Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: September

Abi Andrews | 8th September 2020

Vesper Flights — a collection of essays about the human relationship to the natural world, from acclaimed H is for Hawk author Helen Macdonald — is newly published by Jonathan Cape, and is the Caught by the River Book of the Month for September. Abi Andrews reviews.

It was April 2019 and I was standing in a hi-vis jacket, making notes with a shaky hand as a woman around my age had her arm cut out of a plastic drain pipe, through which she was gripping the hand of her friend. Under her free arm, she clutched a copy of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, and I was crying and trying not to show it. H is for Hawk is the book that punched me hard in the chest, at a time when I was just starting to write with conviction, and said: this is what writing on our relationship with the nonhuman is capable of being.

I was acting as a legal observer at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and as I followed the stranger to the police van and made my notes on her arrest, I was quietly overwhelmed by a feeling. Yes, yes, something is happening. My home country, which I had always felt to be elegiac towards the natural world but but ultimately resigned to its destruction, was rising up for it, shutting down the streets of London. 

Just one year later the world feels very different. But it does feel as though that spring marked something, and Macdonald’s new book straddles this moment. Vesper Flights is a book of new and collected essays; its formation and tone are firmly embedded in the intersecting reckonings of the climate crises and our contemporary political climate of Brexit, migration and rising nativism. And although these are essays foremost about the so-called ‘natural world’, they refuse to perform the incision that separates the human from the rest of it. 

Animals cheat the supposed nature/culture divide. Birds make nests of human detritus, falcons nest in high rise buildings, and in so doing, they bring new meaning to our technologies. High rises are also ‘submarines’, into a world of ‘bats and birds, flying insects, spiders, windblown seeds, microbes, drifting spores’. If it were not for the Manhattan skyline, Macdonald would never have seen her nocturnally migrating birds, ‘briefly illuminated by this column of light cast by a building thrown up through the depression years’.

But there is unwanted fallout to this collision of history and the nonhuman. The ‘Tribute in Light’ to the victims of the attacks of September the 11th pulls songbirds into its orbit like ‘glittering, whirling specks of paper caught in the wind’. We must find a way to mediate the fluxing effects of these interactions, then. The Audubon Society manage to get the lights switched off intermittently, to ‘release’ the birds, until a new tragic cloud gathers. 

Our technology is both a bridge to the nonhuman and a moat. Technology, Macdonald implies, includes our language, which alienates us from the nonhuman even as it makes it more familiar. This is the uneasy disjuncture at the centre of ‘Nature Writing’, which is itself symbolic and seemingly irreconcilable to the nowness of the nonhuman bodies it represents. And yet, ‘literature can teach us the qualitative texture of the world’. It is a truism in Nature Writing that we need to name in order to know, we need to know in order to love. But in an age of mass biodiversity collapse, it bears repeating, and Macdonald does this with singular grace. 

These essays span from Manhattan, Macdonald’s childhood walled garden, to the Blue Mountains in Australia, but throughout, the place-time we return to is contemporary England. This ‘hallucinatory English dreamscape’ we have learned to love through the stories we tell about ourselves via literature and art of the past (which talks to an excellent recent essay by Jessica J. Lee on the topic of colonising notions of beauty). This comes through the essays as birds who are inextricable from our ideas of English nationhood; songbirds that stand in for ‘home’ to men in the trenches, swans that become the body politic. 

And where animals come to stand in for our own battles, and the language around invasive species is co-opted, we can be led to a troubling place. And then it is important to take an explicitly political stance with your storying of the natural world. 

Macdonald jars us with a sudden change to the second person in ‘The Student’s Tale’, placing the reader in the centre of the story of an epidemiologist who has had to flee his country, which leaves no ambiguity as to her stance here. Self-reflexively she says, ‘it’s a truism that birds know no political borders’. It is a truism, but it is an important one — one these essays lean on heavily, as is the way with a too-perfect truism. 

Deftly then, we are invited to think of the individuating importance of naming and storying for both those humans constructed as ‘other’, and the animals that lose themselves to our archetypes. Judith rears orphaned swifts and releases them back to the sky. These care relationships are the closest that humans get to wild animals. And the proximity of this care can turn an animal, that may have stood for its species, into an individual, which is something more readily loveable.

I have been living and working at a sanctuary for Australian wildlife for the past six months, and also rescuing animals that have come into trouble (usually human-caused; cars & barbed wire). It is true, as Macdonald says, that it is our own insecurities ‘about the impact we have on the natural world’ that cause us to intervene with our care. But it is also true that our anxious care brings us into a new state of knowing, where suddenly these animals we have known at a distance are distinct individuals with needs. And this has an effect on a wider conservation ethic. 

When individual members of the public come into contact with wild animals in need of care, they suddenly become very invested in them. Often, they call back to find out the fate of the animal, and they have bestowed them with a name — Coco, Hoppy, Lucky. I recently hand-reared a squirrel glider I named Maple. I learned of her impossible softness, her way of moving very fast to suddenly very still, the noise of greeting she would make to me by hissing through her rolled up tongue. I care fiercely now about a species I had not known existed in all its idiosyncrasies only six months ago. 

Motes and bridges both. Our technologies force animals to need our care. They also help us to understand them better, which ultimately can help us to love (first: do an internet search for wildlife-cam images of squirrel glider nest-boxes. Now: try your hardest not to love them). Macdonald finds it addictive to follow the icon of a tagged migrating bird across google maps. While the icon is not the bird, she shows us it can make its world seem more real and wondrous. 

Writing of animals is meaningful, redeeming, anthropomorphising and obliterating — it is all these things at once. Animals are our myths and they are breathing, defecating, wanting subjects. There is a gap in between; beyond the stories we tell of it, the nonhuman world is ultimately much more rich and complicated than we could imagine, and that is something to embrace. 

The glitter on the surface throughout these essays is that ‘the world might be, it turns out, too complicated for us to know’. With this not-knowing, the nonhuman teaches us to love otherness, which is an urgent affect in a world increasingly hostile to difference. This fierce love is our best chance at commitment to this moment, in which we must rise up to preserve it. 


Vesper Flights is out now and available here, priced £14.99.