In this nonfiction release from last year, a gifted writer—her H is for Hawk was a National Critics Circle Finalist—collects short pieces previously published in The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman and others. A thrice-published poet and a lyrical nature writer and enthusiast, Macdonald invites us to tag along as she considers avian migrations from the top of the Empire State Building; the life and times of the insect, or wild boar from the United Kingdom to the United States and beyond. Over a few dozen short pieces, most ranging from five to ten pages, she covers her wide-ranging subjects in startlingly vivid prose that doesn’t show off.
In “High Rise” we are taken along with the author and an ornithologist, to rub shoulders with the tourists who take the elevators into the sky to look out on Manhattan. But our guides are looking up, not down:
“Though you can see migrating raptors soaring at altitudes well over eight hundred feet above the city during the day, most species of diurnal birds migrate after nightfall. It’s safer. Temperatures are cooler, and there are fewer predators around. Fewer, not none. Just before I arrived, Farnsworth saw a peregrine falcon drifting ominously around the building. Peregrines frequently hunt at night here. From high-rise lookout perches, they launch flights into the darkness to grab birds and bats. In more natural habitats, falcons cache the bodies of birds they’ve killed among crevices in cliffs. The ones here tuck their kills into ledges on high-rises, including the Empire State. For a falcon, a skyscraper is simply a cliff: it brings the same prospects, the same high winds, the same opportunities to stash a takeout meal.”
In “Sex, Death, Mushrooms” Macdonald tags along with an old friend who’s an emeritus professor of the history of science and an amateur mycologist. They’ve been keeping up with each other over the years with walks like these in autumn, to hunt for mushrooms. Chantrelles, we learn, are not easy for even experienced hunters to spot.
“It doesn’t work well if you walk around and try to spot them directly. They have an uncanny ability to hide from the searching eye. Instead, you have to alter the way you regard the ground around you, concern yourself with the strange phenomenology of leaf litter and try to give equal attention to all the colours, shapes and angles on the messy forest floor.”
Along the way we learn various secrets of mycologists, from why one species is called Phallus impudicus, and why when Darwin’s daughter collected “stinkhorns”, she felt compelled to hide the smell of them from the maids: even “some modern field guides describe the distinctive odour of mushrooms like Inocybes as ‘unmentionable’ or ‘disgusting’ rather than the more accurate ‘spermatic’.” We learn, too, how picking mushrooms doesn’t kill the fungus: “in a sense, you’re merely plucking a flower from a hidden, thready tangle which may be vast and extraordinarily ancient: one honey fungus in Oregon covers almost four square miles and is thought to be nearly two and a half thousand years old.”
Finally, I’ll note a piece that demonstrates the range of the author’s interest and talent. “The Student’s Tale” is the story of a refugee and asylum seeker, told to Macdonald and then published in The Irish Times. The inspired choice she made here was to tell the story in second person, which serves to set the subject off as the target he’s become.
“This is a borrowed house that we’re talking in. It’s not my home.
We sit at the table and I don’t know where to begin.
I don’t know anything about you.
It is hard to ask questions.
You want me to ask questions, because you say it is easier to answer questions than tell your story.
* * *
When the intelligence services came looking for you at your grandmother’s home she called you and told you that these men were your friends even though they spoke the wrong language for the region and they were wearing distinctive clothes that made it obvious, really, who they were, and why they were there, but she was old and you couldn’t blame her for expecting friendship when what was offered was its scorched obverse. Your uncle knew better. He told you to flee. Your life is in danger, he said. Truth. So you fled. You left everything.”
So many subjects catch Macdonald’s eye, and she treats them intelligently and beautifully. For a tidy volume of short pieces of nonfiction—to read on the beach, or dip into before turning out the light each night—this volume is highly recommended.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .