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Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald

27 November 2020

A second admirable reflection on nature, says Mark Oakley

FIFTEEN years ago, the philosopher Glenn Albrecht created the word “solastalgia” for the existential distress caused in many human beings by the changes and extinctions of the environmental crisis. He described it as “the homesickness you have when you are still at home”. Helen Macdonald has similarly said that it is now hard to write about the natural world without also writing about grief.

This truly beautiful collection of essays by her is, therefore, a lamentation as well as a magical unveiling of the world’s daily miracles and the surprises felt in the heart when our environment appears to invite us back to our senses, and, like the anagnorisis of a transforming drama, back to ourselves, too, even as it forlornly declines.

Macdonald is a naturalist, poet, and illustrator whose award-winning book H is for Hawk, exploring her attempt to train a goshawk after the sudden death of her father, won much admiration. Vesper Flights is not, she writes, rooted in bereavement, but in love: “love for the glittering world of non-human life around us”.

As a historian of science, she has seen how we inevitably view the natural world as a mirror of ourselves, but her attentive love demands that she interrogates such human “ascriptions and assumptions” so that we can relax into the complexity of things more, and the world can breathe better as a free reality in itself and not as something deemed to belong to us.

The essays place us among pigs, deer, goats, cranes, and ants. They take us swan upping on the Thames, mushroom picking in Thetford Forest, on an amble in winter woods, and migration watching on the top of a New York skyscraper. In each, the author derails our expectations by showing how the outer world shifts the inner world’s compass, pointing us to unexplored places within that may be part of the home we’ve been searching for: places of refreshed grace. To read this book is to be taken on journeys you never realised you wanted to take, but which make you profoundly grateful that you did.

The title of the book is taken from the life of swifts — the bird “suffused with a kind of seriousness very akin to holiness”. In summer evenings, swifts ascend into the sky, as if summoned by a bell, higher and higher until they disappear from view at about 8000 feet. These are their “vesper flights”.

They make such ascents at dawn, too. Up there they can see distant clouds and assess the possible courses of oncoming frontal systems. They fly up high to work out where they are and what they should do next. They are, Macdonald says, “quietly, perfectly, orienting themselves” and are, therefore, “instructive creatures” and “my fable of community”, because “some of us are required, by dint of flourishing life and the well-being of us all, to look clearly at the things that are so easily obscured by the everyday. The things we need to set our courses towards or against.”

This is obviously Macdonald’s vocation in this world, and, as vocations always work, we are all inspirited and enriched by it if we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.

The Revd Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.


Vesper Flights
Helen Macdonald
Jonathan Cape £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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