... [Macdonald's] work is an antidote to so much romantic, reductive writing about the natural world as pristine, secret, uninhabited—as a convenient blank canvas for the hero’s journey of self-discovery ... Macdonald’s writing teems with other voices and perspectives, with her own challenges to herself. It muddies any facile ideas about nature and the human, and prods at how we pleat our prejudices, politics and desires into our notions of the animal world. There’s nothing of the tourist or bystander in her approach ... Hers is a gritty, companionable intimacy with the wild ... The essays are short, varied and highly edible, some only a page or two long. Macdonald experiments with tempo and style, as if testing out different altitudes and finding she can fly at just about any speed, in any direction, with any aim she likes, so supple is her style...I was reminded of the goshawk, so thickly plumed, so powerful that it can bring down a deer, and yet it weighs only a few pounds. These are the very paradoxes of Macdonald’s prose—its lightness and force ... That step back, that act of revision, of re-seeing, provides the book with its chief animating drama: Macdonald getting things wrong. She cheerfully charts her errors in judgment, her bungles, her myopia. Vesper Flights is a document of learning to see, of growing past useful defenses of diversion and escape ... For its wry self-deprecation, Vesper Flights is a book thick with sorrow, an elegy in the midst of the sixth great extinction underway ... It is awe, but no need to wait for an eclipse—Macdonald presents it everywhere for the taking, in the underground networks of fungi, in fog, in deer that 'drift in and out of the trees like breathing.' It exists in birdsong and the 'cobra-strike' of a heron stabbing at a fish. It’s in the pages of this book, in the consciousness of a writer admiring the world, so grateful for its otherness.
No longer confined to a single grief or creature, Macdonald’s fascination with the natural world ranges from the habits of cuckoos and glowworms to the biodiversity of trees. A lament for the loss of natural habitats ('the world’s sixth great extinction') is inevitable here, but overall Vesper Flights is both more celebratory and more subtly conflicted than her earlier book ... Throughout Vesper Flights, Macdonald pursues her own complicated relationship with nature in language and imagery so opulent that these essays may best be read at intervals ... Many of these essays, when not surveying birds, deal with everyday phenomena: mushrooms, nestboxes, berries. But others describe extreme conditions that are well suited to Macdonald’s graphic and impassioned writing ... For the adult woman, the child’s need for consolation in animals, and the recognition that there is no true reciprocity between her and these creatures, generates a creative friction that sets Macdonald apart among nature writers.
...dazzling ... Embarking on her own vesper flights but with her eyes trained on animals, Ms. Macdonald reminds us how marvelously unfamiliar much of the nonhuman world remains to us, even as we continue to diminish it ... She is in awe of the 'invisible fungal networks that weave each forest into a symbiotic community, a place full of life hidden from our own' ... The essays in Vesper Flights give us the literary equivalent of such a resilient network, which is why I would recommend reading them in sequence: Connected by invisible threads, they gradually enmesh the reader in a universe of limitless potentiality, where a livable future suddenly becomes imaginable again. Acknowledging that nature exists everywhere, not only in places where humans don’t live, means that there are things, big and small, we can and must do: design houses so that they offer space where swifts may nest; switch off the lights in our big cities at night to keep migrating birds from getting confused; demand that a beautiful meadow, home to multiple forms of life, be made part of that new housing development instead of being flattened by asphalt.
A former historian of science, Macdonald is as captivated by the everyday (ants, bird’s nests) as she is by the extraordinary (glowworms, total solar eclipses), and her writing often closes the distance between the two ... Always, the author pushes through the gloom to look beyond herself, beyond all people, to 'rejoice in the complexity of things' and to see what science has to show us: 'that we are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us' ... The climate crisis shadows these essays. Macdonald is not, however, given to sounding dire, all-caps warnings ... For all its elegiac sentences and gray moods, Vesper Flights is a book of tremendous purpose. Throughout these essays, Macdonald revisits the idea that as a writer it is her responsibility to take stock of what’s happening to the natural world and to convey the value of the living things within it.
...[a] radiant new essay collection ... The most transfixing texts are powered by an irresolvable tension. In Macdonald’s case, it’s between her almost religious belief in the otherness of animals and her own lifelong desire to find significance in that otherness, to seek lessons that pertain to herself and to humanity ... Readers willing, once in a while, to put up with the sensation of being schooled like a recalcitrant toddler will receive in exchange armfuls of literary riches ... In her introduction, Macdonald writes that she hopes this collection “works a little like a Wunderkammer,” a German word usually translated as 'Cabinet of Curiosities,' but she prefers the more literal 'cabinet of wonders.' It is that, but the treasures in it are mostly not exotica and relics collected from far-off lands. They’re all around us, just waiting to be noticed by the right person.
This is not the follow-up to Helen Macdonald’s breakthrough book, H Is for Hawk and in that sense it may disappoint some of her readers. But it needn’t: in fact, as a selection of Macdonald’s journalism and essays, it provides a series of short blasts of insightful, invigorating nature writing ... she uses her expertise in this book to help us not just learn but think about things in a new way, and invoke a sense of wonder ... There are some essays here that fall outside 'nature writing', such as a fascinating report on 'the numinous ordinary' or the quasi-religious importance of everyday objects in our lives, and some of the best writing is about the cultural overlap where humans and animals meet, such as the activity of swan upping, or people who keep birds.
... a stunning book that urges us to reconsider our relationship with the natural world, and fight to preserve it ... The experience of reading Vesper Flights is almost dizzying, in the best possible way. Macdonald has many fascinations, and her enthusiasm for her subjects is infectious. She takes her essays to unexpected places, but it never feels forced ... Macdonald is endlessly thoughtful, but she's also a brilliant writer — Vesper Flights is full of sentences that reward re-reading because of how exquisitely crafted they are ... What sets Vesper Flights apart from other nature writing is the sense of adoration Macdonald brings to her subjects. She writes with an almost breathless enthusiasm that can't be faked; she's a deeply sincere author in an age when ironic detachment seems de rigueur ... a beautiful and generous book, one that offers hope to a world in desperate need of it.
Macdonald is a glorious writer ... Macdonald picks up on the pride we feel when a robin 'chooses' our garden to feed in ... but Macdonald never makes us feel stupid; she’s as prone to it as the rest of us. Her close encounter, while heartbroken, with a seemingly sympathetic swan, is testament to that. Perfect to drop in and out of on your staycation, this book will make you look a bit harder at the wonders around you.
Helen Macdonald’s series of studies is very much a sipper rather than a glugger. Read individually, they show a remarkable eloquence, intelligence and empathy; but read sequentially too often and the same concerns, the same phrases spring up ... Macdonald is famous for her deservedly-praised H Is For Hawk, and this book does provide the intersection of ecology and elegy which made that book so remarkable ... In terms of the connections between nature and capitalism, she is unfailingly acute ... Most readers will enjoy the more autobiographical parts most – and what’s not to like about an anecdote involving staving in the head of an ostrich with a rock and cutting its throat with a pen-knife, much to the bemusement of your employer? But the way different concerns are braided and twisted is done with extreme skill.
... a rich assortment of strange and beautiful wonders to reflect on, learn from, and marvel at. The essays are personal accounts involving observation, recollection and, above all, fascination ... Some essays describe experiences that are grand in scope ... However, the quieter, more contemplative essays which deal with the small-scale delights of the British countryside are just as captivating. Macdonald’s untrammeled joy proves infectious ... essential reading ... a book to relish at any time, both for its intelligence and grace, and its ability to edify and enchant in equal measure.
This poignant essay collection is the perfect mediator to join our hands with nature once again. Macdonald makes it clear in her work that nature is her ultimate teacher. Her humility in the face of the vastness of the world around us is one of the many things that makes her so likeable. When you sit down with a Helen Macdonald book, you can trust that there will be no ego and no lecture. Though her voice is clear and her presence is deeply felt, the author is happy to give up her starring role in her own book, letting the natural world shine. By doing so, readers can step more completely into Macdonald’s shoes. It’s clear to see, in her life as much as in this book, that nature leads. Alas, not every essay in the collection is equal in power, and the titular essay seems misplaced at the midway point—an essay that completely summarizes the spirit of the collection demands its rightful place at the front. But the raw emotion that Macdonald brought to H Is for Hawk, giving the book its electricity, is all over Vesper Flights ... consider this collection balm for the soul.
... combines memoir, natural history, and literary biography to create something wild, messy, immensely personal, and intensely readable ... Macdonald is at her best when writing about birds ... The 40-plus essays in Vesper Flights flutter, float, and fly by with ease ... While most of these essays stick their landing, a small handful—like a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile of an astrobiologist—don’t quite fit. What the collection lacks most of all is organization, a touch of editorial taxonomy that divides and groups these essays into an overarching, narrative whole ... Yet, if one takes the time to poke at the egg collection that is Vesper Flights, a theme slowly emerges.
... fragments of autobiography mix with impressionistic snapshots and deeper observations that peel away our anthropomorphic preconceptions and reveal the intelligence and mystery of birds and other creatures ... Macdonald’s writing here, as in H Is for Hawk, can be hard going. It sometimes bogs down beneath the weight of its adjectives...Still, her evocative sense of place and her meticulous observations burst through the purple prose.
... a bravura performance, displaying Macdonald’s literary gifts: her curiosity, her intensity of attention. And her pleasure of her prose — clear, tart, understated but regularly exploding into brilliance ... Some of the strongest essays are vignettes ... Sometimes, she suggests, like the swifts we must fly high to truly see ourselves and our world. This superb book helps us do that.
... there is, in each of these essays, a clear sense of the sensibility that is doing the looking: patient, alert, learned and excitable ... Macdonald is making it her mission to communicate as exactly as possible what wood warblers and a host of other species are, in the hope that her words are not obituaries. Her description of 'flying ant day', that summer afternoon in Britain when patios become swarming airfields, is a memorable example of her ability not only to itemise the world around her, but to celebrate its essential and profound connectedness. Her focus typically shifts from the extraordinary drama of ant queens taking flight, trailing pheromones, enticing the worker drones chasing them aloft to mate in a fatal last act, to the gulls and swifts and a single red kite drawn to their rising column ... This book is thrillingly full of such moments; it is, too, a powerful – and entertaining – corrective to the idea that the only hopes that matter on this planet are those of our own species.
The poet in Macdonald moves these subjects toward mystery ... She crafts brilliant descriptions, drawing wisdom from her observations ... Helen Macdonald set the bar high with H Is for Hawk; with Vesper Flights, she still soars into the ether.
Macdonald mines a rich seam of scientific research and field observation, and the essays are packed with detail ... This might make the book sound like a miscellany, but it’s far more than that. Running through it is the grim knowledge that many species have already disappeared. Above all Macdonald wants to emphasise the natural world’s autonomy from us and to question our assumptions about it. She writes that 'none of us sees animals clearly', but her beautifully written essays go a long way to improving our perception.
... an excellent collection ... t’s wonderful to read a book on this subject, especially one by a woman writer, in a genre which (with notable exceptions like Kathleen Jamie) dominated by men. Macdonald has an anecdotal style, dense with information and delicately poetic. She also writes with great humour: I snorted with laughter ... perhaps not as engaging as H is for Hawk, especially for those readers who were expecting a longform exploration of humanity through nature, but each chapter is rich and full of interest; it's a book that teaches as it entertains ... The strong sense of morality can inevitably feel a little trite at times, her connections between 'natural history and national history' a shade too blatant ... Macdonald is so joyously and excitedly in love with the natural world around her it is difficult not to share in this rapture, but so, too, in her sense of loss. Some chapters feel distinctly elegiac, even as her roar of anger sounds loud. While her writing can verge on the overexuberant, it is also as compelling and urgent as these issues require ... Above all, Macdonald’s gift is for the personal, and the essays in Vesper Flights form an autobiography of sorts: a description of a person built out of her relationship with the environment.
Readers of Macdonald’s wonderful memoir H is for Hawk will have high expectations for Vesper Flights. Not to worry: While the essays don’t have the memoir’s concentration on a single grief-fueled story, they do showcase the same feel for the interplay of wild and human worlds ... Each of Macdonald’s essays is in some way an encounter with the unknown. She is a famed naturalist and a sublime writer, but her expertise is only an entry point for joyful discovery. The world never had a better advocate. What strikes me most about Macdonald is her patience and delicacy. She doesn’t expect to capture nature in a glance or to sum it up in a phrase. She looks long and hard, and then she looks again.
Macdonald’s is a voice of introspection that seems fully suited to the global grief ... [The essays] mark her as that rare nature writer whose subject is human nature every bit as much as the natural world. Her keenly poetic, elegiac observations trace the fleeting phenomena that surround and contextualize our lives. The descriptive range is sweeping ... Macdonald moves easily from these deeply personal, spiritual associations to realms of scientific rigor, seeking certainty in the hard evidence of how things work ... In Macdonald’s prose, the correlation between the cosmic and the common is always close at hand, with the high polish and affection for detail of authors who prove their love of things-in-themselves, whether Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry of close inspection or John Updike’s inquisitive elegance ... At its height, MacDonald’s writing captures the inexpressible rhythm of being ... Macdonald’s essays are, if anything, murmurations for our ominous time – dark yet flashing, stirred from the core.
One of the great pleasures in this collection of pieces is seeing how determinedly [Macdonald] picks away at conundrums first encountered in H Is for Hawk, her hugely successful memoir of 2014 ... Visceral pieces are balanced by some marvellously cool-headed analyses in which Macdonald brings to bear her expertise as a historian of science ... Macdonald makes us see that the love and pride that disenfranchised people lavish on their captive birds is as fierce and contradictory as that of a squire surveying his mallards through binoculars.
The 41 essays in Vesper Flights continue her explorations into the more-than-human world. Whether viewing feral pigs, taking her niece on a walk through a rewilded fen, or tracking deer along the edge of a motorway, Macdonald works hard to break us humans out of our species solipsism ... The short essay is the perfect métier for a nature writer, in that the literary form follows the function of modern humans' interactions with wild nature: brief encounters, filled with intensity, 'times in which the world stutters, turns, and fills with unexpected meaning.'
Some of her most compelling stories explore 'the strange collisions and collusions' between natural history and British national history ... Written in Macdonald's trademark piercing prose, these essays probe the author's fascination with the complexity, mystery, and magic of nature, including how we observe the world around us and make sense of our place within it ... Macdonald's unique voice is highly recommended for fans of her first book and science enthusiasts who enjoy natural history with a British flavor.
... gorgeously composed, complexly affecting, and stunningly revelatory. Macdonald is both exacting and enthralled as she describes glowworms, hares, ants, swans, migrating birds seen at night from the top of the Empire State Building, the paradoxes of nature reserves, tree disease, storms, the lessons in denial and prediction embedded in migraines, how wild mushrooms signal a hidden larger whole, and the shock felt by every living entity during a total solar eclipse ... There is abundant wonder and beauty here, but they are shadowed by concern and grief because the north to which Macdonald’s compass points is climate change and its ravaging of life’s intricate web, from the monumental to the microbial ... Best-selling Macdonald’s fans will rush to embrace this, as should all readers passionate about nature.
English naturalist Macdonald...offers meditations on the natural world and its inhabitants in an inviting collection of 41 new and previously published essays that are infused with wonder, nostalgia, and melancholy ... The message throughout is clear: the world humans enjoy today may not be around tomorrow, so it should not be taken for granted. This will inspire readers to get outside.
There are some particularly wonderful moments in this altogether memorable collection ... Macdonald allows that while her encounters with...creatures are eminently real, she’s fully open to the possibilities of symbolic encounter as well. Anthropomorphism may be a sin among biologists, but as long as it doesn’t go to silly lengths, she’s not above decorating a nest box—and those decorations, she writes in a perceptive piece, are as class-inflected as anything else in class-conscious Britain. Perhaps the finest piece is also the most sobering, a reflection on the disappearance of spring, 'increasingly a short flash of sudden warmth before summer, hardly a season at all.' ... Exemplary writing about the intersection of the animal and human worlds.