Book review · Uncategorized

An ARC Review of “Vesper Flights” by Helen MacDonald

I love exploring gardens and live for bird-watching…especially birds of prey. I remember the first time I saw a Northern Saw-Whet owl up close. I wanted to cry out of sheer delight — so small and yet such large eyes. Dave and I attended a talk on banding owls given Nov. 14, 2014 by Dr. Dave E. Russell. In the two photos, he was holding one of the females who hatched that summer.

When I read the synopsis for “Vesper Flights,” on Netgalley.com, I decided to request a free advanced reader copy to review to read stories about birds and wildlife. Exploring the grounds near her home, MacDonald said she was drawn to work as a naturalist. She spent her childhood in Camberley, Surrey, in the United Kingdom, where she discovered nests, looked into ponds for the life teeming within, and became familiar with the many species of plants and animals that populated her sense of home.

English writer and naturalist Helen MacDonald said her latest work, “Vesper Flights,” work is meant to resemble a cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer. Items in the cabinet — natural and artificial — are meant for people to handle and observe in a different way from our usual museums. The essays inside are ones that have appeared in such publications as New York Times Magazine and New Statesmen. In drawing these various pieces into one book, MacDonald’s display does “rejoice in the complexity of things.” She shows readers that that not everything is about them in the natural world. She wants readers to appreciate and love difference or otherness, and to see through other eyes beyond our human ones.

Because this is an uncorrected proof, my attention wasn’t immediately snagged as a reader. I’m so used to hard and fast starts and stops, so without those, I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt for the next new beginning. The structure reminded of the stream of consciousness writings of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. In stream of consciousness, the writer’s thoughts and reactions to events in life connect in one continuous flow. More than likely it’s just because the book was in the final formatting stage. But it’s not unlike the conversations I’ve had with my closest friends and relatives. The topic started in one area, connected to another topic that at first glance appeared dissimilar until the resemblance cames into focus with the first.

In one essay, MacDonald talked about efforts made to help birds that migrate in places like New York City. People built these massive behemoths in the sky that became a danger to the birds because of their attraction to the artificial lights. The birds lost sight of their path, which would lead to their death. People needed to intervene to rescue them in order for them to go back to their flight path. MacDonald took this story and connected it with the dangers a Christian refugee faced as he made the perilous journey to the UK to flee persecution, only to fear he may have to return. People also entered his flight path to free him from danger on his path to safety. I found myself praying that he will not have to go back to a deadly path.

My need for order took a backseat eventually to my love of good writing. MacDonald’s stories had a meditative quality. I could easily envision the places she explored and the variety of wildlife she introduced, as if it was a collective memory we shared.

I also love when I have a new word for something I’ve seen or experienced. The sight of birds swooping together in formation in what appears to be a choreographed dance to music only they hear is: a “murmuration.” I’ve included the article I found for the quote from MacDonald’s original essay published Dec. 6, 2015 in the New York Times, “The Human Flock” https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/magazine/the-human-flock.html:

“The changing shape of starling flocks comes from each bird copying the motions of the six or seven others around it with extreme rapidity: Their reaction time is less than a tenth of a second. Turns can propagate through a cloud of birds at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, making murmurations look from a distance like a single pulsing, living organism.”

Circling back to the title for her book, MacDonald described the flights of swifts – their vesper flights. Vespers are evening prayers. The swifts ascended higher and higher until she could no longer see them. I could see the swifts as a metaphor for how prayers ascend to God — a beautiful image. And though God isn’t mentioned, I still saw His presence, almost like the book of Esther or Ruth in the Bible. MacDonald’s insights, her knowledge about the natural world, reinvigorated my sense of awe as I considered again God’s created works. We haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of Earth or space. I thought this when I read about her travel to parts of Chile with Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and a planetary geologist, who led an expedition to explore high altitudes in the desert and test methods for detecting life on Mars. You can read MacDonald’s essay in the original form in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/22/magazine/voyages-nathalie-cabrol-searching-mars-life-on-earth.html

I look forward to seeing the finished work. (I really hope there are pictures!) It’s not on Amazon.com yet, but I will update you when it’s available. In the meantime, I’ve added the book she is most known for — “H is for Hawk” — to my reading list. It’s a memoir how training a young Northern Goshawk helped her cope with grief and depression at the sudden death in 2007 of her father, Alisdair MacDonald, a photojournalist. She won the Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book Award in 2014 for this memoir as well as other awards.

MacDonald is a fellow migraineur, but she noted this troubling neurological condition does have a bright spot. She sees them as her muse. She touched on something I just hadn’t paired together. In the postdrome stage, she said she finds her words flow “as days seem newly forged and prone to surprising beauties” (location 750). Whoa. I’ve often thought I’m more creative after a migraine attack. I’ve wondered if it’s because the release I’ve gotten after such crippling pain and illness makes me appreciate what I’ve walked through and relaxed my mind allowing new ideas to take shape. For more information about the author, go to https://www.facebook.com/helenmacdonaldwriter/. To preorder this book, go to http://shorturl.at/dqLO8.

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