I don’t ordinarily write detailed reviews about audiobooks. Especially audiobooks about birds, because my feelings about about birds are this:
Rather than this:
But I am making an exception for Helen Macdonald’s moving collection of essays, Vesper Flights. Loosely focused on birds, the essays examine themes of captivity and freedom; human impact on the natural environment; and our relationship with animals and plants.
From the outset, it appealed, largely because she begins by saying that she hoped the collection would be like a Wunderkammer, or a ‘cabinet of wonders’. I love a good Wunderkammer. And then, if I wasn’t already convinced that I was at the start of a great book, she links her interest in science to what she experiences in nature (and it’s fair to say it’s on a spiritual level).
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.
And then to literature –
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.
As Macdonald points out, we need the hard science to understand changes to our world, but we ‘…need literature, too; we need to communicate what the losses mean.’ This resonated – my previous career was governed by science, but what kept me there were the ‘stories’ that rivers told. Rivers continue to sustain me in a way that is difficult to articulate and, without question, the Yarra River kept me sane during COVID lockdown.
Some of the essays prompted memories of things I’d not thought about for decades. The essay on field guides reminded me of the time, aged four or five, that my dad surprised me with Gould League posters and a guide to backyard birds. I took great delight in watching the magpies and blackbirds – really not much variety but the joy was in leafing through the field guide.
Likewise, Macdonald’s story about lunar dust resonated – I had a similar existential moment (not that I knew it when I was six), when my dad presented me with a huge piece of basalt and olivine rock and said that it had come from a volcano. My six-year-old mind believed it to be true but I also couldn’t quite comprehend that what I was holding had ‘shot out of the centre of the earth’. When my parents downsized a few years ago and asked if there was anything I wanted, I said, “The basalt.” They looked puzzled. It was not found in the move, and I’ve concluded that it was one of those things that was significant to me but probably inconsequential to my dad (note that he lectured in geography, so had rocks sitting around!).
Macdonald’s story about the parrot and the sea lion was so sweet that it almost made me cry; and the essay about swan upping was fascinating (and brutal). I particularly loved that she closed the collection by looping back to her opening comments about our relationship with nature, and drew a parallel between the mystical Tarot and animals –
“We should trust the science but also pay attention to the emblematic nature of encounters with creatures….”
Macdonald states in the introduction that the essays are ‘…concerned with the quality of wonder’. It reminded me of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence – both books were thought-provoking ideas, and provided great reading pleasure.