October 2020

Arts & Letters

In our nature: ‘Vesper Flights’

By Mireille Juchau
Helen Macdonald explores how the study of animals reveals unknown aspects of ourselves

Between reading Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, I’m checking in on a peregrine falcon in central Melbourne. She’s in a box on a ledge, 33 floors above Collins Street, where the wind through buildings and the throbbing trams below sound subaquatic. Her backdrop is grey brick, matt-white bird shit, a crowded skyline. Beneath her are three mottled eggs. Watching her sit for hours on end, as I do the same at my Sydney desk, I recall the enforced tedium of early motherhood, its blend of patience and ambivalence, which has little to do with babies and everything to do with the conditions under which we’re required to raise them. But that’s my projection, since this falcon seems hyper-alert, eyeing the camera that livestreams her into the building’s foyer and online. Reading Macdonald, who can turn a falcon oracular, it’s tempting to guess what this bird might signify to a locked-down Melbourne. What can this “large, robust, world famous cosmopolitan” (Birds of Australia), whose habitat might once have been a gorge or a cliff, tell us about solitude, patience and confinement?

Live feeds such as “367 Collins St Falcons” turn our screens into modern wildlife hides, promising access to animal behaviour that wouldn’t occur in our presence. In “Hiding”, one of 41 essays in Vesper Flights, Macdonald describes the etiquette of using hides, and notes the “dubious satisfaction in the subterfuge of watching things that cannot see you”. Vesper Flights riffs on this beguiling notion: animals, studied closely enough, can reveal otherwise unknown aspects of ourselves. In a shrewd guide to nature writing recently published in Literary Hub, Macdonald noted that the form requires “a lot of information about yourself. Race, gender, class, and personal history will inform what you say, even if nature is supposed to be free of such concerns – in fact, particularly because it is supposed to be free of them.” But also: “Animals aren’t just repositories for human meanings, even if we unthinkingly use them to reflect our own selves and concerns. They are always more, always reminders that the world does not exist for us alone. They resist us.”

A British historian and poet, Macdonald became acclaimed for her nature writing after H is for Hawk (2014) won several awards including the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. A memoir about her pet goshawk, Mabel, and a biography of T.H. White, H is for Hawk fused natural history and literature. Vesper Flights extends her special affinity for birds. Swifts, starlings, swans, falcons, cuckoos, storks, as well as their eggs and nests, appear throughout the collection. Among these essays (some new, several republished) are a one-page gag on Macdonald family members and goats, and a long, spellbinding account of travelling with the director of the Carl Sagan Center to high-altitude zones in Chile considered “terrestrial analogues” for Mars. There are few stylistic pyrotechnics here – most pieces are insightful, smoothly narrated blends of history, observation, reflection, insight and anecdote. Many include the self-accounting common to recent literary nonfiction, so we assemble a portrait of the solitary young naturalist, drawn to counting the layers of the Earth during childhood stress, avid reader of field guides, mapper of the singing positions of resident birds in her garden, and future falconer. Macdonald’s sobriety and occasional sentiment is leavened with salty, unexpected details, often voiced by others. “Undoubtedly people do eat swans,” says an ornithologist. “It was a collision with the divine,” a friend says of driving into a deer at night.

Much has been written about the ethical imperative to decentre the human in new writing about nature. But there’s no consensus on how to write this way. We know now that what human rights scholar and professor Danielle Celermajer calls the conceit of “human exceptionalism in splendid isolation” is unsustainable. In H is for Hawk, when Macdonald put herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her”, her own “humanity was burning away”. She continues to efface herself in Vesper Flights through keen observation, and to elevate animals by revealing the anthropomorphism in other accounts of their behaviour. In her essay “Field Guides”, about those “unquestioned authorities” of her childhood through which she learnt of the natural world, moral pronouncements and anthropomorphism coexist with scientific taxonomies. One guide claims a bluebird has a “model temper”, while the catbird has a “lazy self-indulgence”.

Vesper Flights favours the elevated, lyrical register of Macdonald’s British predecessors and poets. She prefers the decorative to the plain – “wonderment” is a favourite noun, adverbs are embraced, heightened states are optimal. This is nature writing as a source of secular wonders, even though her title references vespers, “evening devotional prayers, the last and most solemn of the day”. Swifts are “creatures of the upper air” and “akin to angels”; late spring air is “burnished”. Most pieces deliver at least one marvel – who knew that swifts never descend to the ground? Macdonald is unapologetically reverential but makes fun of her tendencies, recounting a youthful wish to watch her first solar eclipse in “romantic solitude”, a time when she “was inclined to think myself the centre of the universe”.

Though not a polemical writer, Macdonald does address the incendiary questions of our time. “Are we now becoming inured to a new narrative of nature, in which ecosystem-level change in accelerated timescales is part of the background of everyday life?” Will children “regard constant disappearance as the ordinary way of the world”? In “Symptomatic”, her inability to predict the onset of a migraine, despite the repeated symptoms that signal its arrival (aching limbs, crankiness, a craving for banana milk and pickled beetroot), leads her to consider climate-change denial. Could this failure to recognise a familiar experience (and to take the drugs that might prevent it) be another symptom? What if our blindness to the destruction of our environment isn’t wilful but “a structural issue that makes it impossible to comprehend symptoms as premonitions”?

After a few essays, a recurring technique becomes apparent. A received wisdom is put forward (“It’s easy for us to think of trees as immutable”), debunked (“But trees grow, leaves fall, winters grip the ground”) and, finally, wrung for deeper insight: winter woods can teach us about growth and change, time and history. This is also evident in a fascinating account of the symbolism of swans in British nationalism: “It’s easy to read these fables of nationhood as curios from another age. But they are not.” This is an unintended effect of collating pieces that appeared in varied publications at different times. Yet Macdonald’s roving intellect and acquisitive eye reward us.

In “Eclipse”, we learn of otherwise rational scientists testing their self-control against “the overwhelming emotions” provoked by the act of witnessing eclipses. One man, watching one in India in 1871, was so overcome he reportedly fled to douse his head under water. While eclipses can be predicted with “astonishing mathematical accuracy”, they “instil the very opposite of empirical description and objective science: they produce a flood of primal awe”. “The Arrow-Stork” opens with a stuffed bird in a German museum, “whose sinuous neck is pierced by an iron-tipped wooden spear from Central Africa”. When the bird was shot in Germany in 1822, the spear lodged in its neck revealed where storks migrated for winter.

At high altitude in the Chilean desert, Macdonald experiences strange states of mind. She has “miraged recollections” of a llama repeatedly crossing her path though she’s only seen it once. She fills a page with one surreal note, “questions asked in glass”. Déjà vu, we learn in this essay (“In Her Orbit”), is a symptom of altitude. The otherworldly setting and the strange endeavour at its heart – studying a desert for the conditions that might sustain life on Mars – make this the standout piece in Vesper Flights. Interestingly, despite the hallucinatory llama, it has little to do with animals. Macdonald flies to Chile to accompany Nathalie Cabrol, explorer, astrobiologist and planetary geologist to the “hyper-arid” Atacama. There, her team will research detecting life in a hostile landscape. Cabrol is part Isabella Rossellini, part David Bowie, and never without her signature eyeliner, even while camping at the eye-searing salt flats of Salar Grande. Macdonald captures Cabrol’s charisma, her “indefinable, unpredictable wildness” and intellectual brilliance. “In Her Orbit” is full of mystical sights but no special meanings are assigned to them, and I wonder if it’s because the landscapes are so foreign to Macdonald, and harder to sentimentalise. If she should ever tire of writing on animals (sacrilegious thought) she’ll excel on documenting place.

Macdonald’s body of work explores questions famously posed by John Berger. Watching animals can move us, he noted in an essay on their suffering, but whether this changes how we treat them is an entirely other matter. In “Why Look at Animals?”, Berger reminded us that animals first entered the human imagination “as messengers and promises”, and performed both oracular and sacrificial roles. Now we look at animals, with which we share no language, across an “abyss of non-comprehension”. Macdonald attempts to bridge this abyss, eroding the false separations that humans maintain to justify their use and abuse of the natural world.

Vesper Flights records not just what we’ve lost and are losing but also what we might fail to notice. “We need to communicate the value of things,” Macdonald writes, “so that more of us might fight to save them.” At Poolbeg, a decommissioned Dublin power plant where peregrines have made their nests, she waits. Then, “A narrow black anchor appears, falling fast towards the west chimney as if on an invisible zip wire.” Through binoculars, Macdonald observes “the barred feathers of his chest, his black hood, a faint chromatic fringe ghosting him with suggestions of dust and rainbows. He’s exquisite, the colour of smoke, paper and wet ash.”

Macdonald’s special talent is documenting seemingly impossible contacts between realms: human and animal, natural and artificial, past and present. She reminds us that the boundaries we’ve built between them are often imaginary and permeable. In her opening essay, “Nests”, she recalls a formative time at a falcon-breeding program in Wales. There she recorded the growth of embryos by holding falcon eggs to the light, and drawing the shape of the illuminated chick onto its shell. This work triggered an oddly familiar, dizzy disquiet. Eventually, she traces this feeling to her premature birth and the loneliness of her first hours in an incubator after the stillbirth of her twin. After this searching reflection, she performs a modified auscultation. She holds an egg up to her mouth, clucks, then hears an answering call from the chick inside. “I spoke through an egg,” she writes, “and wept.”

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a Walkley award–winning critic and the author of three novels.

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