Saturday, December 12, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Dec 12, George Estreich, Vesper Flights and the Technology of Revelation


This is part 2 of an essay on Helen Macdonald’s writing. You can read part 1 here

To understand the difference between H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights, you can look at the grammar of their titles: Hawk is singular, Flights plural. H is for Hawk is a single, complex structure, like a house; Vesper Flights is more like a mobile, its essays suspended in dynamic balance. One tells a single story, centered on a single bird; the other is a collection of essays, whose birds are mostly in flocks: swans on the Thames, murmurations of starlings, flights of swifts. One book is set almost entirely near Macdonald’s home in England, in “a landscape I’ve come to love”; the other ranges further afield both in England and beyond, to Hungary, Australia, Chile.
     And yet the books are not symmetrically different. Both are “personal,” in that they narrate events from the author’s life, but they conceive of the personal in different ways, and for different reasons. The title H is for Hawk, as noted in part 1, gestures towards childhood and identity. The title Vesper Flights, with its religious overtones, suggests Macdonald’s “[concern] with the quality of wonder.” Quality can be understood in two senses: the essays convey wonder and illuminate it as a quality, as an experience rooted in limited human senses and framed by cultural assumptions. Though it’s not inaccurate to call Macdonald a “nature writer,” the book is less about “nature,” more about making sense of nature: how we perceive, understand, and construct it. That focus on perception is also suggested by the title: Vesper Flights highlights not the bird, but an action, its named trace. 
     For Macdonald, the way we understand nature—and fail to—is a matter of urgent moral concern. Something in the way we see nature has led to its exploitation and disappearance; a different way of seeing might begin to repair things. In the book’s Introduction, she spells this out, positioning literature as complementary to science, writing that we need to value something if we wish to save it. So the book’s explorations of wonder-as-experience and wonder-as-quality are purposeful; they model responses to environmental catastrophe, with the hope of inspiring action. 
     It’s easier to imagine a lesser book, something in the see-heron-have-epiphany vein: predictable awe, followed by predictable calls to Save What Remains. What distinguishes Macdonald’s essays is their focus on process, the way they show the mind arriving at wonder, questioning its arrival, asking about its own limits and flaws along the way. That process, more than any takeaway lesson, is the point. But that, too, is implied by the title: the essays are “flights,” each with its particular ascent and swerve, and the book is a flock, the whole moving in concert. 


Reading Vesper Flights, then H is for Hawk, I was struck by a pattern common to both books: in the moment, Macdonald’s autobiographical character is often obscure to herself, deciphering herself on the fly. At the start of H is for Hawk, for example, she drives out early one morning to look at goshawks, but doesn’t know this until she’s on the road: “it was only when my frozen, ancient Volkswagen and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going, and why.” 
     That pattern distinguishes her approach to the essay. If an essay is the mind on the page, Macdonald’s version shows us a mind perpetually catching up with itself. Time and again, in Vesper Flights, we see her “working out” what she’s feeling and thinking, belatedly decoding her experiences. Watching YouTube videos of “deer-vehicle collisions” (“Deer in the Headlights”), she writes, “It takes me a long while to work out how upset I am.” As a young woman working in the incubator room of a falcon-breeding center (“Nests”), she “[feels] unaccountably upset, with a vague, disquieting sense of vertigo. It was a familiar emotion I couldn’t quite name. I finally worked out what it was one rainy Sunday afternoon.” Her insight is sparked by discovering an old photograph of herself, taken when she was a premature infant in an incubator:

My twin brother did not survive his birth. And that early loss, followed by weeks of white light lying alone on a blanket in a Perspex box, had done something wrong to me that echoed with a room full of eggs in forced-air boxes . . . Now I could put a name to the upset I felt. It was loneliness.

     To me, it’s significant that Macdonald frames the moment in terms of writing. She begins with an emotion “I couldn’t quite name”; later, she can “put a name to the upset I felt.” That framing suggests a vision in which writing and life are thoroughly entangled. Writing turns the mind’s self-aware wandering into method. The writer works out what she really thinks, giving form to flow, turning the daily work of self-construction into something permanent and public: an essay.


This fall, with climate-driven wildfires in my home state of Oregon, reading Vesper Flights has felt eerily appropriate. Far more than H is for Hawk, Vesper Flights delves into environmental disaster. She captures the feeling of “living inside the catastrophe,” and the difference between knowing it intellectually and suddenly grasping it—epiphanies of fact, suddenly here, intimate, like smoke in the lungs. 
     Macdonald’s approach is microcosmic. Faced with the challenge of imagining the unimaginably large—climate change, the sixth extinction—she focuses on the small, linking the vast silence of extinction to local silences of hares or orioles, evoking disappearance with plenitude, reminding us of vanishing species with each still-living bird. Faced with species-level threats, she begins with her life’s particulars. In her essay on migraines, for example (“Symptomatic”), Macdonald links her inability to read obvious signs of an oncoming headache to our collective inability to grasp the reality of climate change. Despite “premonitory symptoms” that are “exceedingly specific,” the headache “is always a surprise”; similarly, even as we live in “the prodrome of catastrophe,” we deny the reality that is already here.
     It’s an audacious analogy, but for a number of reasons, it works. First is the specificity of Macdonald’s argument. She avoids pat explanations—in particular, the idea that we are “hard-wired,” in an evolutionary sense, to misunderstand the problem: 

What if it is not our evolutionary past that makes us unable to see? What if it has nothing to do with selective pressures in the lives of early humans? What if it’s us, right now, experiencing a structural issue that makes it impossible to comprehend symptoms as premonitions?

That “structural issue” is—paradoxically enough, for a personal essay—an excessive focus on individual thinking and action. In place of evolutionary speculation, she posits a cultural bias, observable in the present:  

We’ve been conditioned by our times not to process some types of problems and solutions because they do not fit with how we’ve been taught to think about society. We’ve been led to believe…that only our individual decisions matter; that to bring about large-scale change we should concern ourselves with the smallest actions…[But] Defiance and change in process are collective acts, not individual ones. Massive, concerted cultural action is what we need, and that is what we should be hastening to organise. 

By the essay’s end, Macdonald pushes the paradox further: even as she explores the way we imagine disaster, she argues that action cannot wait for imagination, that “we can march and cry and mourn and sing and hope and fight for the world, standing with others, even if we don’t believe it. Even if change seems an impossibility.”  
     Macdonald also highlights her analogy as an analogy, while limiting its scope. “Of course what is happening to our planet is not like what happens to a migraineur’s brain…But there are aspects that chime. My migraine mantra was always that’s just how it is until I realised it need not be.” And she nods to her writing process, to the thoughts preceding the literary device: “The reason I think of migraines when I read about the climate emergency is that I have come to suspect that our inaction might work the way my migraines do”; “Migraineurs like me are experts in denial…Which is why I keep thinking of migraines whenever I hear the news.” (She also notes that the aftermath of a migraine, the “postdrome,” “is a particular muse of mine.”) In other words, the reflexive tactics of the essay serve its political ends. By pointing to her choices as a writer, Macdonald acknowledges their limits, refocusing the reader on the climate disaster and the need for action.
     Like many of the essays in Vesper Flights, “Symptomatic” appears to leverage “the personal” to discuss a topic of general concern. I think it’s more accurate to see it as a revision of what counts as personal in the first place. The inward-directed meditation on migraines, and the outward-directed meditation on climate change, are woven together; self-knowledge and knowledge of the world cannot be disentangled. 


One corollary of Macdonald’s focus on process, on the acknowledgment that our understanding of the world is always evolving and incomplete, is that her essays are often organized around a moment of learning. She learns a new landscape’s features, or the name of a bird; she learns to appreciate animals (deer, swans) that held no interest for her before. 
     Or she discovers a different way to observe wildlife. In “Wicken,” for example, Macdonald describes her time in a nature reserve, where reeds obscure the animals she can hear: “I saw my mistake. I learned to stop needing to see. I learned to listen, to tune in to noises and let them guide my eyes.” In an essay about bird hides, she writes, “there is another kind of hide watching that I am increasingly learning to love. It is when you embrace the possibility that you will see little or nothing of interest. You literally wait and see” (“Hiding”). 
Seeing, in these essays, is anything but simple. It’s context-dependent, something to learn and practice. In “Sun Birds and Cashmere Spheres,” an essay about trying to glimpse an elusive golden oriole, Macdonald looks through a telescope trained on a nest. The description compares the experience to looking at “a Magic Eye picture.” At first, she can see nothing distinct,

but then, as magically as a stereogram suddenly reveals a not-very-accurate 3D dinosaur, the muddy patch just off centre resolved itself into the nest.

As soon as it happened I tensed with the effort of not losing it again. The telescope’s focus was slightly out for my shortsighted eyes, so it required physical effort to keep what I saw from derealising back into nonsense. 

Seeing is a cognitive act, a matter of turning nonsense into sense. When Macdonald finally does see a golden oriole, she writes, “It was a complex joy, because I saw him only in stamped-out sections, small jigsaw pieces of a bird, but moving ones, animated mutoscope views.” Macdonald’s images of puzzles (“Magic Eye,” “ jigsaw pieces”) and technology (“mutoscope views,” the telescope she peers through) suggest the complexities of human perception: mediated by technology, a matter of conscious and unconscious assembly. 
     Even as she observes animals, Macdonald questions the terms of observation. As in H is for Hawk, she’s skeptical about received ways of interacting with nature: 

Modern cultures of nature appreciation so often assume the natural world is something to watch and observe merely, as if through thick plate glass . . . we have consequential presence, [and] the animals we like to watch are creatures with their own needs, desires, emotions, lives.
Animals are more than living things to “observe merely”; they know the world in their own way. Perhaps this is why many of the book’s key moments are encounters, in which the writer both sees and is seen. She glimpses a rook flying overhead, and it glimpses her, and “I became a feature of its world as much as it became a feature of mine. Our separate lives coincided, and all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment…” Or she encounters a captive boar through a fence, and realizes that “there is a particular form of intelligence in the world that is boar-intelligence, boar-sentience. And being considered by a mind that is not human forces you to reconsider the limits of your own.” Here again, looking outward and looking inward, observation and introspection, are interwoven.
     You might think, from that line about “self-absorbed anxiety,” that Macdonald finds the natural world healing. In fact, she’s skeptical about that too, reminding the reader that it’s not just human perspectives that matter. Describing a forest where deer “have eaten the undergrowth where nightingales once nested,” she writes:

What to my human eye is a place of natural beauty is, for a nightingale, something like a desert. Perhaps this is why I am impatient with the argument that we should value natural places for their therapeutic benefits. It’s true that time walking in a forest can be beneficial to our mental health. But valuing a forest for that purpose traduces what forests are: they are not there for us alone.

     If nature is simply separate, and we can renew ourselves by being in it, then our relationship to nature is passive: we behold and are becalmed. But if we are part of it, then the way we perceive it matters, the way we inhabit it matters, and the way we understand it is itself a worthy subject of inquiry. Macdonald’s essays are built around moments of observation, but they are also meditations on coexistence, on how we share the world with animals—or fail to. Perhaps this is why the book’s essays are often set in towns and cities, from migrating birds above the Empire State Building to swans on the Thames, as if to emphasize the mutual need for animals and humans to live somewhere.
     How we think about animals has implications for how we write about them, a subject Macdonald addresses directly. She refrains from standard tropes relating animals to humans, a point she makes explicit (“The Falcon and the Tower”): “falcons are not merely handy symbols for human anxieties. Their greatest magic is that they’re not human at all.” And yet ascribing meaning to them is, for humans, inevitable:

None of us sees animals clearly. They’re too full of the stories we’ve given them. Encountering them is an encounter with everything you’ve ever learned about them from previous sightings, from books, images, conversations.

Into this conundrum—animals are not about us; we make them about us—comes the essay. Macdonald’s approach, as we saw in H is for Hawk, is maximalist: she shows us the same bird from many perspectives, scientific, literary, mythic, personal. Her essays can be seen as experimental combinations of perspective. They bring many ways of seeing to bear, as if layers of knowing had to be built up around the thing itself, so that they might fall away.


 Though organized around moments of deep attention, Vesper Flights' essays are true to the realities of distraction. For a nature writer, Macdonald seems to spend a lot of time online: tracking migrations of tagged birds on the Internet (“an addictive pursuit”), searching “compulsively” for images of elms, clicking on supercuts of deer-vehicle collisions on YouTube, lingering over the comments. (She also, by her own cheerful admission, watches a lot of action movies.) 
     I was drawn to that honesty. It’s been a distracted year, a year of checking more than steady concentration. During September’s wildfires, it was the Air Quality Index, a virtual dial with its needle occasionally pinned at Hazardous, and when the air finally cleared there were poll numbers to refresh, and then vote counts in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t written much. When the present is a river of quicksand leading to a thousand-foot drop, it is difficult to chew on the end of a pencil, peer inward, and concentrate on the meaning of experience. Which is one reason writing about writing has been a relief, a distraction from distraction. Literature is far more than that, of course, but it’s 2020, and you can only watch so much Netflix.
     Macdonald’s description of online experience is refreshingly honest, but I also read it as part of a meditation on technology: the Internet, like other technologies ubiquitous in the book (binoculars, telescopes, radar, etc.) is one more way that tool-using animals extend their perceptual reach. Her take on this process is complex. Being able to track tagged animals, from great white sharks to cuckoos, “makes the world a more complicated and wondrous place”: 

It encourages me to see the world as an animal does: a place without politics or borders, without humans at all, merely a series of habitats marching climatically from cool northern mountains to the thick rainforests of Angola and Congo. 

Macdonald avoids a stereotypical dismissal of screens: technology and wonder are interrelated and not opposed. And yet the Internet brings abstraction with intimacy, as “virtual animals [move] across a world of eternal daylight…a flattened, static landscape free of happenstance” (“The Arrow-Stork”). 
     Interestingly, there’s a trace of the same ambivalence in Macdonald’s description of field guides. Like screens, they flatten and abstract; like living experience, they are dimensional and rich. In “Field Guides,” while traveling in Australia, she returns from a birdwatching trip to her hotel room, looks up what she’s seen in a guidebook, discovers the names of a bird and two plants: “Now I know three things.” But in “Wicken”—the essay where Macdonald, in the fens, “learns to stop needing to see”—the field guide doesn’t capture the bird in the world:

I’ve come to know the inhabitants of this place through a long series of brief, partial encounters in which the animal in question becomes more and more distinctive over time, and never once resembles the flat portraits in field guides. 

And in H is for Hawk, she is explicit: the guidebook is inadequate to the goshawk. It does not capture the living essence of the thing: “the books don’t work.” (She does prefer printed field guides to electronic ones.)
     I can’t speak to Macdonald’s intentions here (or, really, anywhere). But to me, Vesper Flights opens up the possibility of seeing the essay as a kind of technology: one as precise as a field guide, but complex, self-aware, charged with feeling and ethical significance. It can balance clarity and wonder, acknowledging the incompleteness of any single way of knowing the world while provisionally putting multiple ways together: science and metaphor, repeatable experiment and individual experience, world as fact and world as texture. It is an open-ended inquiry, but with an endpoint: fluid experience, set against the satisfaction of a completed form.


George Estreich's publications include a book of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, which won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books; the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Shape of the Eye; and Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves, which NPR's Science Friday named a Best Science Book of 2019. Estreich has also published prose in The New York Times, Salon, The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Tin House, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his family, where he teaches in Oregon State’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. More:

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