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Book of the week review: Naturalist’s essays explore the world around us, both animal and human

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Helen Macdonald is the British naturalist-author of the prize-winning book “H is for Hawk.” It’s about her adopting a goshawk she named Mabel to cope with her grief over her father’s sudden death. Macdonald believed the species’ fierce temperament is not unlike her own.

Helen Macdonald reads from her new book “Vesper Flights” at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2 in a virtual Zoom event. The reading is for Bookworks’ A Word with Writers, a literary fundraiser for the Albuquerque Public Library Foundation. Each ticket is $35 and includes a hardcover copy of the book, a signed bookplate and attendance at the virtual event for you plus one other person. The Zoom link will be sent to the email you use on your ticket order by noon on Oct. 2. To order, go to bkwrks.com, click on “events” in the menu, then click on the “Vesper Flights” book cover. That will take you to the tickets order form for the event. The book and bookplate will be shipped to your home or are available for curbside pickup at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

Now Macdonald has published a collection of essays under the title “Vesper Flights.” They explain the marvel and strangeness of different species of the natural world – mainly but not limited to birds – as well as the history of humans and nature and one essay about a refugee.

Macdonald does it all in magnetic, literate, socially relevant and warmly accessible prose. Read one essay and you want more.

The title essay concerns swifts. Macdonald thinks of these screaming birds as magical. “…to me they are creatures of the upper air, and of their nature unintelligible, which makes them more akin to angels.

Unlike all other birds, they never descend to the ground,” she writes.

The title refers to the swifts’ sudden rise, up, up, until they disappear from an earthling’s view. “These ascents are called vespers flights, or vesper flights, after the Latin vesper for evening,”Macdonald writes.

For years it was thought that swifts, like other birds, flew up with one eye closed, half their brain asleep and the other half open on the wind. “But it’s likely that swifts properly sleep up there too, drift into REM states where both eyes are closed and flying is automatic, at least for short periods,” she tells us.

In the essay “Field Guides” Macdonald tells about a lookout near a waterfall in an Australian national park. She sees a small bird (could it be a New Holland honeyeater?) in a shrub above “with flowers resembling bright plastic hair curlers.”(banksias?)

That experience prompted her to flip through two Australian field guides, and, in turn, to advise readers how to peruse natural history field guides in general. She suggests viewing guides, not just on the page, but “to read them against the messiness of reality.” That means consider such issues as the size and habitat of the bird species on the page you’re looking at, the details of tail length, leg length, wing patterns or scales or plumage, read the accompanying text and the small maps showing geographical range.

Another essay, “Nothing Like a Pig,” deals with her astonishing up-close encounter with a boar in the woods. Macdonald says she has seen images of boars for years, on ancient Greek pottery, in 16th century woodcuts, in photographs of 21st century trophy hunters. She argues that boars can be seen as mythological because they seem imaginary like unicorns and dragons. But here was one boar she finds “a miracle of muscle and bristle and heft.” The essay also discusses free-roaming wild boars in British woods.

In an email, Macdonald has suggestions for birders who want to do more than enjoy viewing flights through binoculars. “There are so many possibilities. Encourage younger people to investigate and explore the natural world with you; mentorship is a very powerful way to foster love and regard for what is out there. Join national and local conservation organizations. Support local preserves, reserves, habitats; fight for their continued protection. …Make careful consumer choices. If you have the economic wherewithal to do so, (for example) buying bird-friendly coffee to help support migratory bird populations. If you have a backyard, and are able to do so, think about planting native shrubs and plants to attract pollinators and provide fall food for birds.”

Macdonald also commented in her email on the apparent deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds in California’s devastating forest fires this month: “…as I stare at the sad photographs of the bodies of these birds that vainly fled smoke and flames and the destruction of their habitat, it’s hard not to see them as metaphors for what will happen to us all. I’ve been reading calculations that if it continues on its current track, climate change will force tens of millions of Americans to move from where they now live. These birds aren’t just an avian tragedy; they are the canaries in our mine…”

 

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