Vesper FlightsPosted: September 1, 2021
Grove Press (August 25, 2020), 272 pages
Kindle edition $9.45, Amazon hardcover $15.98
I had this book in my collection of Kindle samples, and when I saw that it appeared in the 2020 NPR Book Concierge under the category Seriously Great Writing I decided I would make it my next book selection.
Helen Macdonald is a scientist and a naturalist based in England. She writes both about her childhood and the travels and encounters she has experienced in her career. She writes about growing up in a house in a rural community owned by the Theosophists (who decided to allow non-members to live there), and how that land changed over the decades. In a long essay she writes about her travel to Chile with a French woman trained in astrophysics. Her specialty was the search for life on Mars, and she believed this remote area resembled the surface of Mars at one point in its history. Macdonald watched migrating birds from the roof of the empire state building and visited a wildlife rescue center. She recounts the history of tracking the swan population on the Thames (it’s called swan upping). She goes mushroom hunting with a distinguished British mycologist.
Macdonald’s writing is, in fact, seriously great, and when appropriate she is an expert at understatement. On her Chile trip, while at the base of a volcano, she writes:
We find out that very recently there’d been a 5.5-magnitude earthquake in Calama, only an hour and a half away. That isn’t optimal: if water makes its way into the magma chamber beneath the volcano, the volcano might explode. This is not comforting.
She also knows how to deliver a vivid image: “The sky was congested and bruised.” Who would have thought to refer to the sky as bruised? Macdonald’s insights are worth paying attention to, and not to be lost amidst appreciating her writing style: “Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.”
I have to give you one more example of Macdonald’s skill at subtle understatement. She is talking to a friend about the racial rancor that accompanied the run-up to the Brexit vote. She says of her friend, “She shook her head at the tide of recent history and offered me a mint.”
There is much to ponder and reflect on in Vesper Flights. As the author tells us, “No matter how old I am, I thought, sometimes I’ll encounter things that are new.”