“Rook, read from your book”

Bodleian crow
Crow, from an illuminated manuscript in the Bodleian Library

Mark Cocker Crow Country:
a Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature

Vintage 2016 (2007)

A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually — a vague blur slowly taking shape — they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me …

A short paragraph from near the beginning of this ‘meditation’ includes much of what I loved about this book: the prose poetry in the language, the evocation of a moment in time and the willingness to share a worthy obsession. Mark Cocker describes himself as author, naturalist and environmental activist (in that order) but I liked the way he melded all those roles into a seamless whole in producing the eighteen chapters of this book. There’s some autobiography here, there’s also travel writing, science, historical perspective, literary allusions, potted biographies of contemporaries and predecessors who have laboured in this field. And yet he wears much of this learning and experience lightly, inviting the reader into the warm glow of campfire anecdotes mingling with facts and figures.

Cocker’s focus is the Norfolk Broads, in the triangle between Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Beccles, with a bulge extending towards Lowestoft. The rivers Waveney and Yare, which flow together before heading to the sea at Great Yarmouth, have provided the habitat for birds of all descriptions for generations; probably many of these avian creatures have been here since the end of the Ice Age.

The author’s obsession with corvids — rooks in particular — is hugely satisfied by the presence of significant flocks of these sociable birds. He charts their ebb and flow, both daily from and back to their roosts as well as seasonally between roosts and rookeries where their young are raised. He discusses their habits, how they compare with roosts in Cornwall or Dumfriesshire, any similarity with other corvids such as ravens; he also credits other ornithologists, both professional and amateur, when they’ve added to the store of knowledge; and he details rook appearances in literature, folklore and popular culture. As an example of folk tradition merging with modern popular culture he even quotes from the lyrics of ‘Rook’, a song on rock band XTC’s 1982 album Nonsuch (a record for which my violist daughter was a session musician):  “Rook, rook / Read from your book / Who murders who and where is the treasure hid? … Rook, rook / Gaze in the brook / If there’s a secret can I be part of it?”

cover crow countryOne of things that endeared me to this reissue of Crow Country (first published nine years before) was the delightful and classy all-over fold-out cover Vintage Classics had commissioned from the Timorous Beasties studio to a design by Suzanne Dean: as well as a handsome rook it features plant tendrils, flowers and wildlife as could be found in, say, a Victorian naturalist’s notebook. But it is what’s within the covers that counts, and I for one was enlightened, entertained and enervated by what I read. You may be too.

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8 thoughts on ““Rook, read from your book”

    1. I did enjoy it, Alastair, but then I liked his magpie-like selection of multifarious aspects of crows — natural history, poetry, chronology, biography, reverie, statistics, you name it — all living up to his ‘meditation’ subtitle. It may not be to everybody’s taste but it suited my approach to the subject.

    1. There’s no messing about in boats, Lizzie, but plenty of atmosphere. Not an area I know, though we’re planning a stay with relatives in Suffolk for a few days so may get to see what the fuss is about!

  1. Like Lizzie I owe my introduction to the Norfolk Broads to Arthur Ransome. I have got very close (Norwich, the North Norfolk Coast) but I’ve never seen the Broads. You make me want to give it a read.

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