In her follow-up to 2015’s H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald examines intersections—of the natural world and the global one, of the scientific and the spiritual, of human and animal, of the modern world and the ancient, enduring one. Her literary pupil contracts and dilates over and over throughout Vesper Flights. An avid observer of minute detail, she makes an exact science of drawing a personal moment into tight focus before whooshing out to take a view so wide it engulfs the entire present.
Macdonald's bite-size essays offer meditations on home, placelessness, the refugee crisis and climate change, all projected through animals who appear in dual form: as their biological selves, examined, explained and marveled at; and their ancient, archetypal manifestations. For every paragraph detailing the flight instincts of swifts, there is another ruminating on the lessons humans derive from these creatures. The essay “Deer in Headlights” vibrates with dark, forested strangeness. Touching on the mystical meaning of deer in a distant time, the unfortunate but ordinary event of a car crash with a deer is transmuted into something terrible and Dionysian. The entire essay becomes shot through with a violent divinity, nodding to the darker feelings that feather around the edges of our emotions surrounding these accidents.
These animal depictions, two-sided and meditative, act as a relational vehicle to carry us through the shock of the Anthropocene, where we’ve come to think of animals as mere creatures. Macdonald espouses a more holistic approach to connecting with animals—one that marries natural science to the heartfelt stirrings that humans have long felt in a furred or feathered presence. “Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done,” she writes, “and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.”