Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I believe that Helen Macdonald could be for the life sciences what Carl Sagan was for astronomy and cosmology. There is so much wonder, joy, curiosity, and passion packed into these essays, but also sorrow, nostalgia, and pain at the loss of so much life around us.

The subject matter varies widely, from many species of birds and trees, to boars, ants, deer, hares, fireflies and more. And each journey into the intricacies of nature is paired with personal moments or epiphanies from Macdonald’s own life.

Every essay moved me, or was memorable in some way. Several brought me close to tears. If you have even the slightest interest in nature or animals or insects, this book will magnify it by 100.

But it is also an upsetting read. As Macdonald herself says near the end of the book: “Increasingly, knowing your surroundings, recognising the species of plants and animals around you, means opening yourself to constant grief.” Be prepared, too, to have your awareness of the death of the natural world magnified, and to feel that impotent sadness hang heavy in your gut.

Just as Sagan brought up a generation fascinated with black holes, nebulae, and the workings of the deeps of space, Macdonald’s book inspires us to find fascination in our own backyards, the beauty in the world right before our eyes and ears and fingertips. A world that seems to be ever more quickly vanishing.

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