Feb 16, 2009

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

At its fullest, studying the life of another living creature is a way of engaging all of your faculties. In short, it’s a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so. At the same time it is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenant of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else.
Crow Country is a difficult book to classify. Mark Cocker calls it “a meditation on birds, landscape and nature”. It’s about Corvids, particularly rooks, and it’s part natural history and part memoir. The author writes about the birds that are the object of his fascination, but also about his fascination itself—he questions it, he tries to map its origins, to make sense of it.

So: Corvids. The Corvidae family includes crows, ravens, magpies, jays, jackdaws, rooks, etc. Crow Country taught me a lot about them. They are very smart birds. Rooks in particular are very social animals. And they’re fascinating to read about. Mark Cocker points out that even though they’re birds most people are very familiar with, we don’t actually known all that much about them. They have a bit of an aura of mystery.

A Blue Jay

One of my favourite chapters was the one on crow lore, where Cocker writes about the “inner rook”, the one that populates our imagination. He retells an anecdote he heard when he was a little boy: a friend of his father claimed to have seen a “rook parliament” on the road from Buxton to Manchester. The rooks gathered around one of their own, apparently to decide its fate. When his father’s friend travelled back to Buxton, the rebel rook had been executed. I know I’ve come across this particular bit of lore before, and I’m almost sure it was in a Neil Gaiman book. American Gods? Sandman? Does anyone remember?

A Rook

There was a lot I liked about Crow Country, but unfortunately I didn’t love it quite as much as I was hoping to. There were two reasons why: first, the writing. It’s funny, because one of the reasons why I got this book was because I’d heard a lot about how great Mark Cockner’s writing was. And I can see why people appreciate it, but it doesn’t always work for me. His descriptions of natural landscapes in particular are a bit…hazy? He uses a lot of imagery and metaphor, but I find that he uses them a little too much, and as a result they make the scenery he’s describing more difficult to visualize, rather than easier. But again, this is me. I imagine that not everyone would have this reaction to his use of language.

A Carrion Crow
The second reason was the fact that I was expecting the book to have mostly natural history bits, with a personal musing here and there, but if anything the balance is in the opposite direction. Again, this will not be a problem for everyone. And I was interested in some of his more personal mediations. But not in all of them, I’m afraid. I’ll tell you about one I did love, though. He writes about how some people, some of his friends even, find the fact that he’s so passionate about birds somehow pitiful. He says:
But why is it that people who are absorbed by something are seen as sad? And what licenses that particular remark? What strange presumption fortifies the unengaged and the dispassionate to express this scorn for the enthusiast?
I can’t explain it, but for me the reverse state of affairs is true. To be engaged is to be a part, to be absorbed and fulfilled. To be cool, to be detached from things and have no passionate feeling is the real sadness. At the heart of depression, that quintessentially modern malaise, is a deep sense of separation from the rest of life.
I don’t really understand this either. Why are passion and enthusiasm considered vaguely embarrassing or sad? Some people act as if loving things is a poor replacement for “real life”. But what are our “real lives” if not the sum of the things we love, whatever those things are? Have you ever felt this yourself? Do you find that people tend to look down on those who show a lot of enthusiasm?

A Jackdaw

But back to the book: although I didn’t love Crow Country, I did enjoy it. I learned a lot of interesting things, and I was left with a desire to read more about birds, any birds. I have a slight case of bird phobia, I confess, but they fascinate me as much as they frighten me. One thing I’d love to read is a good book on general bird lore. I know that knowing the stories that are told about particular birds would make spotting them even more fun. That’s one of the reasons why I love lore, myths and legends. Knowing all those hidden stories makes me see more when I look around. They're not real, but they make the world more interesting. And actually, I want a good science book on birds for the exact same reasons. Knowing real facts makes the world more interesting too.

A Magpie

Two more notable passages:
The naming of the thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it. You don’t. Sometimes all you have is a single datum. The name. In a bizarre way, the process of recognition can actually be a barrier rather than a doorway to genuine appreciation.

Yet perhaps they [our ancestors] too found the landscape steeped in familial memories, rich in their own ancestors’ oral tales, which were passed down round the camp-fire generation to generation. No matter what the age, we all feel—we relish it, perhaps, like a great enveloping overcoat—the great weight of history in a landscape, and sense ourselves to be at the end of a long process.
I'll leave you with a link to this lovely review by Terri Windling, which was the reason why I got this book.

(Have you also reviewed this book? Leave me your link and I'll add it here.)


  1. What a great review. The book sounds interesting.

  2. I think the rook parliament is mentioned in The Sandman somewhere. At least according to my husband, a Gaiman fan!

  3. A book about crows? We have crows all over the place where I live and they creep me out! I much prefer the picture you posted of the little blue bird! ;) Great review, even though...

  4. Very interesting blog! Love the layout and all that it has to offer! Look forward to seeing/reading more.

    And I'm pretty sure it was American Gods. That is the only one by him I've read and it seemed familiar.

  5. After reading a little bit of what Bernd Heinrich has to say about ravens (I just learned he has written many more books than I thought!) I'm really curious to read more about them. And I always get crows and rooks and ravens confused with each other. This one is definitely going on my list! Thanks for the review.

  6. I think I might enjoy this one too! If you want a fun book about birds, check out Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte...loved that one! I think the bit of crow folklore is from American Gods...it sounds right at least :p Was it towards the end when Shadow was bound to the tree? I loved the pics in this post by the way...we have tons of blue jays around my house and I love just watching them...they're quite aggressive though! I was pecked in the head once by one when I was younger!

  7. Nymeth, You have such a wonderful gift for words!! I loved this post and the pictures that you posted. I also enjoyed your questions and the authors. I love Blue Jay but they tend to run off my other birds...aggressive little buggers!

  8. I'd probably enjoy this one a lot based on the premise but I'm not sure if I would have trouble with the writing or not.

  9. Great review as usual, Nymeth!
    I'm not sure if this is my kind of book but I thought the pics you posted are great! The blue jay is beautiful; it's too bad that they're the aggressive ones! ;P

  10. bermudaonion, thank you :)

    Marie: I looked it up and your husband is right!

    Kim: They are creepy, but that's part of their charm, I guess :P

    Padfoot and Prongs (love the nickname, btw!): Thank you so much :) Turns out the specific scene I had in mind is from The Sandman, but there are crows in American Gods too, so no wonder I was confused.

    Jeane: I thought of you when reading this one...it's right up your alley :) And yep, I get them mixed up too. Now I'll recognize rooks, though: they're the ones with the light beaks.

    Chris: Enslaved by Ducks went on my wishlist right after you reviewed it. And nope, it's from The Sandman, but it would completely fit in American Gods too, wouldn't it? Plus there are Odin's crows in that one. But the scene I had in mind is from one of the stories in Fables and Reflections, the one told by Abel. And eek...I'm having flashbacks from The Birds now!

    Staci, you're too kind :) And wow, the Blue Jays had me completely fooled...they look so harmless!

    Ladytink: It seems that most people don't, but for me it just didn't work for some reason.

    Melody: lol, I know! I'd never have imagined it.

  11. I'll look for this one in the library rather than buying it I think. But I am intrigued.

    Yes... people thinking I'm a bit mad or a bit sad because of my enthusiams is something I've suffered from all my life. I don't get it. To me people who have passions are people who love life and find everything fascinating. They're not pathetic people! I've come across many people who have no interest in anything and, to me, *that's* the tragic thing... not me with my passion for books, or birds, or TV series or whatever.

  12. I know I’ve come across this particular bit of lore before, and I’m almost sure it was in a Neil Gaiman book. American Gods? Sandman? Does anyone remember?

    It looks like you've figured it out already, but since I just read it, "A Parliment of Rooks" is Sandman #40, and in the Absolute Sandman series, it's in Vol. 3. :)

    While I love natural history, and I love birds, I don't tend to read a lot of natural history books about birds... I wonder why? This one definitely looks interesting, though.

  13. Cath: It's puzzling, isn't it? I just don't get it.

    Fyrefly: This just does to show how much I need to re-read The Sandman :)

  14. Your notable passage about 'the naming of the thing' reminds me of the cat that explained he didn't need a name, in Coraline. Remember that? I just saw the movie last night so I'm sure that's why it popped out at me.

  15. Wow the first photograph is so beautiful. I'm not particularly passionate about birds, but I love photographing them...

    "Some people act as if loving things is a poor replacement for “real life”. But what are our “real lives” if not the sum of the things we love, whatever those things are".

    I agree with you completely, I can't imagine my life without my great passions and the joy that those bring to me!

  16. Is Matthew the Raven in A Parliament of Rooks? He's one of my favorite Sandman characters.

  17. I really like Mark Cocker's writing, but then I am biased because he is a local fella and he writes about some of my favourite birds!! I live very close to Buckenham marsh where thousands of rooks roost at dusk during the winter...quite an amazing site. Glad you enjoyed this book!

  18. Wow!! This would be absolutely perfect for my husband -- and I'd like to read it to. Thanks for the terrific review and for adding to my wish list.

    We keep a bird feeder year-round and I love watching birds.

  19. Wow this sounds like a great book.
    I love bridwatching and jackdaws (which are of the crow family) are my favourite birds. I'll be looking out for this book ;0)

  20. Care: I had forgotten about that! I loved that scene.

    Valentina: I can't either. The people who find us sad are missing out :P

    Rathacat: He's the one Cain tells the story to. And I love him too :)

    Mariel: I can definitely see why his writing is appreciated. And that must be so amazing to see!

    Beth: I hope you and your husband enjoy it!

    Lynda: Jackdaws are beautiful :)

  21. This book does sound interesting! I especially love that quote about a passion for things. I found that when I started my blog (which was originally focused on perfume) that I got such strange reactions from people, I just stopped telling people about it. I agree that to have an interest, a passion, is the best thing. I'd much rather talk to someone who's enthusiastic about something I'm not even interested in, than talk to someone who appears to have no enthusiasm for anything.

  22. wow, unique book. and great review as always :o) I like the photos you posted.


  23. Interesting book, Nymeth. I wonder what led you to pick it up? The crow lore associated with certain Native American tribes is so fascinating--other than little pieces here and there I don't know of any one book that contains the lore, but I enjoy crow lore almost as much as the trickster. Crows remind me of The Birds, though, which really creeped me out (saw it in 3D!!).

  24. priscilla: I don't often tell people about mine either...I was told "don't you have a life" one too many times. This IS a life, and one I'm happy with.

    Naida, glad you like them.

    Trish: It was that Terri Windling review I linked to, mostly...but also the fact that I like nature writing in general. I'd love to read some Native American crow lore...will have to hunt for a book. And The Birds in 3D would seriously give me nightmares for years!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.