Book Review – “Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald

Well, dear Readers, this lovely book didn’t make the Wainwright Prize shortlist but I thought I’d do a brief review of it here anyway because there is much to ponder in it. Furthermore, it is a collection of essays rather than a long-form piece of nature writing, so it is easy to dip in and out of. However, there is an over-arching theme, and Macdonald describes it here:

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.

Well, amen to that, and if ever we needed to consider these things, it’s now, when so many topics are so polarised that we can’t hear one another, and when a failure of empathy is quite possibly going to condemn us all to the fire. But how about this description of a wild boar that Macdonald meets. The animal is behind a fence, but allows her to touch him.

I scratched the beast’s broad hump and felt, as the seconds passed, that some tiny skein of aggression in his heart was starting to thrum. I have learned not to distrust intuitions like this. Suddenly we both decided that this was enough, my heart skipping, he grunting and feinting”.

What a complicated thing to describe: the way that we suddenly sense what another creature might be feeling, while recognising that we don’t actually know. Macdonald is never presumptuous about the emotions of animals:

When I was a child I’d assumed that animals were just like me. Later I thought I could escape myself by pretending to be 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“.

None of us sees animals clearly. They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them“.

It seems to me that we so rarely see animals as themselves. Maybe we can’t: maybe we don’t have the imagination. We are so lonely in this world, and yet relationships with animals are almost invariably on our terms. But not always. In her essay ‘An Inspector Calls’, she tells of an autistic child who visits her flat, and forms a brief but intense friendship with her parrot:

His mother looks anxious. ‘Come on, Antek! We are going now’

There is, suddenly, one of the most beautiful moments of human-animal interaction I have ever seen. Antek nods his head gravely at the parrot,, and the parrot makes a deep, courteous bow in return”.

In a piece that reminds me of Mark Cocker’s wonderful book ‘Crow Country‘, Macdonald writes about the feeling of fear that can arise when we are close to a huge murmuration of starlings or flock of birds, how the sheer numbers and noise can cause a kind of rising terror. And yet, when she looks more closely through her binoculars the murmuration resolves to individual birds preening, chattering to one another, perching close together.

In the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock, made of a million souls seeking safety. I love the flock not simply for its biological exuberance, but for the way it has prompted me to pick similarity out of strangeness, for the way its chaos was transformed, on reflection, to individuals and family groups wanting the simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep”.

Similarly, how easy it is to condemn ‘refugees’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘economic migrants’, and how hard it is to judge them when we actually get to know them as people. She shakes the kaleidoscope and looks at the issue in a different way in her essay “A Handful of Corn”:

There are acceptable animals and unacceptable animals, as there have been deserving and undeserving poor, and the lines of respectability are drawn in familiar ways, through appealing to fears and threats of invasion, foreignness, violence and disease…….To purposely feed the wrong animals – sparrows, pigeons, rats, raccoons, foxes – is an act of social transgression that’s liable to get you reported to officials by whistleblowers who are concerned with mess, or health, or noise, or are powered by sheer indignation”.

She also takes issue with some of the arguments currently used for preserving wild places, and again I love how she puts this because in my experiences with our local patch of ancient woodland, I find it viewed again and again as amenity space, useful only for how it adds value to the life of humans:

Perhaps this is why I am impatient wit the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone”.

That distant sound you hear is me standing up and applauding.

And finally, the last reason for reading this book  is that the writing is so exquisite, so precise.  Macdonald watches the gulls that gather to feast on the flying ants that are rising on the thermals on a hot summer day.

I watch gulls from all points on the compass flying in to join the bonanza. The ants are caught up in a thermal of rising warm air and as the incoming gulls meet its outside edge, the tip of one wing is tugged by the updraught; they straighten their wings, circle into it, and rise effortlessly. This tower of birds is an attraction visible for miles, an ephemeral landmark above a roadside church in a small country town”.

Macdonald manages to combine observation, explanation and reflection in her writing, and every essay made me ruminate. I don’t always agree with her, but she makes me think, she moves me and she teaches me new things. Why is this book not on the shortlist? Well, it doesn’t really matter because for me it will be a difficult book to beat. If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.



1 thought on “Book Review – “Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald

  1. Anne

    This is an excellent review. I really warm to the description of animals being “too full of the stories we’ve given them” and the reminder that forests “are not there for us alone”. For too long humans have abused their stewardship of nature and have discovered relatively late that it is not an endless resource. I applaud those who have taken up the cause of nurturing and protecting the spaces we have left – and descriptions such as you have shared from this book would go a long way towards encouraging an understanding of the relationships between nature and people. As this book is available locally, I will be looking out for it.


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