About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for Vesper Flights with the Concord Museum

Good evening.  I am David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to this forum with Helen Macdonald as she discusses her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights.

Helen Macdonald’s bestselling debut, H is for Hawk, brought the astonishing story of her relationship with her goshawk, Mabel, to global critical acclaim establishing her as one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers.  In her review in the New York Times, Vicki Constantine Cooke observed: “Writing a great bird book … calls for poetry and science, conjuring and evidence. In H Is for Hawk, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award, Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering.”

While the backbone of H is for Hawk is memoir, the book also features a shadow biography of T. H White, an author best known for his of Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King, who also wrote a book on goshawks which Helen Macdonald read as a child.  I note that here because Ms. Macdonald conducted much of her research at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the repository of the T.H. White’s archival materials, a potent reminder of the power of historical records to illuminate the present.

In Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside -- to the tribulations of farming ostriches -- to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep. Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen Macdonald invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing massive migrations of songbirds from the top of the Empire State Building, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests.

It is a pleasure to welcome tonight’s moderator back to the National Archives. Tom Putnam is the former director of the Kennedy Library and served as the Acting Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries before becoming director of the Concord Museum, home to a number of iconic artifacts from our nation’s history, including, for example, the world’s largest collection of objects related to Henry David Thoreau, one of the 19th century’s most important and insightful nature writers.

At the conclusion of tonight’s conversation with Helen Macdonald, the Concord Museum will officially launch a new website that is part of a $3 million gallery redesign effort that received major grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. This new interactive and multimedia microsite uses artifacts and manuscripts to bring Thoreau’s world to life for a national and international audience.  

Lastly, we are pleased that this evening’s forum falls between two virtual film screenings featuring classic documentaries from the motion picture holdings of the National Archives in partnership with the 2022 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.  This past weekend we aired Pare Lorentz’s 1937 classic The River about the exploitation and misuse of the Mississippi River. This Sunday afternoon, please join us for a screening of The City which was produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair as a call to rebuild America’s cities in the form of planned communities. 

I thank all of you who are watching this evening for joining us at this special hour since Helen Macdonald is coming to us live from her home in England. Let me conclude by stating what a great fan I am of Helen Macdonald’s writing and have enjoyed reading these new essays about observation, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us. It is a pleasure, now, to introduce Tom Putnam and Helen Macdonald.