Vesper Flights: a book review and reflection


Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I have been waiting eagerly for a copy of Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. If you have read my review of her H is for Hawk, you will understand why. Early reviews of the new book were also positive – “powerful essays,” said The Guardian; “soul-stirring,” said USA Today; “a beautiful and generous book,” said npr. The Goodreads community gave it 4.2 out of 5.

I was fortunate enough to get a copy of Vesper Flights for Christmas. It is a collection of 41 essays, and Helen Macdonald writes “I hope that this book works a little like a Wunderkammer. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder.” Many of the essays have an autobiographical component. Several moved me to tears.


A Wunderkammer painted by Domenico Remps around 1695 (click images in this review to zoom)

The essays in the collection are:

  1. Nests – a reflection on bird’s nests
  2. Nothing Like a Pig – coming face-to-face with a wild boar
  3. Inspector Calls – a beautifully written and touching account of an autistic boy meeting a parrot
  4. Field Guides – a visit to Australia, and praise for field guides

The hairpin banksia gets a mention in essay #4

  1. Tekels Park – reminiscences of a childhood spent among nature in Tekels Park
  2. High-Rise – a wonderful account of the surprising amount of life that can be found in the night-time sky
  3. The Human Flock – about migration
  4. The Student’s Tale – about a refugee
  5. Ants – about nuptial flights in ants

A winged queen ant (photo credit)

  1. Symptomatic – about migraines and impending doom
  2. Sex, Death, Mushrooms – “Many toxic fungi closely resemble edible ones, and differentiating each from each requires careful examination, dogged determination and often the inspection of spores stained and measured under a microscope slide.
  3. Winter Woods – walking through woods in the winter
  4. Eclipse – an eclipse is an emotional experience
  5. In Her Orbit – with Nathalie Cabrol in the Atacama Desert, site of the now-defunct Carrera Solar Atacama (this chapter is based on a New York Times article)

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (photo credit)

  1. Hares
  2. Lost, But Catching Up
  3. Swan Uppingswan upping on the Thames as social commentary
  4. Nestboxes – are they for the birds, for us, or both?
  5. Deer in the Headlights – this essay highlights the problem of deer-vehicle collisions (the UK gets about 1 per thousand people per year); Australia has a kangaroo-vehicle collision problem of similar magnitude, but that issue is perhaps viewed a little differently
  6. The Falcon and the Tower – about urban peregrine falcons, specifically in Dublin (see also this short documentary film)

The towers of the decommissioned Poolbeg Generating Station in Dublin, with a magnification of the western (leftmost) tower. These towers, around 207 m high, are home to the peregrine falcons described in essay #20 (photo credit)

  1. Vesper Flights – the central and title essay, based on a New York Times article, is about swifts
  2. In Spight of Prisons – all about glow-worms, Lampyris noctiluca
  3. Sun Birds and Cashmere Spheresgolden orioles and bearded reedlings
  4. The Observatory – “a swan had come towards me and offered me strange
    companionship at a time when I thought loneliness was all I could feel.
  5. WickenWicken and other fens, which I imagine inspired the home of Puddleglum in the Narnia stories

A hide at Wicken Fen (photo credit)

  1. Storm
  2. Murmurations – “Words to accompany Sarah Wood’s 2015 film Murmuration x 10
  3. A Cuckoo in the House – about cuckoos and the man who inspired the character ‘M.’ Yes, that ‘M.’
  4. The Arrow-Stork – the arrow-stork and the study of bird & animal migration
  5. Ashes – on tree diseases
  6. A Handful of Corn – as a famous song says: “Come feed the little birds, show them you care, and you’ll be glad if you do; their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare, all it takes is tuppence from you.

  1. Berries
  2. Cherry Stones
  3. Birds, Tabled – a fascinating exploration of the morality of bird-watching versus bird-keeping and the class conflicts involved (a number of reviewers online have taken issue with this chapter, specifically)
  4. Hiding
  5. Eulogy
  6. Rescue – a beautiful account of bird rescue and wildlife rehabilitation
  7. Goats
  8. Dispatches from the Valleys – a heavily autobiographical chapter, raising all kinds of spiritual questions (but not really answering them)
  9. The Numinous Ordinary – “I kept trying to find the right words to describe certain experiences and failing. My secular lexicon didn’t capture what they were like. You’ve probably had such experiences yourself – times in which the world stutters, turns and fills with unexpected meaning.
  10. What Animals Taught Me – “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. For the deepest lesson animals have taught me is how easily and unconsciously we see other lives as mirrors of our own.

Not surprisingly, about half the chapters in this book are about birds, in some way or other:

At its best, this book is as good as the superb H is for Hawk, but is not consistently so (indeed, it scarcely could be). While some of the chapters are truly wonderful, others have a moralistic tone that I thought was a little more heavy-handed than it needed to be, and which became a little repetitive after a while. In the last chapter Helen Macdonald offers a corrective: “These days I take emotional solace from knowing that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all.” Or, as C.S. Lewis once put it:

Come out, look back, and then you will see … this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch.

Helen Macdonald has a genuine talent for showing the reader what she saw, and the reader of a book like this will feel appropriate things in that situation. Perhaps the more moralistic tone is the inevitable, and possibly appropriate, nature of an essay written for a newspaper or magazine. The fact that this book is a collection of such essays would then explain why it feels a little repetitive at times.

My recommendation: buy this book, but only read a few chapters each week. And think about them.

* * * *
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: 4 stars


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