Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald

About Helen MacDonald

Helen Macdonald (born 1970) is an English writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She is best known as the author of H is for Hawk, which won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book Award. In 2016, it also won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France. (Source: Wiki)

Vesper Flights – A Summary

“I really like to think my subject is love,” Helen Macdonald says in a conversation with the Guardian. “Love of the world and the things in it. And a lot of the things that I love aren’t human. It’s not that I love them in preference to humans; it is just that I notice them and I want to tell everyone about them. I want to yell: ‘Look at this! Look how cool it is. It’s amazing!’” Yet she adds, “writing about love means you are also writing about death. Because love and death and loss are all part of one thing, really, particularly now with the climate emergency. It is really hard to write about the natural world without writing about grief.” This quote from her might be the best way to summarise her book Vesper Flights.

A collection of 41 short essays, Vesper Flights, as the blurb says ‘is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us’. Helen in her introduction prefers calling it a – ‘Wunderkammer, a Cabinet of Curiosities, although the direct translation from the German captures better its purpose: cabinet of wonders’. She goes on to write: “Working as a historian of science revealed to me how we have always unconsciously and inevitably viewed the natural world as a mirror of ourselves, reflecting our own world-view and our own needs, thoughts and hopes. Many of the essays here are exercises in interrogating such human ascriptions and assumptions. Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.”

Each chapter dedicates itself to this endeavour. We are introduced to a wide array of creatures, landscapes, phenomena and experiences of the natural world that have caught MacDonald’s fancy across the length of the book – beginning with nests, wild boars, ants, mushrooms, deers, swallows and more. Each essay teases out in beautiful prose both the personal experience of the writer and the larger questions, insight and reflections that come with that experience, breaking down the distance between the human and the non-human world.

On a chapter on watching migrating Eurasian cranes, she speaks to how it reminds her of human migrants: 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 with which we greet a cloud of moving starlings or tumbling geese, to view it as a singular entity, strange and uncontrollable and chaotic. But the crowds coming over the border are people just like us. Perhaps too much like us. We do not want to imagine what it would be like to have our familiar places reduced to ruins. In the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock, made of a million souls seeking safety.

In another chapter on deer and road accidents she writes: I sit at the table and think of deer that die because they have no conception of the nature of roads. Deer that die because they are creatures with their own lives, their own haunts and paths and thoughts and needs. I don’t think I could ever laugh at the sight of a deer being hit by a car. But I have not been innocent. I close the YouTube window, go to a website that sells second-hand natural history books. I buy a book called Understanding Deer.

In the last chapter, What Animals Taught Me, MacDonald summarises the complex and profound ways in which the creatures and landscapes around us are intertwined with who we are, who we can be and the potential of change a deeper engagement with the natural world holds for us. She writes: For the more time spent researching, watching and interacting with animals, the more the stories they’re made of change, turning into richer stories with the power to alter not only what you think of the animal, but who you are. It has broadened my notion of home to think of what that concept might mean to a nurse shark or a migratory barn swallow; altered my notion of family after I learned of the breeding systems of acorn woodpeckers, where several malesand females together raise a nest of young. It’s not that creatures work as models for human lives – no one I know thinks that humans should spawn like wave-borne fish or subsist entirely on flies – but the more I’ve learned about animals the more I’ve come to think there might not be only one right way to express care, to feel allegiance, a love for place, a way of moving through the world.

At a time when the distance and conflict between the human and the non-human world is leading to multiple global crises, Macdonald through her thought-provoking essays provisions a gateway to a new way, a gentler way of thinking and being in the world.

Further reading and listening:

‘Vesper Flights’ Offers Hope To A World In Desperate Need Of It – A NPR article.
Helen Macdonald: ‘It is hard to write about the natural world without writing about grief’ – A Guardian article.

Discussion Themes and Questions:

– What were your overall thoughts on the book – the writer’s ideas and style of writing etc.
– What were particular themes that struck you and why do you think you were struck by them?
– What elements of the writers way of looking at and being in the world do you think might be applicable to the places and spaces we occupy?
– What might appeal to you as something that is required of us or our communities and societies?
– Does the book help you make connections on well-being you had previously not considered? If yes, please share them.