… from climate change to mushrooms to drone warfare, Vesper Flights is the new book by Helen Macdonald ( of H is for Hawk fame). It’s been a long wait since 2014. In that earlier award winning book the author wrote an account of how in the midst of grieving for her father, she struggled to train a Goshawk – named Mabel.
As a naturalist, Macdonald’s work ranges widely across different species and ecologies. As a writer she always finds the perfect analogy between whatever is happening out there in the natural world and what is also happening to the rest of us. Needless to say at a time of global crisis that we are going through now, our relationship to nature seems even more confused and tormented.
Macdonald’s work epitomises the new nature writing. I believe very few people can combine the passion and lyricism of superb writing with deep scientific knowledge born a lifetime of study, the way she does.
There are things we know about birds and there are still even more things we don’t. Although it lacks some of the focus on narrative of her earlier book, Vesper Flights ranges across the myriad topics on which the author is knowledgeable. The way we view birds and animals, the way we talk about them, name them, label them, treat them, ignore them, and often kill them either intentionally or not, comes back in the end Macdonald writes, to the culture we inhabit and how we view ourselves.
Birdwatching, hours and hours spent watching with the naked eye or through field glasses has been a hobby, a habit, an obsession, a career of us humans for as long as there have been birds and eyes or field glasses through which to view them. For beings that don’t talk, they connect to us and we to them. They connect us to each other and to our history.
“… I remember a British officer called Peter Conder who spent the Second World War in prison camps in Germany. He survived by watching birds. Goldfinches. Wrynecks. Migrating crows picking through the waste spread on the frozen fields. Hours and days and years on end. When he came home he didn’t talk. He stayed with his sister and stared out of the window at London starlings roosting in long lines on ledges of Portland stone.”
He observed that the birds always stood a certain distance apart but close enough to deliver a rebuke to his neighbour. He christened it the principle of pecking distance.
And before that around the time of the First World War, a man called Henry Eliot Howard decided that birds held territories too. That males sang to other males as warnings. That brightly coloured plumage was warning. The naturalist Peter Scott noted from the deck of a naval destroyer on which he was serving that somehow the mallards and teal in the reed beds of Slapton Sands were what he was fighting to protect. “That somehow they were England.”
And somehow the birds are still England, enervated, etiolated, disappearing, besieged by wrong headed ideologies.
It has happened before, Macondald writes. As ideologies and systems collapse we “seek ourselves in the mirror of the countryside” See nature as refuge.
But nature is more often encountered on TV and video than in living reality these days, or through nature reserves’ – living museums of flora and fauna which once covered the land.
Many thousands of animals and birds – swans, sea turtles even bears and whales – are tagged and tracked every year, in our efforts to understand migration patterns and understand the dangers they face.
“The particulate beauty of unimagined hordes of lives that aren’t our own, tracked minute by minute across the sky and rising out of mystery.”
We survey our remaining birds as we ourselves are under surveillance. But often the biggest danger that they face is us. We congratulate ourselves on our ability to watch the progress of thousands of tagged birds on the internet (a cuckoo named David is reported as reaching home in Wales safely) yet are powerless to intervene to save any that meet difficulties.
That sense of powerlessness is playing out all across the globe as we face as invisible virus and our paranoia increases to the extent that a stork can be captured and arrested on suspicion of carrying an electronic spying device! Technological dominance is reaching out gory tentacles to encompass the design of and the intentional imitation of birds and insects in drone warfare. Poignant avatars, as Macdonald describes these avian victims, for human fears and conflicts.
The birds are caught in the middle. But now, humans are caught in the middle too of things which are completely beyond our understand and control. The twin dangers of Corvid 19 and climate change.
“Summer storms conjure distance and time but conjure too all the things that come towards us over which we have no control. Such storms have their place in literature, the heavy air and mood of suppressed emotion as the storm brews so often standing for an inevitable catastrophe.
And I can’t help but think this is the weather we are all now made of. All of us waiting. Waiting for news. Waiting for Brexit to hit us. Waiting for the next revelation about the Trump administration. Waiting for hope, stranded in that strange light that stills our hearts before the storm of history.”
Thank you to #NetGalley and #Grove Press (New York) for this review copy. All views are my own.