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’.
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 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.