When Helen Macdonald refers to “our house” in her new essay collection, she doesn’t mean her boyfriend or a member of her family. By most accounts, the writer who will lead a Talking Volumes online event Wednesday lives alone.
Not by her account, though.
“I live on my own but the thought that the house doesn’t just belong to me as a habitation is really pleasing,” said Macdonald by phone from her home in Suffolk, England. “I have these birds who use it as their nesting place. I have spiders. I’m not the world’s greatest housekeeper, so I can look into the corner and see their webs.”
That’s a nifty metaphor for her “Vesper Flights,” which makes connections between humans and other creatures, guided by a belief that it’s not them who should be figuring out how to adapt to us, but us who need to fit into the natural world. “Our house,” essentially, is the planet.
With essays about birds who know no national boundaries, refugees denied safety because of artificial borders and creatures pushed from their homes by human selfishness, Macdonald finds myriad ways to make the case that, unlike humans, animals do not feel a need to “own” their spaces: “We are so careful in the modern world to police the boundaries between our lives and other animals. We don’t like when they cross into our spaces. I quite like sharing this place with other creatures.”
That place, which she describes as “very chocolate boxy-y, like ‘Midsomer Murders,’ without the murders,” was fixed up with proceeds from her international blockbuster, “H Is for Hawk,” which describes her coping with her father’s death by caring for a goshawk.
If “H Is for Hawk” was about grief, “Vesper Flights,” says Macdonald, is about love.
“My writing is different from [the political activism] I do as a person in the world. So I try very hard to communicate to readers the beauty and complexity of what is being lost. You don’t want to fight to save things if you don’t love them and you don’t love them until you know them.”
Macdonald said she avoids polemics. “I’m quite a contrary person and I respond badly to being told what I should feel or do. I’m not good at yelling on the page. I think what I’m better at is saying, ‘Look at this. Look how beautiful it is. Look how important.’ ”
Subjects in “Vesper Flights” include the title essay, which is about how swifts navigate, as well as bird-watching from atop the Empire State Building, swan antipathy (“I never cared much for swans until the day a swan told me I was wrong” is how that one starts), avoiding deer on highways and giving up a childhood interest in collecting birds’ nests. Again and again, as Macdonald pays attention to an animal, it becomes her teacher.
Some of what she learns is heartening. Macdonald cites the nighttime flying of swifts — flocks of which can turn on a dime because of their sophisticated communication — as a guide for the vigilance and adaptability humans need: “In terms of thinking about wider aspects of community and what’s coming toward us, I think about those extraordinary birds going on their vesper flights, not only determining where they are but also what’s on the horizon coming toward them.”
Unfortunately, what’s coming toward them — and us — is “terrifying,” the writer says.
“My day to day is consumed with things vanishing. I think I started to [think of] it as natural, as silver hair and wrinkles are a part of aging. But it’s not natural. And it’s completely down to us,” Macdonald argues. “I’ve said a few times this book is way more politically open than the previous one, which was more personal and interior. I think the times we live in do demand that we tackle what’s going on.”
Macdonald advocates thinking globally/acting locally. Plant gardens that birds and bees will love. Install cisterns to catch rainwater. Cultivate a window box or a couple of pots if you don’t have space for a garden.
She’s doing all of those things, while contemplating the shows put on by the “common” birds in her yard.
“Everyone who watches the world knows there is a terrible lack of empathy for individuals who are not like themselves. So watching these creatures, with their own needs and wants and minds, it’s a really important act,” says Macdonald. “That’s been a real help during lockdown for me, along with ice cream, Agatha Christie and action movies.”
All of those may come up in her Talking Volumes chat. Macdonald says she discovered the performer within when she went on an “H Is for Hawk” promotional tour that brought her to the Loft in Minneapolis. She misses that experience, which helped her “fall in love with people” and was a comforting balance to the solitary nature of writing.
Right now, she’s juggling both, at least virtually. While spreading the word about “Vesper Flights,” Macdonald has begun her next book, about how the Midway Islands are on the front lines of environmental apocalypse.
“It used to be the site of World War II battles and it’s also the home of the albatross,” says Macdonald. “They are astounding. I want to write about them and the naval history of that place. If you want to write about a big thing like the end of the world, you have to start really small. So that’s going to be a bundle of laughs, huh?”
It’s also likely to continue a spiritual journey she became aware of while promoting “H Is for Hawk.”
“I am not a believer and I wasn’t raised in a family of any faith but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these little moments of grace in nature are incredibly important ways of being,” says Macdonald. “I tried in the [new] book to think more carefully about those times and what people might consider to be evidence of a divine, creator god, even though I tend to see them more as moments of astonishment that I had the luck to be alive to see.”
Although Macdonald jokes that her mother recently suggested woodworking could be “her thing,” her real calling is observing moments of astonishment. Not that she loves everything in nature.
“I’m sitting here waxing lyrical about spiders but when I hang up, I will go off and chase the clothes moths away,” says Macdonald, who is fine with establishing an artificial border in her wardrobe.
Yes, she loves chatting to her parrot and communing with cranes and searching for the last golden orioles in her part of the world. But, when it comes to eating her sweaters and rugs, nature can take a hike.