... [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.
...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.