe as your own mountainous body.  

Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus,
Floor Mosaic at the Cathedral of Siena, 1480

As if the trees, dogs, cows, wolves, beetles and falcons were your arms, legs and sinews. As if the Moon was your heart and the Sun your soul. The peaks and valleys, the height and depth of your wonder. As if the streets of your town were the pathways of your own knowing, where you meet many ‘others’ through whom to know yourself.

He says, “Find your home in the haunts of every living creature…” For that is how you recognize yourself – in the eyes of the other. That is how you know yourself to be god – in a zillion reflecting eyes. Yes…there’s the long studied strangeness between you. The polarity of opposites. The make-believe wall you put between you and your other selves, so that you could ‘see yourself’…by singling yourself out. What a paradox… 

This kind of a wall doesn’t break. One has to walk through it, because it is an illusion.

And it becomes obvious that, to walk through it, the way is to increase the moments of rejoicing. “Let it soar on the wings of the great bird of duration…” Bliss is the speed which takes one beyond time. Thus, take the celebration a notch higher each time, with each and every being, and every feeling. Be spaced out in meditation. Be gone in pain. Or burn with creativity. And flow with love. All of it is a way to soar, if you let go. For only in your high forgetfulness, in your most voluminous elation, when you “close your eyes and let the mind expand…” – will you become free and enter through the wall. 

Thus, even the stars lend a hand with the forgetfulness, making you feel airy with their beauty. And the lunacy inspiring moon. Entering the forests, the mountains, the higher or deeper you go, the more aware you become of silence. Go to them. They are your map, your geometry, as is a blade of grass, an ant, a raindrop. And especially all broken things, dark, ugly, empty, forlorn – they are the unvisited fields of your own being. What kind of god would it make if it did not celebrate all of itself?

Dogen says, “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.” 

The celebration is always on. But this is the answer, and the way to get in. And come as you are.