No Small Wonders

Vesper Flights BY Helen Macdonald. New York: Grove Press. 288 pages. $20.
Helen Macdonald. Photo: Bill Johnston Jr.

In the introduction to Helen Macdonald’s new collection of nature essays, Vesper Flights, she describes a trend in sixteenth-century European palaces and halls—Wunderkammer. These were ornamental display cabinets, similar to Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, filled with “natural and artificial things together on shelves in close conjunction,” like coral, fossils, miniature paintings, tiny instruments. Macdonald’s aim was to replicate the experience of Wunderkammer in her book. She so successfully achieves her goal, we wander around Vesper Flights amazed by flocks of songbirds migrating over the Empire State Building or a swift whose mouth is so large, it “turns the bird into something uncomfortably like a miniature basking shark.”

In her previous book, the award-winning memoir H Is for Hawk, Macdonald writes of training a goshawk (notoriously intractable birds) while grieving the loss of her father. It’s an exquisite marathon of a book, full of portraits of the bombshell Mabel (“the feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards it tips with a leaf-bladed spearhead”) and extended ruminations on T. H. White, the troubled, closeted author of The Once and Future King, who wrote of attempting to train his own goshawk.

The mostly short sprints in Vesper Flights—full of striking visions of summer storms, glow worms, golden orioles—interweave issues of politics, class, gender, and of course, climate change. Macdonald’s essays don’t relegate nature to pristine, untouched mountain vistas with nary a discarded Bud Light can or cigarette butt. It’s where we find it: “It is possible to watch the sweep of stars, the shifting seasons, the passage of clouds, pigeons, rainstorms, ballooning spiders, sparrows, flowers, the waxing and waning moon, from exactly where you are.” Bookforum talked with Macdonald about bird-watching in a pandemic, the shared qualities of spies and naturalists, and calling for change.

In your essay “Winter Woods,” you say, “And while my feet are treading on last year’s leaves, those of next spring are already furled in buds on the tips of twigs around and above me.” The line puts the reader in the woods with you. How do you recreate the natural world on paper?

I’m thrilled that you described that line as putting the reader in the woods with me! It’s what I’m always attempting to do. Before writing prose I was a poet. Before that I was a naturalist, and for many years I was a historian of science—so in my work I’m always trying to hold in tension all those very different ways of responding to the natural world. It’s so easy, when writing about nature, to fall into the avuncular, authoritative, dry voice of the books I loved as a child, in which I, the reader, was treated as if I were clueless (a lot of the time I was, but not always), and the author was always the unquestioned expert. I don’t want my own writings to read like that. Instead I hope that my essays explore puzzles and scenarios and events in a way that makes them more resemble an experience shared with a reader than a lesson I’m delivering. I try hard to capture the sensory specificity of being in the natural world—its sights, sounds, scents, atmospheric phenomena—because I feel that gives the reader a space to inhabit in the work, as if they’re standing next to me. And I always try to include my own emotions, biases, thought processes and confusions in my work. My essays can’t be actual conversations with readers, of course, because they are necessarily one-sided on the page, but I hope they feel like conversations all the same.

The mood and structure of Vesper Flights is so different from H Is for Hawk. Was Vesper Flights any easier to write?

Everyone who’s ever tried to write knows that some days it can be an exhilarating joy, and on others it feels more like wading through waist-deep treacle full of broken glass. The experience of writing both books veered from one to the other, with all states in between. Writing Vesper Flights wasn’t easier, but it was definitely a different experience because the genesis of the book’s pieces varies so widely. Some were written specifically for the collection. Others were commissioned by, among others, the New York Times Magazine and the New Statesman. Their publication schedules sometimes coincided with periods of intense book-tour travel, so much so that I once joked with a friend that the subtitle of Vesper Flights could be “weeping with exhaustion at 3 AM in a hotel room” because more than a few of those pieces were originally finished that way. The mood of the book is more urgently political, in response to world events, and as the collection came together, with new pieces added, and old pieces reshaped, I began to feel that the essays were speaking to one another of some of the deepest themes that course through this historical moment: love and fear, belonging and otherness, loss and hope and harm and home.

You mention that mycologists talk about poisonous mushrooms the same way herpetologists talk about “hot,” or venomous, snakes—“with more than a modicum of transgressive relish.” Agreed. As a member of the New York Mycological Society, I love talking about the destroying angel mushroom. Why do you think the lethal side of nature is so thrilling?

With mushrooms, I think that there’s a kind of connoisseurship attached to this transgressive relish. A destroying angel looks just like a mushroom to most people, but to a mycologist it’s a compelling reminder of mortality, and at the same time is testament to one’s personal expertise, the ability to notice and make fine distinctions between one organism and another. We’re definitely fascinated by creatures that can hurt us, like crocodilians, sharks, and big cats, and evolutionary psychologists often suggest that our fascination with lethal creatures has clear evolutionary roots—we are hardwired to notice them before less threatening creatures. But I think there are other reasons in play. It’s thrilling to be close to the lethal side of nature in same way that standing on a cliff top can provoke a thrill: it raises notions of agency, existence, mortality and one’s own identity all at once in a way that makes those things safe to imaginatively explore.

A sentence about glow worms from “In Spight of Prisons” reads like a plot from a 1950s horror film: “Their adult lives are short and made of light—but in their two years as larvae they are creatures of macabre darkness, using their proboscises to inject snails with paralysing, dissolving neurotoxins before sucking them up like soup.” Was it fun to write?

It really was! I loved those ’50s horror movies. Giant bugs, body snatchers, mutant ants, alien locusts, a whole cavalcade of social and political anxieties ported onto cinematic insects. Amazing. That particular sentence came from memories of a photo that freaked me out when I was small. It depicted a tiny glowworm larvae feeding on a snail many times larger than itself. I wanted the sentence to be cluttered, theatrical and over-the-top, and I packed it with classically derived lexicon to set alongside the gloriously mundane word “soup.” Naturalis Historia meets Mars Attacks! Of course those larvae aren’t really creatures of sinister metaphorical darkness. They’re just baby bugs.

In the title essay, you say, “I’m starting to think of swifts differently now, not as angels or aliens, but as perfectly instructive creatures.” What do they teach us?

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with common swifts, partly because of their astonishingly aerial habit—after leaving their nests, young swifts apparently fly continually for two or three years, never landing at all. They inhabit the air as herring inhabit the ocean. But it’s only recently I learned of their vesper flights, the precipitous ascents these birds make every dawn and dusk. Twice daily they fly thousands of feet above their usual airspace in order to orient themselves using the patterns of stars and polarized light, wind direction and distance vision, and it seems likely they do this in order to predict oncoming weather and work out what they should do next. In our present moment, I can’t help but see these flights as instructive. They speak to me of how we, as societies and individuals, need to take time to work out exactly where we are, and what is on all our horizons, so that we might know the best courses to take in the face of what is coming towards us. I think of swifts, now, as my fables of community.

Have the demands of staying safe and sane during COVID-19 affected the way you view nature?

There’s been a lot of talk about people reconnecting with the natural world during lockdown. Here in the UK the most astonishingly beautiful spring I can remember coincided with the midst of it, and the fields and woods around my home were filled with people trudging about in slow wonderment at it all. I spent a lot of time watching the small, common birds in my garden doing very ordinary things. Preening, bathing, carrying nesting material. We’re so often encouraged to believe that to find nature we have to leave our homes in a search for pristine wild places, which is not a practical or helpful suggestion for many. Lockdown has been a wonderful reminder that it is possible to watch the sweep of stars, the shifting seasons, the passage of clouds, pigeons, rainstorms, ballooning spiders, sparrows, flowers, the waxing and waning moon, from exactly where you are. Having said that, there have been periods over the last few months when all I’ve managed to do is lie on the sofa watching TV. Sometimes nature is not the answer. Sometimes it’s pints of ice cream and action movies.

In your essay “The Falcon and the Tower,” set at an abandoned power station, you note that the “act of watching a falcon chase its prey above the scarred and broken ground below feels like quiet resistance against despair.” How so?

For the longest time we thought of peregrine falcons as rare, shy creatures found only in the wildest, most forbidding places, like mountains, remote gorges, sea cliffs and crags, where they came to seem an intrinsic part and animate expression of uncorrupted wilderness. But these days you’re more likely to see a peregrine sitting on a factory roof or chasing pigeons between office buildings downtown. We assumed these birds needed wilderness. We assumed they were made of it. It turns out they don’t, and they aren’t. Watching a peregrine hunting over an industrial landscape is a reminder that animals can always resist the meanings we give them, and they can always surprise us. It’s a good thing to remember.

In “A Cuckoo in the House,” we learn that real-life spy Maxwell Knight, the inspiration for “M” in the James Bond series, was also a BBC radio naturalist. Which skills would spies and naturalists share?

So many! So many famous spies have been naturalists and bird-watchers, from Sidney Dillon Ripley to Richard Meinertzhagen, to a recent head of MI5, Andrew Parker, an avid birder. There are definite correspondences in techniques and psychologies: stalking unwitting creatures unseen, making close observations, reading body language, having the capacity to wait for one’s target in patient silence and obscurity, all are things so obviously shared between these worlds that in the 1950s the term “bird-watcher” was British intelligence slang for spy. What’s more, being an amateur natural historian is a classic cover story for agents in the field, for it allows one to possess binoculars and spotting scopes, notebooks, technologies like parabolic reflectors, even radio-tracking devices, and a fairly decent excuse to be in places far from the usual tourist tracks . . .

After the death of civil-rights icon Congressman John Lewis, you retweeted a quote of his: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. . . .” I see that hopefulness in your work (“potentiality crackles in the winter air”). How do you stay hopeful?

It’s hard sometimes. It’s very easy to despair. Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.” But the words of Congressman John Lewis—yes. Absolutely. I had the great fortune, a couple of years ago, to hear him speak. With the contemporary political situation, I expected there to be bitterness in his words, a sense of despair. But despite all, he was full of hope. His attitude has been an inspiration, and certainly affected how I see the great crises we face. As I say in Vesper Flights, we are living in apocalyptic times. But in the oldest sense of the word, apocalypse doesn’t mean one final, dreadful ending, but a revelation of things that were always there but have only now been brought to sight and understanding. We have to grieve; we have to feel the unimaginable losses all around us. But I hope that experiencing that grief will help us come together, to march and sing and call forth change. “To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable” is a line from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark I think of, often.

Karen Schechner is an editor at Kirkus Reviews and a member of the New York Mycological Society. She lives in South Salem, NY, with her wife and their two dogs.