Helen Macdonald discusses her new collection, Vesper Flights

Helen Macdonald discusses her new collection, Vesper Flights

Helen Macdonald, award winning author of H is for Hawk, introduced her new collection of essays Vesper Flights at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Online this evening, in a reflective hour of conversation with Charlotte Higgins, Chief Culture writer for the Guardian.

Lamenting the distance now between us and the natural world she described her younger self as a ‘gothic naturalist’ explaining how as a child her bedroom was full of skulls, wings and claws and other things she had found and collected. She had a real sense of just how strange and astonishing these creatures were, but now felt that we were not supposed to touch nature. “If you don’t touch something it’s hard to love it, if you don’t love it you don’t want to protect it.”

Higgins suggested that Macdonald was using the natural world as a lens through which to view life, and Macdonald agreed. They discussed the title essay of the collection, Vesper Flights – the flights taken by swifts at dusk and just before dawn up into the air as high as 8000 feet. It is now known that they take these flights at the precise time of nautical twilight and at that height they can see the stars and are above localised weather. They are able to both pinpoint their position, find out where they are and to feel what major weather patterns are around them. “And they do it together.” She said, “We all need to make the effort to climb higher and see where we’re going.”

Macdonald read from an essay describing discovering a meadow, where she had played as a child, had been mown and another where she experienced a total eclipse of the sun, describing the experience as sublime. Although she admitted she thought it was more moving watching the sun coming back describing that moment as “the single most astonishing experience of my life.”

In answer to an audience question she recommended encouraging children to love nature by showing it to them, and not to feel that you had to get out into the wild. Not everybody has access to a moor or a forest, but to watch the pigeons, and the small birds and animals that you can see from your window.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival online continues until Monday 31 August and all event are free to watch through our website

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