Reading Helen Macdonald’s 2014 book H is for Hawk was highly memorable for me. As I wrote in my review, “this is a book which makes one look afresh at man’s links with nature. In a time when we are rightly focused on global, big-picture problems, it nevertheless reminds us of the values we derive from being individually and inextricably bound to our own heritage and community”.
Macdonald’s latest work, Vesper Flights continues on the same theme, this time expanding on the glory and importance of our differences in a collection of vivid and powerful essays:
“I hope that this book works a little like a ‘Wunderkammer’ [a cabinet of curiosities]. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder…..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.”
Macdonald certainly has a remarkable and varied life. Even so, it was surprising how often I found myself relating to her stories. Sure, I am never likely to watch nocturnal bird migration from the top of the Empire State Building, nor am I likely to ascend to some of South America’s highest peaks to learn about research into life on Mars, fascinating though it was to read about these and other adventures. But I could totally relate to her thoughts on migraine, for example:
“and when the pain comes it is one-sided, sometimes on the left of your skull and sometimes on the right, although it is so intense it can’t be kept in either place, and it ripples like a flag cracking in strong wind, or thrums deep like a heartbeat, and sometimes one of your eyes waters, the one on the same side as the pain…”
More cheerfully, I read several times over her description of how it feels to be in the presence of a bird’s nest. One house we lived in had a lovely courtyard garden which was regularly home to various pairs of nesting birds. It was so lovely to be reminded of just how magical it is to be able quietly to peer in to a nest first to see the eggs, and later to see the chicks. I always felt a bit guilty about doing so because I did not want to disturb the birds, and yet I could not stop myself either. Macdonald writes beautifully about this dilemma:
Though I never searched for nests, I’d find them all the same. I’d be sitting at the kitchen window eating a bowl of Weetabix and I’d spot a dunnock flit into the forsythia, a mouse-sized bird, all streaks and spots and whispers. I knew I should look away, but I’d hold my breath at my transgression and track the almost imperceptible movement of leaves as the disappeared bird hopped up and across through twigs to its nest. Then I’d see the blur of wings as the bird slipped free of the hedge and was gone. And once I’d determined where it was, and saw that the adults were gone, I needed to know.
Many of Macdonald’s essays look, from one perspective or another, at climate change, and the whole host of problems facing our planet as a result of human action and intervention. Covid-19 was a distant unknown when she was writing this book, but she foreshadows what happened when it arrived with amazing prescience:
“Our eschatological traditions tend to envision the apocalypse as happening very fast, with the dawning of one final, single, dreadful day. But the systems of the wider world do not operate according to the temporalities of our human lives; we are already inside the apocalypse, and forest fires and category five hurricanes are as much signs of it as the rising of the beast from the pit…….Apocalyptic thinking is a powerful antagonist to action. It makes us give up agency, feel that all we can do is suffer and wait for the end. That is not what we must be thinking now. For an apocalypse is not always a cataclysmic ending, and not always a disaster. In its earlier senses the word meant a revelation, a vision, an insight, an unveiling of things previously unknown, and I pray that the revelation our current apocalypse can bring is the knowledge that we have the power to intervene.”
Although some predicted the apocalyptic-esque arrival of the Coronavirus, the vast majority of us had no idea that it was a possibility. Nevertheless, our response to the pandemic illustrates Macdonald’s point precisely. With a fast-moving situation, we acted fast. Rapid decisions were made about what to do, even though that action was hugely difficult and challenging. Climate change, on the other hand, with its slow, insidious, future-focused nature is much harder for us as individuals to grasp and take action to stop. It has been so powerful to see how quickly nature has started to recover during these lockdown weeks – I really hope that we humans can learn something from this to help us change in ways that probably would never have seemed possible otherwise.
Once again, Macdonald has given us that perfect book – hugely readable, yet endlessly thought-provoking. And she completely fulfils her self-imposed brief. This is indeed a cabinet of curiosities which certainly inspires wonder and illuminates complexity. And it goes further still, with page after page of beauty, emotion, insight and challenge. I am already looking forward to re-reading it.
“For the deepest lesson animals have taught me is how easily and unconsciously we see other lives as mirrors of our own…..Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves……We use animals as ideas to amplify and enlarge aspects of ourselves, turning them into simply, safe harbours for things we feel and often cannot express.”