“Someone once told me that every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write,” she declares in her introduction to the collection. “I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of nonhuman life around us.”
As a child growing up in rural Surrey, Macdonald developed a precocious reverence for the natural world. She lived with her parents in a cottage on the grounds of a 50-acre estate owned by the Theosophical Society, a mystical movement that integrated Hindu and Western philosophy, and spent many of her days roaming alone through the woods and a nine-acre meadow, armed with a pair of binoculars. The fecundity of this world, from its richly diverse vegetation to its birds to its butterflies — “common blues, small skippers, grizzled skippers, marbled whites, small coppers” — sharpened her observational powers and instilled a longing to study and understand these creatures. As Macdonald describes it, “It was richer, more interesting, had more stories to tell than any other environment in my life.”
Macdonald’s essays are often odes to the wonders of animal behavior — the ability of moths to migrate vast distances, possibly by sensing the earth’s electromagnetic fields, the synchronicity in flight of Eurasian cranes. A piece about nests ponders whether birds weave their homes according to a pre-existing mental image, and marvels at their craftiness and opportunism: “How we humans are intrigued when birds make nests out of things that belong to us,” she writes. “House finches lining their nests with cigarette butts, nests of Bullock’s orioles fashioned from twine, kites decorating their tree platforms with underwear stolen from washing lines.”
A profile of Maxwell Knight, a legendary MI5 chief turned BBC naturalist (and model for “M” in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels), probes the links between spycraft and the behavior of Knight’s favorite bird, the cuckoo, which breeds by camouflage and stealth — planting its eggs in the nests of other species.
Macdonald’s writing here, as in “H Is for Hawk,” can be hard going. It sometimes bogs down beneath the weight of its adjectives: She describes “endless indigo afternoons,” the “zoetrope flicker of pines,” and “the cradled mathematic branches of a monkey puzzle” — and that’s just in a few pages of one essay. Still, her evocative sense of place and her meticulous observations burst through the purple prose.