Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

It is like a scene from a Hayao Miyazaki anime: a French WWI pilot, gliding down at twilight over enemy lines, finds himself surrounded by a flock of swifts seemingly motionless in the air. They are asleep on the wing, so close by he might reach out and touch them. The phenomenon was largely unknown at the time; science has caught up with the airman’s revelation. But there is still something magical in the moment that the secular lexicon struggles to articulate, and it seems appropriate that swifts’ habit of ascending into the upper air at the close of day is still known by the phrase ‘vesper flights’, after the evening prayer in the devotional Christian daily cycle.

It is an appropriate title too for Macdonald’s latest book, a wide-ranging collection of essays that mostly first appeared in the New York Times and elsewhere. As well as being a naturalist, Macdonald is a historian of science and she approaches the natural world with a scientist’s eye for distinction and difference; but she is drawn to the idea that being in nature requires us to engage with and listen to all the ghostly intuitions of the body, those small intimations of mystery and revelation that science can’t account for.

The tension between these two modes of thought fuels and illuminates her writing. In the early days of radar, operators were confused by fast-moving echoes out at sea where neither ship nor aircraft lay, clouds of inexplicable points of light ranging across the monitors. With no rational vocabulary to reach for, scientists looked to the language of grace: angels, they called them. Macdonald quotes a couple of Marconi lab reports which, like found poetry, reference ‘scintillating discrete angels’ and ‘persistent angel echoes’. That the angels were eventually understood to be flocks of birds doesn’t detract from the wonder the moment evokes.

But Macdonald also explores how the need for scientific rationalism is itself an emotional one. As a child, when bullied or confronted with other sorrows, she lay in bed and ran through a litany of the layers between herself and the earth’s core, and then again out and up towards the exosphere. Knowing your place, and the place of everything else, in our schemata of the world is a very human kind of comfort.

Likewise our conception of nature has been always conditioned by the historic moment. The idea that male birds sing to define and defend their territory emerged after the carnage of WWI. One of the first major initiatives of the British Trust for Ornithology, established in 1933, was to launch a kind of avian Mass Observation programme; in 1934 Norfolk farmers shot skylarks because they migrated from Germany. “Skylarks that sing to Nazis will get no mercy here”, the local press announced. Even now, the science of migratory tracking develops hand-in-hand with state defence and surveillance technology; the 2013 arrest of a stork in Egypt for spying is not as irrational as it first appears.

The relationship between natural history and national history – with their parallel structures of identity and difference – is another theme. When Macdonald writes about migratory birds, she also has her eye on migrating humans seeking refuge from catastrophe. She is fascinated by the paradox that migratory birds can be avatars of the nation while also embodying nature’s rebuke to nativism.

The 40-odd essays gathered here – frustratingly, they are undated – span the globe, but Macdonald’s natural habitat would seem to be an southern English landscape of trees and mud and water somewhere in the cold arc between autumn and spring. Even as a child collecting nests and other natural ephemera, she was motivated by “visible displays of… small expertises”, and typically her pieces are built around moments where her attention “has unaccountably snagged on something small and transitory”. Essays often close by rising from the particular to the general on a lovely updraught of thought.

Macdonald is trying to find a way of writing about nature that accommodates both the luminous complexities of science and more experiential epiphanies – or occasions of grace, as she calls them. She is reaching for a taxonomy of wonder, “full of difficulty and mystery [that] makes the landscape seem intrinsic to what its creatures are: things in the present moment – bewitching, complicated and always now.” And she succeeds: Vesper Flights is a small, urgently beautiful book about the haunted meanings of belonging in the world, whether that world is a wetland, a meadow or a wood in winter.

This review first appeared in the autumn 2020 issue of New Humanist.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

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