Vesper Flights: New and Collected Essays

In Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald (H Is for Hawk) showcases her affinity for the essay in her quest for readers to see "the glittering world of non-human life around us," and see it through other eyes, to realize the world does "not belong to us alone. It never has done."

Topics include a captive wild boar provoking introspection about Macdonald's place in the world; the territorial anxiety over wild animals "intruding" in human spaces; an autistic boy's mutual delight with Macdonald's parrot; a young refugee smuggled into the U.K.; and the complexity of avian navigation.

The poet in Macdonald moves these subjects toward mystery. A night flight of migrating birds delicately amazes: "Watching their passage is almost too moving to bear. They resemble stars, embers, slow tracer fire." A peregrine falcon seems to make the atmosphere heavier as it flies, "the barred feathers of his chest, his black hood, a faint chromatic fringe ghosting him with suggestions of dust and rainbows. He's exquisite, the colour of smoke, paper and wet ash."

She crafts brilliant descriptions, drawing wisdom from her observations: "It's true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone." She takes hard-won emotional solace from "knowing that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all."

Helen Macdonald set the bar high with H Is for Hawk; with Vesper Flights, one of the Washington Post's 10 Best Books of 2020, she still soars into the ether. --Marilyn Dahl

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