Flights of fancy (and fact)

House swift in Kolkata, India. Photo: J. M. Garg. Wikimedia Commons

Vesper Flights

Helen Macdonald, London: Jonathan Cape, 2020, hb., 261pps. £16.99

Helen Macdonald’s 2014 H is for Hawk, her searing account of a grief-charged relationship with a goshawk, soared into the literary firmament, the best book about a bird since T. H. White’s Goshawk of 1951 or J. A. Baker’s 1967 Peregrine. These articles on varied themes are similarly characterised by acciptrine alertness, imaginative sympathies, and numinous suggestiveness.

Readers will empathise with her uncomplicated (albeit informed) relish in life in all forms – from chasmoliths in fumaroles to swifts, the screaming spirits of upper air – and agree with her about our reckless ravaging of the Earth. She aspires to be simultaneously earthed and universal – picking mushrooms, seeking veteran American Chestnuts, mercy-killing mortally injured ostriches, watching eclipses, and envisioning microbes on Mars. She ascends the Empire State to stare even more dizzyingly up, at the aerial forms that winged this way before humans were, and hopefully will always – although over 100,000 birds die each year in N.Y.C. alone, disoriented by lights, crashing into commerce’s cliffs and tumbling to tragedy.

Science aids understanding, but only literature helps explain why it matters that a secretive little bird like the wood warbler is vanishing from English woodland. The smallest such loss is not just a shrinkage for the bird itself, and coexisting species, but also ourselves, as our once a-thrum environment daily grows more dead. Something shrivels within when we no longer hear birds we heard, or see a meadow turned into sterile plain by mindless mowing. The fields of our youths are always being built on, and as they go under, we too are coated with concrete.

The ecology-minded often disregard human cultural identities, but Macdonald devotes much thought to the connections between national and natural histories. Animals are often proxies for humans, and vice versa. Even scientists studying species anthropomorphise individual animals, and sometimes animals can symbolise nations.

She watches thousands of cranes roosting in Hungary, and compares her responses to this biomass to the feelings of Hungarians in 2015, when a human biomass charged unasked across their borders going through to Germany. Each refugee was an individual, as are those cranes, but it is easy to see them as automata in some blindly Brownian army. Birds of a feather flock together, now and always, imprisoned by their own and others’ fears – and fine distinctions are sometimes impossible. She says home is “a place you carry within you, not simply a fixed location”, and an “imagined notion”. She also knows those locations and notions deeply matter to many, that they are human evolutionary adaptations.

The main thing she has learned from animals is that they are not like us at all. But trying to imagine how they experience the world makes us paradoxically more human.

This review first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.