Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald


It will not be possible to fit all I want to remember about this book in one short post. So I’ll start by saying that listening to the author read her essays was educational and entertaining, but even more, it was uplifting and brought me joy. It was as wonderful as her first book H is for Hawk.

From childhood she has always been a lover of the natural world and her essays reflect that. She writes about her experience observing migrating birds in an unlikely nature-viewing spot, the platform on the top of the Empire State Building. She says people live in high skyscrapers to avoid the chaos and noise of the street. It turns out that the tall buildings are like submersibles that take people into the depths of the ocean. The wildlife, from flying insects, spiders, and drifting spors to migrating birds inhabit that area in great numbers. She says,

Peregrines frequently hunt at night here. From high-rise lookout perches, they launch flights into the darkness to grab birds and bats. In more natural habitats, falcons cache the bodies of birds they’ve killed among crevices in cliffs. The ones here tuck their kills into ledges on high-rises, including the Empire State. For a falcon, a skyscraper is simply a cliff:  it brings the same prospects, the same high winds, the same opportunities to stash a take-out meal.

Here’s what she wrote about eclipses:

Long ago, when I first decided I wanted to see a total solar eclipse, I planned to do so in romantic solitude. I was in my early twenties, was inclined to think myself the centre of the universe, and imagined the eclipse to be an event in which the sun and moon — and me — would line up to provoke some deep and abiding revelation. The presence of other people would detract from the meaningfulness of it all, I thought, convinced that the best way to experience the natural world was to seek private communion with it. It’s embarrassing to recall this conviction now, because as soon as I saw my first solar eclipse I knew that the last thing I needed was to be alone as it happened.

She says the 2017 eclipse, dubbed The Great American Eclipse “chimed with the country’s contemporary struggles between matters of reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference….When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.” If we had a few more eclipses, we’d get there.

Vesper Flights refers to the evening flights of swifts, that bird that doesn’t land on earth for two or three years after it first flies out of the nest. They have long been observed to gather in the evening and fly, “screaming in speeding packs around rooftops and spires.”  Then they seem to be suddenly called to fly higher and higher until they disappear. These vesper flights refer to the last and most solemn devotional prayer of the day. Radar observations made by Luit Buurma to improve flight safety by reducing bird-strikes observed that their flights take them as high as eight thousand feet and that they make similar flights just before dawn. They are making weather forecasts. And using many clues (magnetic cues, the stars, wind among others), they are orienting themselves. Our own vesper flights, perhaps in the form of solemn prayer or some other means, help connect us to our world and help us figure out where we are.

I guess I’ll listen to this one again. There’s so much more I want to remember

Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights, Grove Press, 2020, 261 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library and Amazon.

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