Crow Country by Mark Cocker
Vintage Books, London, 2008
From my TBR pile.
Mark Cocker is not a biologist or any kind of scientist but he was introduced to the mysteries that are rooks at young age and has been fascinated by Corvids ever since.
One evening, near his home in Norfolk, England, he watched a massive, ear-shattering gathering of rooks and jackdaws on the way to their roost. From that point on they became an obsession and he traveled the length of England in search of them, trying to find answers to why they gathered and where they choose to roost. Interspersing his travels with poetry, historic journal entries and scientific research, he wanders his home territory, fascinated by these birds.
Cocker’s writing is poetic prose, layered with feeling and deep thought. It is the kind of “nature” writing that stops me, makes me really think about my own assumptions, about what I “know”.
You may ask, how could the rook have subverted my whole approach to birds? The answer starts, like birding itself, with the business of identification. You can’t proceed with an interest in ornithology unless you are able to identify the creatures you observe. Identification itself hinges upon breaking down a bird into its constituent parts – the primaries, wings, tail, head, legs, etc. Having deconstructed it into this detailed feathered map, one can then attach a specific name to the suite of observed features. In a sense the issue of the rook’s flocking instinct was previously important to me only as a characteristic allowing me to recognize the bird.
I have come to recognize that even this exercise carries within it a subtle kind of complacency, a curious intellectual sleight of hand, because every time you pin a label on a living creature it reaffirms a sense of mastery over it. 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. From page 39.
This is nature writing at its best, filled with facts and history, featuring beings that have lived with and haunted humans for centuries. It is also a reminder that the earth is not just ours. It is a place shared with a multitude of other creatures. If we wish to lead full and joyful lives, we must value our connections to them