Dear Readers, for the next few weeks I thought I’d share some of my very favourite nature writing with you. There has been a real renaissance in the form in the UK over the past few years, and I there are many writers who have inspired me: Tim Dee, Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin, Kathleen Jamie, John Lister-Kaye, John Lewis-Stempel and Robert MacFarlane to name but a few. But the first writer who, for me, really captured the way that natural events can fill us with awe and a kind of fear, was Mark Cocker. In his book ‘Crow Country’, the opening pages describe the evening gathering of rooks and jackdaws as they prepare to fly to their roosts. First, they gather in the fields, and Cocker describes the sound of thousands of birds as they arrive:
‘The two species create deeply contrasting but perfectly integrated sounds. The rook’s voice is dark, earthly, coarse, tuneless. But in aggregate it possesses a beautiful and softly contoured evenness. The jackdaws meanwhile produce sharp-chipped lapidary notes, like the sweet strike of flint on flint, and in this flinty landscape nothing could be more appropriate. In fact, both rook and jackdaw calls seem to come from deep within the Earth, as if it were the valley itself celebrating the onset of night’.
And then, the birds rise from the field and fly to the trees, a vast corvid murmuration:
‘Tonight the flock blossoms as an immense night flower and, while beautiful and mysterious, it always stirs something edgy into my sense of wonder. It is the feeling that in viewing the unnumbered and unnumberable birds, I am tipped towards the state of confusion which that inchoate twisting swerve so perfectly represents. I freely confess that on the unforgettable occasions when I see 40,000 corvids take flight in one oceanic roar of dark shapes and dark sounds, a part of my sense of joy is the frisson of danger the spectacle excites. Quite simply I am at the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate’.
This sums up for me those heart-racing moments that occur when things are on the very edge of being too much, that sense of being overwhelmed with a feeling that you can’t explain. Maybe it’s the moment when the rational mind just stops in the face of something inexplicable, and we’re left wide open and vulnerable. Thunder-struck.
The book, though, is not just about this moment, although like the rooks we swirl around it. It is a love-song to corvids in general, and the rook in particular. I love these birds for their association with Dorset – there was a rookery just behind Mum and Dad’s house, and another one in Dorchester just a stone’s throw from the nursing home where Dad lived, so their chuckling calls transport me back to happier times. Cocker, though, has managed to incorporate both the natural history of the bird, its long relationship with people, and the story of the Yare valley in Norfolk where he lives. He combines the specificity of a particular place and time with a broader context. Here, he is writing about a piece of flint ‘the size of a rabbit’s kidney’ that he has found at Burgh St Peter, near the River Waveney, in the shadow of St Mary’s Church:
‘My piece of flint is itself a kind of church – a small venerable contemplative space, a steel-hard, steel-cold touchstone reminding me that the residence of rooks and humans alike in this place is a thing of extreme transience. The birds have been here perhaps no more than 5,000 years and Neolithic farmers a little longer. The stone, however, which is hardly distinct from the countless other flints glinting across the fields of this landscape, is an immensely ancient treasure at least 70-90 million years old. It’s on my desk as I type these words’.
Cocker sets himself to the mapping of the roosts and rookeries in his area, and what makes the book so interesting is his curiosity. He asks questions that seem obvious, but to which we don’t really know the answers: why do rooks roost in particular places, and why do the roosts break up? What are the advantages of spending the night together in such huge numbers? What are the reasons for the period of silence that falls just before the birds ascend to the trees? I love this thoughtful rumination on the last of these questions:
‘I speculate that this ritual silence and the passionate vortex that follows it, have exactly the same function. Although they are opposites in terms of physical input, one a shared stillness, the other a chaos of noise and flight, they are identical in psychological requirement. They pitch each individual bird towards the collective heart. They reconcile the one to the flock. They attune the singleton-rook and jackdaw alike- to the processes of sociability which are at the very heart of its identity as a species. All the survival strategies and life processes of rooks and jackdaws depend upon collective behaviour. Perhaps these rituals at the end of the day are a way of binding them to that destiny, of knitting each individual bird into the shared fabric’.
As I re-read the book to prepare this piece, I am struck by how much Cocker manages to carry me away, to the landscapes that he’s describing. I too have been stuck on a hill in high winds, trying to spot a bird in the failing light and trying not to notice the sting of horizontal rain billowing into my face. I too love the dusk, the sense of promise as human life heads for home, along with the birds. I am reminded that when she was little, my Mum was sent to a convalescent home (she was born very prematurely and was a sad little scrap of a child). They used to have beds outside for the children in the summer, and she remembered watching the birds going home, and how sad she felt that she couldn’t go home too. And I identified so strongly with this passage, in which Cocker, after describing how his passion for nature, and his daughter’s love for music and drama, had singled them both out as ‘nerdy’ or ‘sad’.
‘But why is it that people who are absorbed by something are seen as sad? And what licences that particular remark? What strange presumption fortifies the unengaged and the dispassionate to express this scorn for the enthusiast? I was mystified.’
Cocker remarks that, regardless of language or location, there is frequently an instantaneous connection between naturalists when they meet, and I think it’s this passion that unites us. We care in a world where caring is increasingly seen as ‘uncool’, and cynicism is felt to be the only sensible reaction. ‘Crow Country’ takes us on a journey and I found the author to be most excellent company – I felt as if I was on this particular voyage of discovery with him. I love it when people tell me not only what they discovered, but what they still don’t know, because it opens the door for pondering. And there is nothing that I like better than a good ponder. It certainly made me look at rooks with a new interest, and fired my curiosity about other common species. There is so much that we still don’t understand and that is the glory of it.
You can buy Crow Country here (and in many other places too!)