Books

Helen Macdonald
Vesper Flights

A pair of peregrine falcons nests on a window ledge high above Melbourne’s central business district, at 367 Collins Street. Although they have been there for years and have a devoted set of fans who follow their comings and goings on a live-streamed webcam, their popularity blossomed during the city’s stage-four lockdown. The three eggs roosted by the female hatched last week, and the tercel hunts unsuspecting pigeons in 300km/h dives, sadly off camera.

In her book of short essays, Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald visits a similar site at Dublin’s Poolbeg power station, a Brutalist industrial landscape where such natural beauty seems incongruous. Her companion on the day, Eamonn, began observing the birds after a personal bereavement because the experience was “away”. Macdonald explains his feelings: “At times of difficulty, watching birds ushers you into a different world, where no words need be spoken. And if you’re watching urban falcons, this is not a distant world, but one alongside you, a place of transient and graceful refuge.”

While an interest in ornithology is not required to enjoy Macdonald’s book, it wouldn’t hurt. Even so, these brief musings regarding her many interactions with wild creatures are transportive. When she and her niece visit Wicken Fen in eastern England, the girl is so shocked by the abundance of woodland animals that she assumes they have been brought there from a zoo.

Macdonald, the author of the international bestseller H Is for Hawk, presents a stark series of meditations on our fraught relationship with nature. “We are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us. It does not belong to us alone. It never has done.” She speaks of the climate, of course, but more specifically of our moral failure in our relationships with animals. She encounters wild boar, South American mushrooms, deer, cuckoos, swans and goats, worlds she describes as the “numinous ordinary”, places of wonder and sometimes horror, where loveliness jousts with survival instinct.

It is birds, most of all, that keep Macdonald’s spirits soaring through hard times. Falcon eggs, their shells, “the mottled browns of walnut, of tea-stains, of onion skins”, which, held up to the lips, answer when she makes soft clucking sounds. “They reached back to a time in my life when the world was nothing but surviving isolation,” she says. A twitcher’s credo, soaked with new relevance for anyone locked in their home, waiting for those eggs on Collins Street to hatch.

Chris Flynn

Jonathan Cape, 272pp, $35.00

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2020 as "Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights".

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Reviewer: Chris Flynn