One of my most anticipated 2020 reads was Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald’s first book since her 2014 memoir, H is For Hawk. Hawk details the author’s attempts to train a goshawk as a way of coping with her father’s death. It is unpredictable, gorgeously written, and deeply moving. And because I loved H is For Hawk so much, I worried that I’d be disappointed in Vesper Flights. Happily, the book expands on all the things I loved about Hawk, taking Macdonald’s keen eye and poetic voice into fresh territory.
Vesper Flights consists of 40+ essays on a variety of topics, including meadow conservation, migraines, mushrooms, wild boars, immigration, the history of field guides, and goats. (The goat essay is not to be missed. It is very brief, and very funny, and I snort-laugh every time I think about it.). Essays collections are excellent choices when you’re feeling swamped or overwhelmed or tired —- a single essay is short enough to finish in one sitting, usually, and yet substantial enough that you can mull it over while driving or washing dishes or just sitting and enjoying a rare moment of quiet — and Vesper Flights is particularly well suited to this.
In every piece, Macdonald brings her finely honed attention and fierce curiosity to bear on her subjects, writing in precise and vivid prose. Birds are never just birds — they are kestrels, honeyeaters, swifts, and orioles. Trees are never just trees, soil is never just dirt. Everything is named, not only for the sake of good writing but because it helps us to better see— and better understand. The natural world matters, she seems to be saying, especially now when it is in peril. It deserves to be seen and understood. When we do, when we take the time and effort to notice the specifics of the world around us, we are better able to understand ourselves, and each other.
That connection — between the natural world and the everyday human one — forms the heart of this book. In the introduction, Macdonald calls it a “cabinet of curiosities,” a literary version of the disparate collections so fashionable during the 16th century. Those collections, and Vesper Flights itself, were meant to inspire wonder. The book succeeded more than I could have imagined — I came away from it feeling hopeful, curious, and determined to pay closer attention to the world around me. I can’t think of a better read to start off the new year.