As a lonely, often bullied child, she took to heart the instruction of T.H. White’s Merlyn: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something.” She cared for animals but she used them, too, she writes, to make herself disappear: “If I looked hard enough at insects, or held my binoculars up to my eyes to bring wild birds close, I found that by concentrating on the creature, I could make myself go away.”
In “H Is for Hawk,” she took this talent to an extreme. Mourning her father, she went into seclusion to train a goshawk — a singularly intimidating, murderous bird that embodied everything Macdonald wanted to be: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.” They hunted together, Macdonald snapping the necks of rabbits the hawk would otherwise eat alive. She drifted deeper into the hawk’s world. She became a feral thing.
The essays in “Vesper Flights,” several of which were first published in The New York Times Magazine, 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. She writes about migration patterns and storms, nests as a metaphor for the domestic and the danger of using nature as metaphor at all. 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.
The pieces carve similar paths. Macdonald examines how an animal or natural phenomenon illuminates something in her own life, or on the national stage. An essay on her childhood habit of collecting nests twines with her youthful skepticism of domesticity, how nests render birds — exhilarating in their freedom — suddenly so painfully vulnerable. A riff on hares winds into a meditation on global warming. And then, in almost every essay, an unusual move: She takes a step back to confront what it means to use the natural world as a mirror, and how we might learn to appreciate the nonhuman in its own right.
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. Macdonald weeps when holding a falcon egg and discovering that if she makes a clucking noise, the chick coiled within, ready to hatch, will respond. She weeps when she sees the beloved meadow of her childhood mowed down to stubble. She weeps when a swan walks out of a river and sits down beside her, haunch to haunch, like a large, companionable dog. She weeps when she sees “Jurassic Park” on a movie screen for the first time — “It was miraculous: a thing I’d seen representations of since I was a child had come alive.”
It’s not mere grief, as if grief is ever simple. These are tears full of surprise and recognition. At the sight of an eclipse, she weeps again: “I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience.” What is this emotion but relief — to feel the intellect bypassed, the odd, unsung pleasure of experiencing human life as small and contingent — “continuous with everything on earth,” as Eula Biss has written.
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.