In her follow-as much as 2015’s H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald examines intersections—of the natural global and the global one, of the medical and the spiritual, of human and animal, of the cutting-edge global and the ancient, enduring one. In Vesper Flights, Macdonald’s literary student contracts and dilates over and over. An avid observer of minute detail, she makes an actual technology of drawing a personal moment into tight focus earlier than whooshing out to take a view so wide it engulfs the complete present.
Macdonald’s bite-size essays offer meditations on home, placelessness, the refugee crisis and climate change, all projected thru animals who seem in dual form: as their organic selves, examined, explained and marveled at; and their ancient, archetypal manifestations. For each paragraph detailing the flight instincts of swifts, there's another ruminating at the lessons human beings derive from these creatures. The essay “Deer in Headlights” vibrates with dark, forested strangeness. Touching at the mystical that means of deer in time, the unfortunate but ordinary occasion of a vehicle crash with a deer is transmuted into something terrible and Dionysian. The complete essay becomes shot through with a violent divinity, nodding to the darker emotions that feather around the rims of our feelings surrounding these accidents.
These animal depictions, two-sided and meditative, act as a relational car to hold us through the shock of the Anthropocene, where we’ve come to think of animals as mere creatures. Macdonald espouses a more holistic approach to connecting with animals—one which marries natural technological know-how to the heartfelt stirrings that people have lengthy felt in a furred or feathered presence. “Animals don’t exist so as to teach us things, but that is what they have usually done,” she writes, “and most of what they educate us is what we suppose we recognise approximately ourselves.”