Helen Macdonald Gets Political

June 2, 2020 | 5 min read

Helen Macdonald, the nature writer and author of the 2015 memoir H Is for Hawk, is having an enviable Covid-19 lockdown. She Skypes from a sunlit room in her home in the village of Suffolk, in the U.K., which she describes as “ridiculously out of a picture book.” Outside are rolling hills and a field of oats. Nature even makes an occasional appearance indoors, when her parrot, green with ocher tail feathers, materializes on her shoulder or calls to her from off-screen.

Despite the idyllic setting, Macdonald feels, as most of us do, hemmed in. She’s accustomed to exploring nature in a freewheeling fashion. Now, because of the pandemic, her dealings with the outside world have become circumscribed. She’s taken up gardening, which she resisted for years. “I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with spending a lot of time pruning, and digging, and planting,” she says. She invokes the ethologists Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, who said animals tend to divide themselves into hunters and farmers. “I’m definitely more of a hunter.”

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Readers of H Is for Hawk and Macdonald’s forthcoming essay collection, Vesper Flights, will not be surprised to hear that she prefers her nature wild. In H Is for Hawk, she recounts her experience training a goshawk, which she named Mabel, as a means of healing herself after the sudden death of her father. In Vesper Flights, she turns her binoculars on an array of other subjects: mushrooms, glowworms, deer, hares, and, as befits an author with a parrot on her shoulder, numerous varieties of avifauna—orioles, falcons, swans, swifts.

Macdonald also, sometimes, trains her eye on humans. In the essay “In Her Orbit,” which originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine and is included in Vesper Flights, she profiles Nathalie Cabrol, an astrobiologist and planetary geologist who studies Mars. In “A Cuckoo in the House,” Macdonald considers Maxwell Knight, a British spymaster who inspired the James Bond character M and who was, in Macdonald’s words, “an inveterate keeper of animals.” And in “Symptomatic,” she chronicles her lifelong struggle with migraines.

But even when writing about humans, Macdonald makes frequent reference to the natural world, and what unifies the essays in Vesper Flights is her ardor for nature, her extensive knowledge of it, and her fear for its destruction. With a naturalist’s command of technical vocabulary and a poet’s eye for simile, she can sound like a former scholar who’s broken free of the constraints of academe—which is, in essence, what she is.

Macdonald, 49, was born in Surrey. Her father was a staff photographer at the Daily Mirror and her mother worked for local newspapers. She studied English at Cambridge as an undergraduate and returned to the university at 29 to pursue graduate study in the history and philosophy of science; she remained there, working as a research fellow, pursuing (but never completing) a PhD, until 2007. She owes the “analytical elements” in her essays to her time as a scholar, she says, but she decided to leave academia and write for general audiences because she felt that there was “all this really cool stuff that was never leaving the academy.”

Photo Credit: Bill Johnston Jr.

Macdonald began writing H Is for Hawk while still a research fellow at Cambridge and later sold it based on a proposal and first chapter. But she didn’t have much confidence in it. She worried that it was too morose, and that its blend of memoir, nature writing, and biography (the book includes chapters about the author T.H. White, who also wrote of training a goshawk) made it hard to categorize. After she finished the last paragraph, she waited a week before submitting the manuscript to her editor in the U.K., even though it was already late. “I was so scared,” she says. “I thought, This is the weirdest book. It doesn’t fit any genre. It’s really depressing. No one’s going to read it.”

She was wrong. H Is for Hawk went on to become a surprise hit. It won Britain’s Samuel Johnson Prize (now the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and, according to NPD BookScan, has sold more than 300,000 copies in print in the U.S. Dwight Garner, reviewing it in The New York Times, called it a “small, instant classic of nature writing.”

The book has made Macdonald into a literary celebrity, and it’s also brought her into contact with celebrity proper. In 2015, Lena Headey, a star of the HBO series Game of Thrones, acquired the rights to the book and is currently developing it for film. (Before Macdonald met with Headey, her friends gave her a warning inspired by Game of Thrones: “If she offers you wine, don’t drink it!”)

H Is for Hawk’s success has emboldened Macdonald to take on fraught topics in her writing. While that book is attentive to matters of class and gender, Vesper Flights sees her writing more forthrightly about the intersection between nature and politics. The essay collection chronicles a dizzying number of instances of ecological threat and destruction; it also documents the nativism that frequently accompanies nature appreciation. In an essay on swan upping, a centuries-old practice wherein swans in the Thames are rounded up and marked, Macdonald writes that heritage traditions of this kind “have clear conceptual value for nationalists; they promote a sense of seamless historical continuity that works to erase differences between past and present, burnishing an illusion of unchanging Englishness.”

“Some of the more political aspects of Vesper Flights, some of the ways in which I try to talk about class, about privilege, about climate change—I think I would have been too scared to have done that a few years ago,” Macdonald says.

Vesper Flights works to plumb the political dimensions of even our seemingly innocuous ideas about nature. We see “solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature,” Macdonald writes in the essay “Eclipse.” “But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own.”

And our idealization of nature as separate from civilization, Macdonald suggests, has ramifications for the environmental movement. In “The Falcon and the Tower,” she describes a falcon perched on an abandoned industrial site as a “feathered rebuke to our commonplace notion that nature exists only in places other than our own, an assumption that seems always one step towards turning our back on the natural world, abandoning it as something disappearing or already lost.”

Macdonald believes that offering these ideas in personal, reflective essays is a “more generous act” for readers than simply telling them what they should or should not do to help the environment. “A lot of environmental literature now is explicitly polemical and campaigning in a way that I find quite off-putting, because I hate to be told what to do,” she says. “I want to sit with someone and talk with them about what’s happening, and how I see it, and how I feel about it, rather than shouting. There’s a place for shouting. But I’m not very good at it.”

Nevertheless, Vesper Flights comes at a time when many of us, with our lives on pause, are thinking more carefully about the ecological consequences of our ordinarily bustling world. Elisabeth Schmitz, Macdonald’s editor at Grove Atlantic, suggests Vesper Flights helps to foster an appreciation for the natural world. “As we emerge from Covid-19, a crisis curable only by science, surely more of us than ever will want to protect this one and only environment that sustains us,” she says.

In the time since H Is for Hawk was published, Macdonald says, she has met people who, after reading the book, began to notice birds or “small changes in the natural world” that they hadn’t noticed before. “That’s occasionally reduced me to tears,” she adds. “There’s this brilliant, glittering world of profusion and life out there. It’s just there for us to take notice of. It’s just really special to think I might have helped some people get there.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is a writer in New York.

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