Invigorated by a new haircut and tattoo, Helen Macdonald was on sparkling form as she discussed her latest book, Vesper Flights, with author and journalist Patrick Barkham. Writer of the award-winning H is for Hawk, Macdonald is a also a poet, naturalist and historian of science. And, said Barkham, “a talented artist”, a TV presenter and a qualified falconer. A Renaissance woman, in other words, but one who wears her many talents lightly.
Macdonald is a fluent and engaging speaker, by turns funny, surprising, forensic and moving. During a warm conversation with Barkham we were made to forget that this was a virtual Zoom chat between someone in Suffolk and someone else in Norfolk. It felt instead like a proper literary event with an audience. The only thing missing was the applause.
Vesper Flights, said Barkham, was a collection of essays “that will delight” the reader with their “astonishing range,” from swifts to mushrooms, to woods in winter to the Empire State building. Its name comes from the Latin for evening, explained Macdonald: the term is used to describe swifts’ flights, in rising columns, to heights of up to 8,000 feet, “precisely at nautical twilight to orientate themselves. They can see clouds on the distant horizon 100 miles away.”
In the book Macdonald writes: “Swifts are my fable of community, teaching us about how to make right decisions in the face of oncoming bad weather, in the face of clouds that sit like dark rubble on our own horizon.” In order to work out what we’re doing next, she says, we need to follow suit – look further, call in the experts. But the point of Vesper Flights, “is not to be polemical, but to display the astonishing beauty of the world … to bear witness … and ask why we value some creatures and not others.”
Barkham and Macdonald bemoaned the staggering loss of diversity in the British countryside, where glow-worms were once an everyday sight and hedgerows were full of life. This was a loss of “emotional and imaginative worlds” as well as one of species and environment.
Barkham: “Your subject is love for the non-human life around us. Also, I thought, ‘air,’ – migration, travel, flight. One essay that struck me was the one about the Empire State building. Tell us a bit about that.”
Macdonald: “I went up there at night – it was a brief from the New York Times magazine on very high buildings. My mind was blown … there’s so much stuff up there … tons of insects in spring in the middle of the great migration. Through binoculars it was the most impossibly moving thing … birds up-lit by the lights of the tower like slow tracer fire, desperate will pulling these creatures onwards.”
Although she was not religious Macdonald said that the air granted “a sense of the divine … I’m drawn to little epiphanies in the natural world … there’s something else going on. The air is a very special place for me.”
PB: “What are DVCs?”
HM: “It’s a cars/law term – Deer Vehicle Collison. Deer always surprised me when I saw them … before, they were magical to me … we owe it to ourselves to know as much about a creature as possible. The stuff on YouTube is pretty grim … I was just watching animal death. My parrot came to give me a hug … I’m always impressed by deer hunters’ knowledge of the animals they kill.”
PB: “… like the position you take as a nature writer … you offer a more nuanced view. You’re interested in falconry … the tension between bird fanciers and birders.”
HM: “I find all nature fascinating … it’s not free of class or racism … the Romany community keep bred caged birds … a lot of what’s going on is about class … as usual it’s the elite that get away with it all … our class consciousness is imported into what we do with nature.”
PB: “Bird hides – the weird behaviour you get, the snobbishness. How to you feel, as a woman, entering these places? Do you feel patronised?”
HM: “I don’t care anymore … the judging relates to expertise, rather than gender … these spaces are very charged along the lines of expertise … it will always be like entering an ultimate cage fighting thing.”
PB: “You did a huge amount of touring with H is for Hawk …”
HM: “I’ve always been an introvert … on the big tour I met readers who had experience grief and dark times … it made me kind of love people in a much more honest, big way. I used to love the natural world more. Now I love them equally … it was a massive education into how to be a proper person from my readers.”
Before reading a second extract from Vesper Flights Macdonald introduced us to her 17 year-old parrot, Birdoole, who looked cuddly and even has his own Twitter account. But when interviewed on the Today programme earlier in the day, Macdonald had confided: “I have more scars from this parrot than I ever had from any bird of prey.”
Selected questions from the audience:
What is your next long book?
“Midway – it’s about mid-life and the end of the world. Specifically, it’s about Midway atoll, an ex-naval base 1500 miles from Hawaii where I went as a volunteer albatross counter … I’m very excited to start it … in Hawaiian folklore it’s a place where souls come from and return to … wings brush your face at night … it’s like being in the afterlife.”
Which winter migrants do you most welcome?
“Fieldfares. I love them. The rattling flocks … they smell of snow and fjords, carry the Arctic with them … weirdly skittish. And waxwings … unpredictable birds, you see them in rowan trees in car parks and it feels like they’re in the wrong place.”
Are you choosy about the TV programmes you take on?
“I don’t have time to do certain things. But the TV programme (BBC4’s The Hidden Wilds of the Motorway) has been a joy to me. Writing is a very lonely occupation … you miss working in a crew, like being in a musical group … working their asses off to get something made.”
Are you a fan of rewilding schemes?
“We need as much diverse life as possible wherever we can … we are so starved of hope.” Macdonald mentioned Knepp farm in West Sussex, where rewilding has happened very fast and there are now “clouds of butterflies” She cited Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a .book about the world of botany as described and explored through Native American traditions. “What would it be like if we felt the world loved us back? Rewilding is part of that conversation. Yes, I’m a fan.”
How can we keep nature in the forefront of our minds?
“Hurricanes are directly linked to climate change, as are the storms in California, the lightning that causes wildfires. It’s hard to see individual events as connected to the climate emergency, but they are. We need to get our act in gear … get out there and start shouting.”
The love of nature felt by many during lockdown -how can we keep it up?
“Watching birds in the garden. Just sitting here and watching the natural world. We can take enormous solace from it. A spider over my oven with an egg sac – what’s life like for her? Do an exercise in your head, imagine yourself as something completely different. Lack of empathy is one of our great problems.”
Barkham admitted that Vesper Flights “brought me to tears reading it” and pointed out that “the subject that underlies everything you write is love and loss/grief.” Macdonald:“I had a twin brother who died just after I was born.”
“I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back. Hello there! Hello new thing.”