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"Vesper Flights: New and Collected Essays" by Helen Macdonald

<em>Vesper Flights,</em> by Helen Macdonald
Grove Press
Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald

It's time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don reviews "Vesper Flights: New and Collected Essays" by Helen Macdonald.

Helen Macdonald, after her powerful, lyrical memoir “H is for Hawk,” became an essayist/contributor to the NYT magazine and the “New Statesman,” where many of the 41 essays in this new book appeared. “Vesper Flights” does not have a biographical throughline, like “Hawk,” but is held together thematically and by subject matter. As one might expect, the pieces are mostly about the lives and habits of different birds: their nests, their nearly unbelievable migration journeys, and the correlations between the world of birds and our own. How do the birds, even the little hummingbirds, travel thousands of miles, sometimes in flocks of hundreds, even thousands, at enormous altitudes, guided by the stars and earth’s magnetic lines?

Swifts, we are told, don’t come down at all, but fly for two or three years at a time, sleeping, eating, drinking, mating, bathing, in the sky. People, she reminds us, also migrate, especially if their homes have been reduced to rubble and they seek the simplest things: “freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep.” In “Hawk” and in these essays, Macdonald runs into Brexiteers, usually older Brits, who long for the past as they understand it, and its traditional symbols: the stag, the swan. It’s not so simple, she says. The beloved and endangered hawfinches, who live often in old woodlands near stately homes, and therefore are sometimes called National Trust finches, are presumed part of England’s ancient past. The first pair, “a vagrant pair from the continent,” arrived about 1850. They have assimilated, it seems, and folks think they flew around King Arthur or Beowulf.

My favorite essay of all is “A Cuckoo in the House” in which we learn that British author and radio personality Maxwell Knight was an expert birder, a specialist in cuckoos. Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, the hosts unaware. When the chick hatches, he kills his nestmates. Maxwell Knight, it turns out, was “M,” head of MI5, well known from James Bond movies. He secretly placed agents in various subversive organizations. As an ornithologist, he wrote of the proper relationship of handler to wild thing, remembering that the wild thing, bird or spy, is never really tame and could turn at any moment. And M himself, we are told, was a deeply closeted homosexual “picking up rough trade in local cinemas,” not what he seemed either

A surprising essay, not to do with birds, concerns hares. The work of the pioneering ethologists, like Conrad Lorenz or Robert Ardrey, taught us the sometimes startling parallels between human and animal behavior. All species, they said, establish hierarchies and compete for mates. So, in the essay “Hares,” when she sees hares on their hind legs boxing, we assume that these are males, fighting for dominance: to the winner goes the doe. But no—these are “does unwilling to mate with bucks making sexual advances on them.” Macdonald identifies this as “an animal analog to a form of violence just as much a feature of our society, though only in recent years have we begun to openly speak of it.”

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.