Book Review: Vesper Flights

by Helen Macdonald

Vesper flights is the name of the sunset behavior of swifts, who rise high into the air, out of sight, in order to reorient themselves to the world. Vesper Flights is also the name of a collection of essays by Helen Macdonald, and it, too, is a reorientation to the world, particularly the avian one. Some of these pieces are teeny, almost like journal notes, others are feature stories. Her publisher must have searched every desk and folder for Macdonald’s work after the huge success of her memoir H is For Hawk, and while the material can sometimes be uneven, the book as a whole is a deep and thoughtful read. As Macdonald says, “During this sixth extinction we who may not have time to do anything else must write what we now can, to take stock.”

And take stock she does. She is a close observer of individual birds, those “fragile frames of feather and bone,” as well as their interactions with one another and their impact on us. “Murmurations are thrilling, but they can also provoke an emotion akin to fear.” That hadn’t occurred to me before, but it does now. The twisting, sinuous designs made by bird bodies in the heavens, better organized and synchronized than any army, can seem like a message from a vengeful God. As she often points out, our reactions to animals are visceral and contradictory, ranging from loathing to love, then back again.

Macdonald often touches on light pollution and its effects on migrating birds, essays so painful that you might never leave a porch light on again, even as the real danger is in illuminated office buildings over which we have little control. In the same vein, she notes our fetishes over plastic straws and light bulbs when real change can only take place on an international and governmental level. “Sometimes it is not you. Sometimes the world is to blame. … Massive, concerted cultural action is what we need.” My sentiments exactly, without forgetting that the demand for change must come from us, all of us, while we also reconsider our high-energy lifestyles. For all that, she never paints too dark a picture. “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.”

There is no waiting for the end for Macdonald. As she leaps from observation to knowledge, she throws herself into research and aims for understanding the material, then making it comprehensible for the rest of us. Like most writers, she loves a fascinating fact: “They’ve discovered that the brain always records two tracks at once. Two stories in parallel, stored in short term memories, and long term. Which makes everything that ever happens to us happen twice.” And here’s something to remember, although I bet hard to do: “Never swerve when heading for a deer – most human deaths occur when people wrench the wheel away and hit trees.”

In the end, you will walk away from these essays feeling that birds are very much like us. They want the “simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep.” As upsetting as it can be reading about all the ways humans do grave damage to birds, she never lets us forget why we should care. “At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken.” The difficulties will just keep coming. We can only hope the birds will too.

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