For the Birds: Listening to Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights Amid the Chickens

A hand holding a phone with the audiobook Vesper Flights on screen, as mentoined in the blog postFor the Birds by Zoe Grace Marquedant

By Zoe Grace Marquedant

I put my clothes, my phone, my duffle with proverbially everything I owned in the spare room. Set aside boots I decreed for working, layers earmarked for eventual ruining. Connected to the internet and most importantly charged my headphones. It was solitary work I’d signed up for. Farm work. Digging this, cutting that. And so I’d taken perhaps antisocially to listening to books.

I hadn’t been able to carry anything superfluous—room decor, a second pair of shorts, reading material—so I resorted to borrowing from my hometown library back in the States. It boasted a piddly selection of new releases, but compared to the larger libraries of the city, it had small waiting lists and, I hoped, librarians that could be enticed into buying a more contemporary collection.

Before leaving I had spent an afternoon scrolling through their digital library, ticking buttons for “hold” and “wish list.” Compiling a digital stack of what I always meant to read, to finish, to attempt at least. Where the Crawdads Sing, The Year of Magical Thinking, Never Let Me Go, White Tiger, Autobiography of Red, Milkman. Some would take weeks to reach me, some I could download immediately and listen to as we taxied from the gate.

***

And so standing on that clod of dirt in the north of Ireland, I downloaded Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights. Thinking her ruminations on the natural world would somehow soften my days of manual labor. Ease the monotony of lobbing larch trees into shape, scaling their trunks in rubber boots, wondering if I’d come to die in some minor agricultural accident. Part of me wanted to be distracted from the shirts that stayed perpetually dirty. The jeans that went from tastefully grass-stained to a different color altogether. Anchor me as I lost whatever bashfulness I had about wearing barn clothes where people might see me. But I also wanted, most embarrassingly, company.

To read, it seemed to me, was to be in your own company. On your own, often on your bed, with toes curled inside warm socks. To listen was to pause instead for a time in someone else’s presence. To allow another voice into your head. An invasion of sorts in which you left the gates open and unlocked. Letting a different narrator speak, symphonied by the rhythm and beat of your own breathing, your heart, your high-kneed steps amid brambles. To go about with the constant sound of someone else’s full sentences. Their paragraphs for pages, for hours, for days. Not unlike a possession, a haunting. Engulfing yourself. Listening. Intently, entirely, with the dedication of a safecracker.

***

Every morning instead of podcasts or pop songs, I walked around to Helen Macdonald’s meandering thoughts on migratory birds, English traditions, upping. Her ideas and memories on meadows, hides, old-school radios, goats, swallows. All while I pared back the overgrowth. While I refilled the coal bunker. While I stacked firewood, organized armfuls of kindling. Both of us, muddied and covered in burrs, but for distinctly different reasons. But also both of us, at a time, working a job that existed at the periphery between odd and necessary.

Now professorial and vastly accomplished, Macdonald was, in a section of Vesper Flights, a twentysomething working at a falcon breeding farm in rural Wales. She was in that period after college when you are neither establishing nor established, but self-important nonetheless. And willing to do anything. Including cleaning, checking, doing menial scut work.

She was, I realized with a degree of surprise, as voluntarily passing time as I was. A kindred shit-shoveler. Breaking the ice that formed in the drinkers. Filling the scuttle. I, too, was picking my way along a country road, deeply in tune to the temperaments of the radiator. Having similarly graduated and fled university towns in favor of what I determined was real work.

***

It was another part of the Kingdom and twenty-odd years earlier, but I felt connected to this young woman, divvying hay and working seven days a week. Trying to survive a life marooned between grazing land. Trying to stay motivated, to stay warm, to stay. Toiling in an idyllic corner of the country that froze in winter but enraptured you in the right light.

She watched birds on a wire outside her window, stalked steer through a field, knew where snipes could be seen in tall grasses. They were the motions of a life I was familiar with. I had my own attachments to the pheasants that scared over the hedges, the badgers that scrambled through the ivy. Even the ducks relishing in the rainwater.

Though our surroundings were parallel in that they were pastoral, Macdonald’s work, I had to admit, was perhaps a bit more important. She was buoying raptor populations. I was feeding chickens. But Vesper Flights didn’t romanticize hand-rearing fledglings. Macdonald slept in shifts, waking to feed the hatchlings, mincing meat for their hungry beaks. A life in which something is always hungry. I knew the sentiment.

***

I fed the hens while she mused on the interaction between the personal and the animal. My charges were not nearly as prehistoric appearing as hers, but I felt depended on nevertheless. A domestic among the domesticated. Chatting to fellow bipeds that were not pets, but rather the kind of kept that keeps its distance unless you’re scattering dinner in big arching movements.

I would find this flock sunning in the morning and knock a plate of fish stew, old bread, curry onto the ground for their breakfast. Sometimes it was rice. Stale chapati. Eggshells. Anything that couldn’t be otherwise given to the people, the dog, or the fireplace. They’d gather, ever reliant. Needing to be fed, watered. Needing someone to scare the kites away. Four brown, four white, a rooster, a drake, and three ducks. A small brood, but one that was constantly under some threat greater than their self-diagnosed starvation.

These birds had weathered hurricanes. A storm had ripped their door off its hinges. Now, it was nightly propped against the frame, wedged in place by a piece of timber anchored further with a cement block. All for the sake of safety, protection from more than just elements. For the ever-looming shadow of predation. In order to not become someone else’s dinner. A fox used to come over the road until it was summarily shot by a neighbor just doing a favor.

***

Macdonald’s birds were susceptible in other ways. The damp of her lodgings, she recalls, would have destroyed their delicate respiratory systems. We, on the other hand, brought chickens into the house to convalesce in the wet air when they were poorly. Her birds were kept in aviaries that were power-washed clean. They were allowed into office spaces, ushered sleepily off the keyboard. Ours were kept in outbuildings, given old tires to nest in.

While I shoveled chicken shit, wet bedding, and branches out of a woodshed that the white chickens took to roosting in, I carried Macdonald in my pocket. Her impression of wild boar broadcasting softly in my ear. My hair hadn’t been cut in over a year, so it was easy enough to hide the headphone wire snaking across the back of my neck. Easy to discreetly block everything else out and allow all those poetics to rattle around my body as I pushed a wheelbarrow across the yard. Scattering the rats as I went.

***

It was hard to imagine Macdonald without the bestseller. Her voice sounded completely comfortable in her reflections, but more than that she seemed assured in her pursuit even in that distant present of 1997. She, of course, acknowledged the slight fog of memory, including moments of I-think-that’s-what-happened. As well as the imperfections of that life. The moisture beading on the carpet, the hairdryer MacGyvered under her duvet to combat the cold. But she was young and doing what she loved, and so it seemed she would suffer any amount of overcooked rice and other particularities.

Somehow, her stories of accompanying birds into the UAE made it easier for me to fry duck eggs with diced-up hot dog and streaks of sambal to cover their muddy taste. To take that breakfast to a lawn chair next to the shed, passing through raspberry bushes where the chickens stood unbothered, hoping I’d oblige them with a berry. They’d gather as tentative as children at my feet. Even if I sat with so much as an espresso in a pint glass for a bit of sun. Not knowing that coffee doesn’t make crumbs.

***

I listened to Macdonald describe their wild equivalents. Owls, cuckoos, things you only see as well-camouflaged flashes in the forest. Oscillating at speeds our eyes barely register as they move through the trees, knocking downy snow from the leaves. Macdonald or some accompaniment with binoculars would have to sit for hours just for the opportunity to see that blur in person. With me around, these chickens only run from the rain.

Still, the rooster presided over the remains of a screened-in porch, their morning roost. He’d lost the majority of his tail feathers but still towered protectively over his flock. At first, he would consider me, my shoelaces, my bootprints in the mud. But he trusted me eventually. Enough at least to follow, hurriedly when I went to close the doors in the evening.

The chickens, too, in time only shifted instead of scattered when I shined my phone flashlight into the favored laying spaces. Sagging cardboard boxes, ledges, plastic bags matted just so, the thin triangle behind a perpetually open door. We would collect them, not wanting any more chickens. To eat ourselves or sell at the greengrocer.

 ***

The falcons of Macdonald’s Wales were bred artificially, scientifically, with much expertise. Each egg was a gem. With teams to watch and measure and rotate and raise. The babies weighed and fed a particular diet. Her birds naturally carnivorous, living, I imagined, a life relatively close to their outdoor relatives. They were capable of reverting to proper birds of prey and living without human intervention.

Ours, on the other hand, were helpless, gluttonous. Perhaps unknowingly omnivores. We even fed them their own eggs when we couldn’t stomach any more soufflés and omelets. Still, eggs crowded the counter, despite being cracked into almost every dish. There was a perpetual surplus. A process that showed no signs of slowing but had one obvious solution. One I’m not sure I could stomach as much as I liked wings in particular.

***

Macdonald and her cohorts plucked, and cut, and served cockerels cooked on the range. Not noting whether or not skinning poultry bothered her. These weren’t the fattened, plump, golden birds of cartoon dinners, but juvenile roosters with muscle groups more than chunks of meat. Perhaps this is what separated us. I’d only eaten chickens from the refrigerated section of Aldi. I was only in theory okay with beheading anything.

I had been initially wary of befriending animals potentially slotted for food. A friend I knew kept egg chickens and soup chickens. The latter you’d try not to meet the eye of when delivering their wet loaf of breakfast or dinner. The latter never got names. The egg chickens, however, were kept until their eggs were softer than eyeballs. The firmness of an uncooked yolk. Their thin shells undulating as the egg rolled around his palm. Orbiting its center like an unsure planet.

***

Knowing the farmer, I doubted one of this flock would ever be dispatched in this way. But then one evening, I found a brown chicken standing in a box in the kitchen. Soup or something was already bubbling on the stove. The farmer’s wife chatted, listlessly, to herself as she told me, They come inside to die. She had an unsympathetic lilt to her voice that I suspected stemmed from the dots of trodden-on chicken shit now bespeckling the kitchen floor.

However, this one was merely sickly. Not dinner. Due for a night or two in proximity to the fire, a dish of fresh leftovers gingerly nested beside her. I felt for the bird, offered to check on her through the night, place her box at the end of my bed. Given I was also bedded down, temporarily inside, given respite. Having also been taken in, fed whatever was in the fridge.

***

Towards the end of Vesper Flights, Macdonald revisits her killing of an injured ostrich on the periphery of the falcon farm. A moment of mercy and instinct. I wondered whether I would be able to do what she did with a rock and a penknife. Acting upon necessity. Knowing this animal was always going to be butchered, but still recognizing its pointless, painful death.

Unlike falcons, both ostriches and chickens are destined, in a sense, to become filets and thighs and drumsticks and steaks. Macdonald’s died during the last high of an ostrich boom. Chickens, both then and now, would always be eaten. It just fell to a when and a why.

I found as I was falling asleep that I wanted this one to live until her eggs were rubbery and deformed as stepped-on ping-pong balls. To feast on fish scales, vegetable peels. To wander after me, pondering and pecking the eyelets of my boots. Then roosting with the ducks in their waterfront property. When her box was empty in the morning, I pulled on my boots, my headphones, and went out to try to spot her. To try to find in my own life the line between projection, personification, anthropomorphism, and just good storytelling.


Zoe Grace Marquedant (she/her/hers) is a queer writer. She earned her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA from Columbia University. Her work has been featured in Olney Magazine, cool rock repository, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. She is also a columnist and contributor for Talk Vomit. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @zoenoumlaut.

Zoe Grace Marquedant headshot
Zoe Grace Marquedant

Submit your essay about reading the right book at the right time to our blog!

Buy Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald on Bookshop

Disclosure: Capsule Stories is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, and we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Please consider buying your books through Bookshop.org to support independent bookstores—and Capsule Stories!