I once went for a walk with Helen Macdonald before I even knew she was a writer. Right the way around the M25 we went, past her childhood home and all through the woodlands planted along the edge of the orbital motorway. After which I looked for other televised walks I could take with her. Her being such a good talker about things most people don’t know much about, like birds and the wild, that I thought there were bound to be whole other series of “Walking with Helen” programmes somewhere. But there weren’t and so she dipped out of my sight for a while.
Until I read a review of a book by her called ‘Vesper Flights’ in the New York Times that particularly mentioned swifts and was so revelatory to me, about how far and high they fly and how they never come down, that I wanted to read the book itself straight away. Except the review had been published so far in advance of Vesper Flight’s being available in the shops that I went off and read another one by her instead.
‘H is for Hawk’ that was. About getting over the grief of her father’s early death by raising a wild hawk in her house, including taking it gradually outside so both of them could learn how to hunt together. So wild would hardly describe the half of that, but ‘Hawk’ was also a hard read at times. Having to wade with her through the depths of her grieving and her worryings over the damage she might have been doing to the hawk, tethered mostly to a perch in her living room. But I was so taken by the strength of her writing that I kept going all the way to the book’s bloody crescendo. Rejoicing with her when the hawk becomes the reliable killer it was born to become. All of that, of course, being so well beyond the moral certainties of my walking to coffee shops kind of urban life it was like being on a holiday from my predictable morals.
Exhausted, a bit, I went off and read lots of quieter books for a while, where absolutely no blood lusts or tearings apart happened, all through the first virus autumn and winter. Aware that ‘Vesper Flights’ was out by then and even picking it up once in a bookshop during the easings of late last summer. But knowing it wasn’t the time for it yet, until now.
And it is so beautiful, is this Vesper Flights. Beautiful in ways H is for Hawk, for all its virtues, never attempted to be. Helen Macdonald describes her book as
A “Wunderkammer,” a cabinet of curiosities “although the direct translation from German captures better its purpose: cabinet of wonders.”Helen Macdonald: ‘Vesper Flights’
A cabinet I’ve been gazing into for a couple of days now as I’ve walked around Liverpool. Stopping once for a while and standing with Helen and another naturalist on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, looking up instead of the usual down at the higher atmosphere in the sky that she describes as a kind of seascape. Where the passing thousands of migrating birds feast on the clouds of insects up there like swarms of fish on plankton. All observed on nearby laboratory radars as well as seen like flashes of ethereal light through their binoculars.
Then there’s the chapter where she walks us through remembrances of hunting for nests. And how good we once were in the generations before now at finding and ‘blowing’ the bird’s eggs we’d find empty of their yolks, like we were engaged in an innocent hobby and besides, the unborn wild didn’t count.
And I haven’t even got to the chapter about swifts yet that first drew me towards the book. But that’s waiting ahead like a present yet to be opened, in the book that’s in my bag. My holiday reading here while I’m having a few days off from my usual PhD work and my usual sociology reading. A holiday in someone else’s thinking being what it is.
Outside my field I was about to say, or is it? My idea of a field has always been to walk across it to the next one to see what’s in the one after that. And that’s what I’m doing walking around with Helen Macdonald. Who writes so well. Like in this descending cadence of sentences about science:
Saying after that how:
“We need literature too; we need to communicate what the losses mean” (the losses of species extinctions and how) “literature can teach us the qualitative texture of the world. And we need it to. We need to communicate the value of things, so that more of us might fight to save them.”Vesper Flights: Introduction
And communicate it she does. Which rings every single one of my own bells about writing so you can be widely read and understood, even though I’m not the same kind of scientist as Helen Macdonald, or any kind of scientist at all really. Which I’d write more about were I not on holiday from my own too often wilfully obscure corner of academia. On a glorious and exploratory holiday in somebody else’s thinking. Out here walking, with Helen Macdonald.
I often write about reading and there’s more of that gathered here at ‘A book in your bag.’