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Helen Macdonald: ‘It is hard to write about the natural world without writing about grief’

Helen Macdonald is very excited to show off her tattoo. It was one of the first things she did when lockdown eased and no one else has seen it yet. It is a seraph inspired by the gilded angels on “a completely over the top 19th-century screen by Sir Ninian Comper” in St Peter’s Church, Ely. He has a sword, “an expression of tender solemnity” and, most importantly for the author of H Is for Hawk, six wings, “which is very cool. I love him to bits.”

Her parrot, called Birdoole (“slightly Games of Thronesish”), is wandering over the kitchen table. “Tattoos are all about mortality and getting old,” she says. “They are all about who you are.” The writer, naturalist, poet and illustrator, who turns 50 this year, insists it has nothing to do with a midlife crisis: “I’ve had loads of those already.” Instead, it goes back to her earliest days and the death of her twin brother soon after he was born. “It has taken me many years to realise that was a very important loss for me.”

Loss and grief are the emotional landscape of Macdonald’s work. H Is for Hawk, which tells of her attempts to train a goshawk called Mabel after the sudden death of her father, was at once a devastating memoir and an elegant addition to the burgeoning genre of contemporary nature writing, winning both the Costa book of the year and the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction in 2014. Where her first book was written “trapped inside the walls” of personal grief, her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights, is a lamentation for the world itself. “To talk about nature is to open yourself up to constant grief,” she says.

The success of Hawk meant she was able to buy this cottage, crouched between a pub and a church in a tiny Suffolk village. The kitchen, overlooking a large chestnut tree and a field of barley, is a nest of foraged treasures: bird feathers (including one of Mabel’s, who died just before the book was published), her collection of glasses from extinct American airlines – Pan Am, TWA; a guillemot’s skull from a school trip when she was 11. “I remember being faintly surprised that all my classmates were absolutely horrified that I was cutting the head off this dead bird.” And it’s the first time I’ve gone home from an interview with the gift of a porcupine needle in my bag. Macdonald is Beatrix Potter with a tattoo.

A lot of the things that I love aren’t human – I notice them and I want to tell everyone about them

There are field guides in the downstairs loo and avian prints by David Hockney and Paul Nash on the walls. “I’m Jilly Cooper. Obviously!” she says of her conversion to the Aga, which, with the nature writer’s fondness for anthropomorphism, she likens to a “little sleeping dragon”: “I often feel there are three people in the house – me, the parrot and the Aga.” (She is so undomesticated her bank queried her lockdown purchase of a posh food mixer: “I am wildness,” she wrote in H Is for Hawk). As in her writing, she expresses herself in easy metaphors (grief is a “submarine”), her conversation a lively tumble of anecdotes, enthusiasm and facts. “I really like to think my subject is love,” she says. “Love of the world and the things in it. And a lot of the things that I love aren’t human. It’s not that I love them in preference to humans; it is just that I notice them and I want to tell everyone about them. I want to yell: ‘Look at this! Look how cool it is. It’s amazing!’” Birdoole clicks his beak appreciatively, his happy sound apparently.

But, she continues, “writing about love means you are also writing about death. Because love and death and loss are all part of one thing, really, particularly now with the climate emergency. It is really hard to write about the natural world without writing about grief.” The world has changed scarily since H Is for Hawk was published, and she felt it was no longer possible to write a book about “voles plashing through the fens”. She wanted to examine why we value certain landscapes and creatures over others, “and how we can do our best to stop everything disappearing”. As she writes in one essay: “During this sixth extinction we who may not have time to do anything else must write what we now can, to take stock.”

The title of Macdonald’s new book is taken from the twilight flights of swifts, reaching as high as 10,000ft.The title of Macdonald’s new book is taken from the twilight flights of swifts, reaching as high as 10,000ft. Photograph: Wildscotphotos/Alamy Stock Photo

Vesper Flights is “a curious various creature”, she says, the essays (some of which began life as commissions for the New York Times Magazine and the New Statesman) taking the reader on exhilarating adventures: watching night migrations of birds from the top of the Empire State Building in New York; witnessing an eclipse on the Turkish coast; camping by a rumbling volcano in the Chilean desert. Closer to home, she goes mushrooming in Thetford Forest in Norfolk; visits a bridge over the M25 for deer to cross the motorway safely at night and goes swan upping on the Thames at Cookham to write about Brexit (“not a fan”) – “a little bit of an off-beam way of doing it”. And then there are interior journeys revisiting her childhood as a bird nerd (for a while, she tried to sleep with her arms in the position of wings), or exploring the almost religious rapture which nature inspires in her as an adult: “Love, beauty, mystery. Epiphanies, I suppose. Moments of grace.”

The title is taken from the twilight flights of swifts, reaching as high as 10,000ft from where they can both perfectly orient themselves and see what weather is on the horizon. “It seemed to me the most astonishing metaphor, not only for spiritual flights, but also for what we need to do, sometimes for the good of us all: to break away from our everyday lives and try to get bearings on where we are and where we are going next,” she explains.

We’ve fallen off a cliff. What do you do when your life is being matched, hour by hour, day by day, with disappearances?

And the view from above is really not great. “We are completely fucked,” she says. “We are pretty much in the apocalypse right now, we just expect it to take place in 24 hours. Actually, it just takes place in a slightly longer timeframe. It is going to be grim. We are going to have to adapt.” Solastalgia is a “heartbreaking” phrase mentioned in the book to describe the distress of communities affected by the Australian droughts. “Everything was dead. What does it mean to mourn your home? You haven’t moved geographically, but everything is different,” she says. It is something she feels we are experiencing already. “Now spring tends not to be this slow progression, but a sudden flourishing of life. There’s a sense that a lot of the things around us aren’t what they used to be.”

Her lifetime, she says, has seen the most precipitous decline in nature, with the loss of more than half the world’s large animals and more than 3 billion birds. “We’ve just fallen off a cliff. What do you do when your life is being matched, hour by hour, day by day, with disappearances?” Memories of collecting caterpillars and frogspawn are being denied to children today, not because they are “stuck behind screens” but because nature isn’t as easily found. “It is really really sad.”

A “gothic naturalist child”, she spent her early years roaming the grounds of Tekels Park, a walled estate owned by the Theosophical Society in Surrey: “It was like something from a kid’s book,” she says. “Fifty acres of formal parkland and meadow and forest. It was all a little bit ragged.” During this summer’s heatwave, Chobham Common, one of her favourite haunts, where she saw her first nightjars and adders, was devastated by a wildfire. Her father was the youngest staff photographer on the Daily Mirror, her mother was a journalist on the Aldershot News. Both parents were “wonderful”, indulging her passions with trips to Birdworld (“four flamingos in a concrete pond”), her own mecca off the M3, and to a local garden centre with a tiny aviary, where she would “literally cling on to the wire”.

Macdonald at her home in Hawkedon.Macdonald at her home in Hawkedon. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian

Paradoxically for a book about falling apart, H Is for Hawk helped her to feel whole for the first time: “I felt that all of me was in one place,” she says. “All those parts of me – the literary side, the more scientific side, the experiential stuff, all the bird stuff – all came together in one.” She likes to think of her essays as “conversations” with the readers, and tries to avoid the rather lofty, earnest tone of the nature books she read as a child. “It’s not as bad as it was,” Macdonald says of the tendency for the genre to be a bit of a Boys’ Own club, the exclusive domain of the “Lone Enraptured Male!”, as it was once put: white, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated. There have always been great women writing about nature, she says. This exclusionary rhetoric, an invisible “keep out” sign around the countryside, doesn’t only apply to female writers. “We desperately need more voices from black and ethnic communities.” She cites J Drew Lanham’s account of “growing up as a black nature nerd”, The Home Place, as an example of how the field needs to be widened.

The first essay in Vesper Flight traces her fascination with birds’ nests back to her own first month spent in an incubator “when the world was nothing but surviving isolation”. Isolation and loneliness are defining themes of her work (new mothers have told her how much they identified with her feelings of fear and responsibility at being stuck at home with a young hawk). How did she fare during lockdown?

When she wasn’t watching action movies on her computer, she says, she looked at the birds in her garden “in ways that I hadn’t really thought of for a while”. A few years ago, she was commissioned to write a radio play called Through the Wire – “It was terrible! Shall we say that I’m not very good at dialogue” – based on notebooks she found in the Oxford University library detailing how British prisoners during the second world war kept themselves sane by recording the minute movements of birds. “Nature in the pandemic worked a bit like that,” she says. “We looked because we were stuck.”

Even though I feel my life is very fulfilled and I have the deepest friendships, I still feel somehow I didn’t do it properly

She is sceptical about the claims that lockdown allowed nature to flourish. “Twitter was full of pictures of swans and dolphins,” she says. “In fact, the animals had always been there but we hadn’t seen them.” But she does take hope from people’s delight in small discoveries, such as the transformation of unmowed grass verges from “little green deserts” into “Alpine meadows” full of wild flowers. “There is a sense that a few eyes have been opened to the fact that maybe things can be different.” She feels the government’s handling of the pandemic has been similar to their approach to the environmental emergency: “Let’s make it your own personal responsibility, let’s not make any structural change.” Our only option, she believes, is unprecedented public pressure. “We need to get out there. We need to demand change.”

She would have spent this summer in even greater isolation on Midway Atoll, a 2.4 sq-mile coral reef in the North Pacific Ocean, which she visited a couple of years ago as part of a project to count albatrosses. With more than 2 million birds across its islands, turquoise water and a nesting albatross every three feet, for Macdonald “it is like the afterlife in the best possible way”. According to Hawaiian tradition it is the place from which souls arrive and to which they return after death. Extremely low-lying, it now looks set to disappear into the sea as a result of the climate crisis.

The atoll has inspired her next book, Midway, which will again bring together the political and personal. It explores our collective environmental shame – “If you are going to write about guilt you write about albatrosses, Baudelaire’s albatross, Coleridge’s albatross” – and the “dubious cultural shame” of being a middle-aged woman on her own, “the whole crazy cat lady thing”, although in her case the cat is a parrot. “Even though I feel my life is very fulfilled and I feel creatively fulfilled and have the deepest friendships, I still feel somehow I didn’t do it properly,” she reflects. “So I want to interrogate that a bit.”

Above all, the book is going to be nothing less than a contemplation on the end of the world, “in a proper eschatological sense”. Hopefully, she says, there will be some jokes in there too. As she learned as a historian: “If you are going to write about something huge the only way to do it is to focus on something tiny and then spool out from that place.”

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald is published by Cape on 27 August. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com; save 15% if you pre-order. Delivery charges may apply. She will also be talking about Vesper Flights at a Guardian Live online event and Q&A on Thursday 27 August at 7pm.

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