Review: Essay collection Vesper Flights reveres beauty, birds and spirituality – San Francisco Chronicle

Vesper Flights byHelen Macdonald Photo: Grove Press

Some great books come out of nowhere. In 2014, British nature writer Helen Macdonald published H Is For Hawk, a memoir tracing her struggle to train a goshawk as a means of grieving the sudden death of her father. The book garnered literary acclaim and became a surprise best-seller, deservedly. Hawk is a hawk of a book fast, smart, soaring with fierce beauty.

Macdonalds new book, Vesper Flights, takes wing in a different way: a collection of 41 essays, wildly variegated in subject matter. In her introduction, Macdonald likens the book to a Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Wonder, after the ornate wooden cases that 16th century collectors would cram with fossils, feathers and animal skulls: It is full of strange things, and it is concerned with the quality of wonder.

It is that. Take the first essay, Nests. When I was small I wanted to be a naturalist, Macdonald begins, listing the items that as a little girl she gathered in her bedroom. Feathers, seeds, pine cones and, in particular, bird nests. The nests possessed a mysterious power. It was partly because they made me feel an emotion I couldnt name, and mostly because I felt I shouldnt possess them at all. From here Macdonald spirals outward, fascinatingly, into the fraught history of English egg-collecting, to the nature of nests for birds, of homes for human beings. And to the understanding that the sadness nests and their eggs stirred within her came from a long-buried loss of her own.

Its a bravura performance, displaying Macdonalds literary gifts: her curiosity, her intensity of attention. And her pleasure of her prose clear, tart, understated but regularly exploding into brilliance.

Over the course of Vesper Flights Macdonald shares her BBC-miniseries-worthy childhood, where she and her parents found themselves surrounded by elderly, eccentric Theosophists but where Macdonald had the freedom to explore nature. She travels to Hungary to study migrating Eurasian cranes, ascends to the Empire State Buildings Observation Deck to marvel at black-crowned night herons swirling above the Manhattan skyline. Some of the strongest essays are vignettes. In Inspector Calls, a family parents, 8-year-old son survey Macdonalds house as a rental possibility and encounter Macdonalds parrot. The essay is as quiet, economical and, at its end, as heart-piercing as any William Trevor short story.

Shadows fall over the book as Macdonald increasingly understands the natural world she reveres is endangered by forces beyond her control urban sprawl, climate change. But nature still offers the possibility of redemption. In the title essay, Vesper Flights, Macdonald ponders her favorite birds, swifts, and the summer evening flights that send them rising high into the sky until they vanish from sight. Vesper flights, these are called, Latin for evening. But, she notes, the word vespers also connotes evening prayers the last and most solemn of the day. That makes her consider human beings religious need to make sense of who and where we are. Sometimes, she suggests, like the swifts we must fly high to truly see ourselves and our world. This superb book helps us do that.

Vesper FlightsBy Helen MacdonaldGrove Atlantic(320 pages; $27)

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Review: Essay collection Vesper Flights reveres beauty, birds and spirituality - San Francisco Chronicle

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