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Helen Macdonald’s celebrated 2014 memoir, H Is for Hawk, describes her efforts to address her grief at the death of her beloved father by taming a goshawk. It’s not your usual tale of healing human-animal communion, like those countless interchangeable memoirs of how dogs “saved” various authors’ lives and taught them how to be better people. A goshawk, a beautiful but merciless killing machine, is not going to do that. For Macdonald, the salutary effect of the task was partly the task itself: Falconry is a demanding discipline that gave her days structure and goals. And it was partly the intimate encounter with a being so alien, the imaginative stretch of adapting herself to the hawk’s fundamental otherness. Coexisting with such a creature is a lot like coexisting with death itself.
“I choose to think that my subject is love,” Macdonald writes in the introduction to her radiant new essay collection, Vesper Flights, musing on the notion that every writer has a single underlying subject, “and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us.” That world, she goes on to stress, “is not all about us. It does not belong to us alone.” Yet something in her also resists any stringent division. Vesper Flights includes several essays about encounters with animals that visited her like revelations. Once, when she was sitting beside a river, marinating in her own loneliness, a swan approached, sat down next to her, and curled up to sleep. While working at a ramshackle falcon conservation center and breeding farm, she had two experiences—dispatching an ostrich so badly injured it could not survive, and stalking and startling a herd of semiferal cattle—that somehow worked on her psyche, enabling her to leave a situation that had grown stagnant. “The ostrich and the cattle were living animals with their own life-worlds and deserving of their own stories,” she writes. “But they were also emblems to me, signs read by my subconscious mind to hasten me out of the quotidian incomprehension fostered by dismal circumstances. They were encounters with animals that resolved themselves into personal truths.”
While I’ll agree that every writer has a commanding theme that fuels her work, I’d add that for great writers, it’s never a simple one like love. The most transfixing texts are powered by an irresolvable tension. In Macdonald’s case, it’s between her almost religious belief in the otherness of animals and her own lifelong desire to find significance in that otherness, to seek lessons that pertain to herself and to humanity. The nonhuman world is not all about us, but we also can’t help but find that at least some of it is about us, because we are the animal that seeks meaning in everything.
Several of the essays in Vesper Flights use the exercise of appreciating the natural world’s otherness as a metaphor for how to respond to the rise of populist xenophobia in Macdonald’s native England. Others get tangled up in the paradoxes of 20th century patriotic naturalism, citing, for example, Julian Huxley’s radio broadcasts during World War II, in which he argued that “if you don’t know your birds, you can’t fully know your country,” and the conservationist Peter Scott, who sailed off to the front knowing that “he was fighting to protect the mallards and teal that reared their ducklings in the reed beds of Slapton Ley. Somehow they were England.” These are deep thickets. How does the desire to preserve the last colony of orioles in Britain compare to the longing to hold as if in amber the culture of 20th century England? They may be different enterprises, but the emotions that propel them, the imperative to preserve something on the verge of being lost, are uncomfortably alike.
The pressure Macdonald puts on the natural world to serve up humbling lessons occasionally grates. Then again, an instructive “takeaway” is increasingly regarded as essential to the contemporary personal essay, and many of these pieces were written for publications (the New York Times Magazine, the New Statesman) not much invested in bucking that trend. Nevertheless, Macdonald finds “reminders” in the natural world often enough that a faint and not very welcome whiff of pedagogy occasionally rises from these pages. “The lack of obvious life in winter reminds me of the limits of my own human perception,” she writes, and “The history of hawfinches in Britain reminds us how seamlessly we confuse natural and national history.” (Although I must admit, I did enjoy her dismissal of the middle-class preference for austere birdhouses over the kitschy but sincere anthropomorphizing of the working-class kind painted with picket fences and window boxes: “The birds don’t care, of course,” she writes.)
Those teacherly moments may be this collection’s only flaw. Readers willing, once in a while, to put up with the sensation of being schooled like a recalcitrant toddler will receive in exchange armfuls of literary riches. One of the essays included here is titled “The Numinous Ordinary,” a phrase that pinpoints Macdonald’s forte. No one describes the everyday natural world with greater power or beauty. “The deer drift out of the woods like breathing,” she writes. “They appear unexpectedly delicate and cold, as if chill air is pouring from them to the ground to pool into the mist that half obscures their legs and turning flanks.” Flocks of starlings on the wing “seem uncannily like an alien, groping entity, living sand or smoke moving through a suite of topological changes.” She is particularly thrilling when she zooms from the intimate to the panoramic. One day, “I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back. … I spoke through the shell to something that had not yet known light or air, but would soon take in the revealed coil and furl of a west-coast breeze and cloud of a hillside in one easy glide at sixty miles an hour, and spire up on sharp wings to soar high enough to see the distant, glittering Atlantic.”
The potency of these images finds its ideal form in Macdonald’s shortest essays. Many are only a page or two in length and yield up their glories with minimal sermonizing. When you write this well, you don’t have to explain much. A few of the longer pieces—some apparently magazine features, such as a story about an expedition to a remote desert in Latin America—can feel weighed down at times by the need to dispense information. “High-Rise” strikes the consummate balance, as it recounts Macdonald’s visit to the top of the Empire State Building with a researcher from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to observe the twice-yearly flight of migratory birds over the city. The sky may seem like a void, she writes, “but like the ocean, this is a vast habitat full of life—bats and birds, flying insects, spiders, windblown seeds, microbes, drifting spores.” Looking over the city, she reimagines the skyscrapers as “deep-sea submersibles, transporting us to inaccessible realms we cannot otherwise explore.” It’s as if her words have flipped the world upside down, and the effect is exhilarating, if also a bit dizzying.
In her introduction, Macdonald writes that she hopes this collection “works a little like a Wunderkammer,” a German word usually translated as “Cabinet of Curiosities,” but she prefers the more literal “cabinet of wonders.” It is that, but the treasures in it are mostly not exotica and relics collected from far-off lands. They’re all around us, just waiting to be noticed by the right person.