Science as Literature

The flight patterns of swifts are a fable “teaching us how to make right decisions in the face of oncoming bad weather."

Vesper Flights
Helen Macdonald
Grove Atlantic, 2020, 272 pages

As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, the general public is seeing the scientific process unfold on a massive scale. With tests and hard data, scientists continually update and improve our knowledge of the coronavirus, as well as guidelines regarding how to prevent its spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s reversal of its prior position about the necessity of wearing masks, for instance, indicates the kind of decision-making that occurs when new information is made available. But this reversal has also resulted in a skepticism of the latest science on the virus — portent to a skepticism that extends to the scientific process itself. “Fake news” might be contributing to this information crisis, but part of the problem lies in how science is communicated. Often hard science is presented objectively, dryly, and, perhaps, dispassionately — its process and results misunderstood.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In her new book Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald, author of the award-winning H is for Hawk, makes the case for passionate science communication, particularly when it comes to the environmental crisis. “We need hard science to establish the rate and scale of these declines [of animal and plant populations] to work out why it is occurring and what mitigation strategies can be brought to play,” she writes. “But we need literature, too; we need to communicate what these losses mean.”

As a collection of short essays about our relationship with the natural world, Vesper Flights brings together the realm of quantitative science with the world of literature. To do this, Macdonald draws upon the history of science. She describes her essays as akin to a Wunderkammer, or a “cabinet of curiosities” that “is full of strange things” and “is concerned with the quality of wonder.” Essay topics range from mushroom foraging in the forest with a seasoned mycologist to observing peregrine falcons hunting over a decaying industrial landscape outside of Dublin. Just as scholars collected and displayed incongruous specimens in their Wunderkammer, Macdonald deftly combines science and art in this collection of writings that range from the personal to the political.

For instance, in the title essay “Vesper Flights,” she starts by discussing her lifelong interest in swifts, high-flying birds that rarely touch the ground. Macdonald then chronicles her childhood fears of sleep — a fear she managed by counting the Earth’s layers above and below her as her own “private vespers.” Then she returns to the swifts and their “vesper flights” — when they fly so high they cannot be seen — to discuss what scientists have learned about this behavior: how the birds watch for storms, orient themselves, and more.

These vesper flights are a fable “teaching us how to make right decisions in the face of oncoming bad weather,” she writes.

Macdonald has this ability to pivot her short essays in surprising ways as effectively as the flocks of birds that inspire much of her work. In another essay, titled “Symptomatic,” she writes about her proclivity for migraines and her inability to see the pre-migraine signs, such as purchasing “dark chocolate and sweet pickled beetroot,” bad moods, and joint pain. A friend aptly points out that perhaps the failure to recognize the signs might be part of the migraine itself. Macdonald takes this theme further to explore humanity’s deficiency to recognize and act on the catastrophes of human-made climate change as part of the calamity itself.

Another tightly executed turn graces readers in the essay “The Human Flock,” which describes the annual Eurasian crane migration to northeastern Hungary. Macdonald compares this migration to Europe’s refugee crisis, where individuals and families seek “the simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep.”

Not all the essays are overtly political. Others focus on Macdonald’s personal experiences in the outdoors, from an encounter with a wild boar to witnessing the nuptial flight of common black ants, to the visceral terror of a solar eclipse. Taken together, these essays attempt to show a world often unseen or ignored and the constant evolution of our scientific process, while conveying that science and literature can walk hand in hand in expanding our own knowledge.

Ultimately, Macdonald wants us to remember what science and literature both try to communicate: “We are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us. It does not belong to us alone. It never has done.”

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