While standing one May night on the observation deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in New York, Helen Macdonald experienced one of the most moving experiences of his life.
Above, the purple glow of the tower lights flowed past an endless number of small birds weighing only grams.
“I tried hard to find the right analogy to describe it. They were like light strip ammo or moving stars, ”Macdonald says in a video call from his home in Suffolk, England.
Skyscraper is one of Macdonald’s newly translated Evening flightsessay collection texts. They deal with the relationship between man and nature, interspecies and the possibilities of coexistence. Some of the texts have previously been published in The New York Times Magazine, among others, some are new.
In his essays, Macdonald observes, through the events and experiences of his own life, the strange, amazing, and fascinating manifestations of the nature around us.
These also include the twice-yearly display of huge nocturnal flocks of birds above a million cities. The person in their own world down the street is unaware of it.
“It made the air above the city feel very strange, alien and alive at the same time.”
In making the essay, Macdonald also became acquainted with aeroecology, a discipline that studies the ecology of the atmosphere.
“I had no idea the air is so full of life like insects, spores and bacteria.”
While there are certainly fewer than before, Macdonald recalls. In Germany, for example, the number of insects has fallen by 75% since the 1990s.
Macdonaldin previous work, published in 2014 H like a hawk dealt with the death and sorrow of his father. Macdonald did the grief by training the chicken hawk, with whom he also lived. The award-winning book became an international success.
Many things have happened since then.
There is no more Mabel Chicken Hawk. It died just before the book about it was published, and Macdonald doesn’t train hawks today.
Paying the author’s bills has become easier. Macdonald says he used to be very poor.
“I ate a lot of lentils and instant noodles, and I had a car that broke down every ten miles. I got letters from the bank that I tried not to look at, ”he says.
“It’s been a luxury that I now know I can pay my bills. I hadn’t realized how grounding it felt. ”
Macdonald’s home has also moved to new residents three weeks ago.
The author rises and disappears from Zoom. Soon, two green-eyed parrots appear on the screen, sitting on Macdonald’s palm.
“They are babies – and they are a nightmare! These two are destroying my home piece by piece. But they are also fun. I like their company very much. So I will continue the life of an eccentric English woman! ”
And then there are things that have remained the same, like the life of a writer.
“I had naively thought that suddenly all my problems, all my psychological blocks and neuroses would disappear because my book was a success. No, that’s not happening, ”he says self-ironically.
“I’m currently trying to write an article, and I’m still rocking myself back and forth and crying at my keyboard. So in that sense, nothing has changed. ”
Evening flights Macdonald considers it much more political than his previous book. In the intervening six years, the world has had time to change, in a more frightening direction.
The climate crisis and the loss of nature have intensified. In addition, Macdonad’s own homeland has “idiotically” seceded from the EU and has therefore applied for a passport in his grandfather’s birthplace, Ireland.
“What is happening in Britain right now is really shocking. Britain is falling apart. You’ve probably heard that we don’t have gasoline or trucks, ”Macdonald says.
“It’s a very strange experience to live in a country and suddenly feel like it’s no longer home.”
For Macdonald, however, politics does not mean polemism. Evening flightsin his collection, he instead wants to open up a kind of nature to the reader Wunderkammerin, the curiosity cabinet, and shows what we are losing.
“I try to provide insights into the beauty and complexity of the world and thus encourage people to see them. I think that is the first step in getting interested in environmental crises. ”
Macdonald is a historian of science. He writes in the preface to his work that at this point in history, it is of the utmost importance that we learn to recognize and love difference.
It is more typical for man to look for similarities in nature to ourselves, to look at it as a mirror of ourselves. As a result, we do not see it properly.
“We might look at the forest and think it’s beautiful. But at the same time, it can be very impoverished in its ecosystem, almost destroyed by overgrazing or tree diseases. We just don’t see it because the forest is a place of introspection for us. ”
In his essays, Macdonald also wants to open up how we look at nature and what meanings we constantly reflect on it. Because of them, we consider some species and landscapes more valuable than others.
“Every time we see a plant or animal, it’s a weave of all the things we’ve ever heard, read, seen in pictures, or experienced in previous encounters.”
While we can never fully settle into the status of another species, by being aware of our own way of looking at nature, Macdonald says we can try to begin to better understand and appreciate its difference.
At the same time, our own world is growing, Macdonald says.
He takes parrots, for example, at home. Their world has all the same things as his, but still their world is completely different.
“When I try to imagine it, my own world becomes twice as big,” he says.
“It’s really inspiring to think about that kind of radical empathy.”
Macdonaldista became a nature writer in part because he spent his childhood in the middle of fields near London. Tekels Park in his essay, he recounts how, in the community originally founded by the Theosophists, the family was surrounded by German war refugees and a variegated group of eccentrics. From an early age, Macdonald got to samota and explore his surroundings on his own.
The father, who worked as a photojournalist in the Daily Mirror, again told about nature, and brought home the discoveries he had made, such as feathers and special mosses.
“He was a very curious man.”
It is also significant, according to Macdonald, that he is a twin whose brother died in birth. It only became clear to him when he was 18 years old.
“I was surprised, but at the same time it seemed to explain why I had had the feeling all my life that half of me was missing.”
Macdonald believes that the inexplicable feeling of loss made him feel lonely and seek close to the animals. Macdonald says he was a “weird,” school-bullied child who enjoyed being with adults.
“Everyone from ants, to puppies and crow chicks felt a bit like friends to me.”
Cities is found to be thought of as the opposite of nature, but Macdonald in his essays often writes precisely about urban nature, such as poodles or black ants in yards. In his texts, the tower of a dilapidated sewer becomes a steep, street canyon for an urbanized migratory hawk.
“Urban nature is very important to me. I believe that by identifying with urban nature, one can feel a sense of savagery similar to meditating on the views across the valley. ”
Besides, he says, not everyone can afford or have the opportunity to travel to nature in search of themselves. It is a matter of privilege.
According to Macdonald, there is a long tradition in the natural literature of an all-knowing narrator, which he himself has sought to break in his essays.
“Nature writing has very often and for a long time been such that an expert – often my male voice – shows something about nature and then explains it to the reader a bit in the style that you’re not lucky to have me explaining this.”
Thus, it was important for Macdonald to show the reader his own background and ignorance in his texts as well. Even a nature writer does not look at the world from a value-free vacuum.
Admittedly, he says, the learned voice in the narrative of nature is so strong that you often find yourself falling into it even unnoticed. The same has happened to Macdonald, who has done nature documentaries on television in recent years.
“It often happened in the filming that the director said‘ across ’and asked me to stop showing Attenborough,” he says and laughs.
“And I had been that‘ Here, on the side of the highway ’…” he imitated Attenborough’s voice and note.
Pandemian after the beginning, many began to walk in nature and share pictures of its little wonders. That didn’t happen to Macdonald.
“I’ve laughed to myself, as many people think that because I’m a nature writer and I like nature, I’ve spent all my time in the countryside looking for comfort in trees and fields. In fact, I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream and watched action movies on TV. ”
The work under construction, set in the Pacific Atoll, the Midway Islands and telling of the albatrosses, the end of the world, and the guilt we felt about nature, was left on a break after the borders closed. Instead, Macdonald has amused himself by writing trash-minded science fiction with his friend.
Macdonald is skeptical that the pandemic would leave a lasting change in our everyday relationship with nature. But on a large scale, the experience of him has been “something that deeply and frighteningly makes me humble”.
“I think this virus has challenged our thoughts that we are unharmed, that we can do anything and keep taking everything.”
Evening flights the essays have warmth and humor but like their predecessors also sadness. Macdonald believes that a sense of grief is important to a nature writer at a time when nature is disappearing around.
“If you don’t grieve, you can’t change what’s going on,” he says.
He mentions the author Rebecca Solnitinwho is pondering how we can maintain hope.
According to Solnit, it takes a lot of effort to keep the state of uncertainty about the future open, Macdonald says.
“If you are too optimistic or if you despair about the future, you won’t do anything because you don’t have an opinion.”
“I think mourning has a big role to play in keeping that space open.”
Born 1970 in Chertsey, on the London side. Lives in the village of Hawkedon in Suffolk, which he says is like “from the books of Agatha Christie but without murders”.
Studied English literature as well as the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.
H like a hawk (2014) has won, among others, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, the Costa Book of the Year, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for Best French Translation Book.
Writes regularly for New York Times Magazine. He has also published books of poetry and written radio programs for the BBC.