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“Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald is a keen observer of nature and humanity. In her newest collection of essays, she seamlessly connects the two. Sometimes essays are the best way to end a day, and she does such a beautiful job of weaving in life lessons in her essays about boars, birds, and mushrooms. Her sentences are glorious; MacDonald is able to take the most mundane tasks: riding in an elevator, walking down the street, and make them spiritual.

In “High Rise” MacDonald discusses the way skyscrapers shooting into the sky aren’t any different than the machines we send into the ocean to discover the worlds we can’t usually inhabit. The songbirds she spots are so tiny and she knows enough about their biology to be amazed at their altitude. She describes them as tiny ghostly points of light and she has to choke back tears as she realizes,  “If I weren’t this high, and the birds weren’t cast in this light, I’d never see them at all.”  She also goes on to talk about all the other man made systems that influence flight patterns, but these tiny songbirds adapt and carry on. Is there any other way? There is, however, quite a bit of danger for migrating birds in the city. On this particular night the birds were attracted to the spire of the Empire State Building which is lit in multiple colors to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the building. On some nights, when the migrating birds are in the city, the 911 memorial lights have to be turned off intermittently in order to let the birds find their way out of the death spiral that is the light pollution. Over 100,000 birds die in NYC alone, but MacDonald recognizes the audubon societies who work to protect them.

MacDonald doesn’t fault skyscrapers or human innovation, rather she wants us to find a way to work together. Part of what high rise buildings do is to allow us to see. They are symbols of mastery and can work as bridges to nature:  stitching sky to the ground. She ends “High Rise” describing the songbirds like this,”Little astronauts, using stars to navigate, falling to earth for a little while before picking themselves up to move on.”

Readers will learn so much about the natural world in each essay MacDonald writes, but she is also able to make us consider our own mark on the world. We aren’t simply learning about birds boars, or climate change. Especially now, MacDonald is offering us hope through her stories and observations. In a pandemic world, she was able to – very gently – offer a quick reminder of the shape of things. “Literature can teach us the qualitative texture of the world. And we need it to. We need to communicate the value of things, so that more of us might fight to save them,”