Cautiously approaching Helen Macdonald’s latest after the deeply personal experience of reading (and re-reading) ‘H is for Hawk’
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Does one need a reason to read Helen Macdonald?
She is one of my literary heroes and I’ve read H is For Hawk four times to date (twice on audio and twice in print, if you care to know). I took my time getting to Vesper Flights because I really liked knowing there was new work out there waiting for me.
Vesper Flights is a collection of previously published and new essays by Helen Macdonald. As thrilled as I was when I first heard about it, I confess I was a little nervous approaching this one.
Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk means so much to me, and I worried that an essay collection wouldn’t be as powerful following such a magnificent memoir. What could compare to the experience of wandering around Cincinnati in the summertime, fresh into post-college life, listening to H is for Hawk for the very first time?
Or to returning to the same memoir a year later, searching and finding some semblance of guidance to move through my own grief for the first time?
“We so often think of the past as something like a nature reserve: a discrete, bounded place we can visit in our imaginations to make us feel better.” — Helen Macdonald
As I cracked open my copy of Vesper Flights, I reminded myself not to compare. No matter how much we love an author, each new book will be a fresh, different experience. Writers are human, and they will grow and change. Their work can and should reflect that.
We, too, will grow and change. That’s part of why I reread books like H is for Hawk. The book stays the same, but I don’t. Therefore it resonates differently each time.
And so, who sat down to read Vesper Flights was a slightly different person from the one who first downloaded H is for Hawk and set off on a long, meandering walk she’d end up finding excuses to extend so she could keep listening.
I needn’t have worried about whether I’d love this book.
It took a little getting used to the beginnings and endings, as many of the essays are quite short on the printed page, around 3 pages being the average. This led to reading at a quick clip, and a few longer essays stalled for me because I got used to the pattern.
Yet each of the essays is full of the sharp, beautiful observations of nature and human beings that make Helen Macdonald such a phenomenal writer.
She has a fascination with the way in which humans insist upon nature reflecting us, holding up a mirror to teach us about ourselves.
“… we have always unconsciously and inevitably viewed the natural world as a mirror of ourselves, reflecting our own world-view and our own needs, thoughts, and hopes.” — Helen Macdonald
Macdonald does this, too, but she returns to and insists upon the wildness of things, ultimately.
Nature, she argues, doesn’t intend to mean anything to us. We are the ones who thrust our own meanings upon it.
As with any essay collection, some of them landed with me more than others. Many of the essays deal in a sense of nostalgia for the landscapes of Macdonald’s youth, tangled up in the anxiety of climate change. This theme joins up with that of the interactions between human beings and the natural world, how we shape it and how it adapts to and defies all that we try to press upon it.
It felt like very much the sort of book one would want to read during a pandemic, a quirk of good publication timing.
Many of the essays spoke to and resonated with me, and many others made me stop and consider things I hadn’t thought about before.
In particular, I found solace and comfort in the essay Symptomatic, which makes a brief appearance in an essay about my chronic pain disorder.
Though I loved it for its depiction of Macdonald’s migraines, the essay is truly about the ways in which symptoms are not always clearly recognized or linked to any underlying cause. It is a meditation on climate change, the symptoms of which we cannot and do not always link to the cause, because there is no single root cause.
In all, I adored this collection of essays. It isn’t H is for Hawk and, of course, we shouldn’t ask it to be.
The insight and sharp observation that make Macdonald a phenomenal nature writer shine through on every page. I highly recommend this collection to anyone and everyone who is a human being in the world, stumbling along and trying to make meaning.
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