Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on July 20, 2021. Find that audio here.
Helen Macdonald is admired for her intense connection to the natural world.
In her new collection of essays, “Vesper Flights,” the English naturalist and writer, best known for her award-winning memoir "H is for Hawk," muses on the role of animals in the natural world.
When we look at animals, it’s often difficult to see the real creature, Macdonald says. It’s important to consider “what we bring to that moment of contact” with them.
“If you're very lucky, you can think about what you've brought to that encounter, and you can look past it and you can see the real animal, this strange non-human alien creature that possesses the world just as we possess the world,” she says. “And it's a real lesson about the fact that the world doesn't belong to us. It's a kind of radical empathy.”
From observing a songbird migration atop the Empire State Building to marveling at the alien-like quality of European swifts, Macdonald says her new collection is like a Wunderkammer — a cabinet of wonders.
“I think we see the natural world so often these days as something that's behind, almost like it's behind plate glass,” Macdonald says. “We're not supposed to touch it or interact with it.”
It reminded her of the way people walk around museums, silently staring at exhibits carefully organized in glass cases, she says. But with the Wunderkammer, these 16th century cases of curiosities, people were expected to “reach out and pick things up and examine them and glory in their weight and the differences from each other.”
This is how she wants people to view the natural world — and experience her new book.
“I wanted my book to be a little bit like that,” she says, “to have all these different things that were wondrous, hopefully all pushed into the same place, and readers felt that they could kind of reach in and kind of be part of that story.”
On her fascination with nature as a child
“Yeah, I was bullied. I was a strange child. You know, I don't think I fitted in at all. I was a very serious child and I loved animals. And yeah, I was on a school sports day court and I wandered off cause I heard this bird song and everyone was like, 'What are you doing? You were in goal.' So I think I just didn't really understand people back then. And one of the great things that's happened growing up was I've learned to love people as well as animals, so I feel that's a triumph.”
On growing up with neighbors who were Theosophist refugees from Nazi Germany
“It was a grand crowd of mostly older ladies, and they were very eccentric and they just lived their lives according to their own, you know, what they thought was right. They were not sticklers to convention at all. And they were a real inspiration to me, I think. You know, I was a strange child. I'm possibly a strange person, but I've never felt I needed to fit in with the stories that society tells you about what you're supposed to do. And I think those ladies, I bless them for that. And they had wonderful names. There was this Kate Batty Smith, who had a great auk egg in a drawer, and another person had a whole bunch of jewelry that [British archaeologist] Howard Carter had given her from his excavations in Egypt. I mean, they were really a grand old crew.”
On watching bird migrations atop the Empire State Building
“It was the most sublime experience. It shook me and it completely changed the way I think not only about New York City, a place that I really love, but also about the air. You know I just, I guess I assumed that the air was this place that was pretty much empty. And, you know, it was dynamic, but there was nothing there. I climbed up the Empire State Building and met Andrew Farnsworth, and it was a big migration night. All these tiny birds were being pulled north by their instinct in May, and there were hundreds of thousands of birds going across New York. And they were so high that you can't see them from the ground, but we are high up enough to see them.
“And I was watching them through binoculars and with the naked eye as well, and these tiny little frames, these tiny songbirds that were illuminated from beneath by the lights of the building, and there were so many of them, they looked almost like tracer fire or sort of stars passing overhead. And they're so frail. And it was really emotional to sort of think of how that building operated a little bit like a deep sea submersible only rather than taking me down to the depths of the ocean to see the creatures there, it was lifting me up into the sky. It was marvelous.”
On why she describes swifts as the closest things to aliens on Earth
“Well, they're a bit like angels, too. I'm all over swifts. They're just magical. So they're incredibly aerial birds. They very rarely land. European swifts, once the youngsters leave the nest, they don't touch down at all for maybe two or three years. They live in the air as a fish would live in the ocean. And because they're so inaccessible to, you know, you can't really see them up close, I was always astounded by them. And I have an essay about this phenomenon called 'A Vesper Flight,' and it's something that science has discovered quite recently. And one of the things I try and do in this book, you know, we so often think that science subtracts beauty from the world, but actually I think it just shows us more and more how astonishing everything is.
“So what these swifts do, they've discovered, is every morning and every evening the birds will climb up higher and higher into the sky and they'll reach these impossible heights, thousands and thousands of feet up, and they reach the apex of these flights at nautical twilight. And it turns out that one of the reasons they might be doing this is to find out exactly where they are. So they use the stars. They use polarization patterns in the sky. They can look out across the horizon and they can see oncoming weather systems and they can feel the wind from those clouds coming toward them. And then they decide what they're going to do next, where they're going to go. And they do that communally. And this image of swifts communally deciding where they are and what they are going to do next is a really important theme for me in the sense that it seems that they’re a kind of fable of community. Now we are all, you know, with the pandemic, with what's happening, it's a year where we haven't been looking out to see our futures. And I don't know, the swifts just seem like a really important symbol for me about how we can do that better.”
Book Excerpt: 'Vesper Flights'
Back in the sixteenth century, a curious craze began to spread through the halls, palaces and houses of Europe. It was a type of collection kept often in ornate wooden cases, and it was known as a Wunderkammer, a Cabinet of Curiosities, although the direct translation from the German captures better its purpose: cabinet of wonders. It was expected that people should pick up and handle the objects in these cases; feel their textures, their weights, their particular strangenesses. Nothing was kept behind glass, as in a modern museum or gallery. More importantly, perhaps, neither were these collections organised according to the museological classifications of today. Wunderkammern held natural and artificial things together on shelves in close conjunction: pieces of coral; fossils; ethnographic artefacts; cloaks; miniature paintings; musical instruments; mirrors; preserved specimens of birds and fish; insects; rocks; feathers. The wonder these collections kindled came in part from the ways in which their disparate contents spoke to one another of their similarities and differences in form, their beauties and manifest obscurities. I hope that this book works a little like a Wunderkammer. It is full of strange things and it is concerned with the quality of wonder.
Someone once told me that every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write. It can be love or death, betrayal or belonging, home or hope or exile. I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us. Before I was a writer I was a historian of science, which was an eye-opening occupation. We tend to think of science as unalloyed, objective truth, but of course the questions it has asked of the world have quietly and often invisibly been inflected by history, culture and society. Working as a historian of science revealed to me how we have always unconsciously and inevitably viewed the natural world as a mirror of ourselves, reflecting our own world-view and our own needs, thoughts and hopes. Many of the essays here are exercises in interrogating such human ascriptions and assumptions. Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.
Science encourages us to reflect upon the size of our lives in relation to the vastness of the universe or the bewildering multitudes of microbes that exist inside our bodies. And it reveals to us a planet that is beautifully and insistently not human. It was science that taught me how the flights of tens of millions of migrating birds across Europe and Africa, lines on the map drawn in lines of feather and starlight and bone, are stranger and more astonishing than I could ever have imagined, for these creatures navigate by visualising the Earth’s magnetic field through detecting quantum entanglement taking place in the receptor cells of their eyes. What science does is what I would like more literature to do too: show us that 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.
These are terrible times for the environment. Now more than ever before, we need to look long and hard at how we view and interact with the natural world. We’re living through the world’s sixth great extinction, one caused by us. The landscapes around us grow emptier and quieter each passing year. We need hard science to establish the rate and scale of these declines, to work out why it is occurring and what mitigation strategies can be brought into play. But we need literature, too; we need to communicate what the losses mean. I think of the wood warbler, a small citrus-coloured bird fast disappearing from British forests. It is one thing to show the statistical facts about this species’ decline. It is another thing to communicate to people what wood warblers are, and what that loss means, when your experience of a wood that is made of light and leaves and song becomes something less complex, less magical, just less, once the warblers have gone. 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.
Excerpted from VESPER FLIGHTS © 2020 by Helen Macdonald. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on September 10, 2020.