Magazine article The Spectator

Nooks for Rooks

Magazine article The Spectator

Nooks for Rooks

Article excerpt

CROW COUNTRY by Mark Cocker Cape, £8.99, pp. 216, ISBN 9780224076012 £7.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

CORVUS: A LIFE WITH BIRDS by Esther Woolfson

Granta, £16.99, pp. 322, ISBN 9781847080295 £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Was it Wordsworth who discovered the 'real' rural? Later, the Georgian poets celebrated its passing, giving rise to what Edward Thomas called 'the Norfolk Jacket school of writing'. The poets of the 1930s took up politics instead, and nowadays poets are mostly urban. These scatter-shot generalisations, riddled with exceptions, are only meant as an introduction to the astonishing welter of prose books, not poetry, since the beginning of this new century, which contain the word 'wild' in their titles: How To Be Wild, The Wild Places, Wildwood, The Wild Trees. All these lament, either explicitly or by implication, the way we seem to have lost touch with the non-human world.

Here are two more of the same kind, not about trees or places but about birds, more particularly rooks, and these have the same intention to make us look more closely at what, they assume, we might otherwise take for granted.

On the dust-jacket of Crow Country it is described as 'a prose poem', which might make the heart sink a little, although Mark Cocker can certainly describe the quasireligious moment that a mass movement of rooks can inspire. His book is really an account of an obsession, self-confessed. He is a professional nature-writer and it is true that he sometimes tells us more about the rooks -- or corvids, the genus to which the rook and jackdaw belong, as do jays, ravens and magpies -- than the general reader needs to know. However, what he conveys is his enthusiastic love for the intelligence and charm and sociability of these most commonplace of birds. It would be hard after reading this book not to regard their chattering and movements with greater interest.

Cocker rises at 3 a. m. to catch them gathering, he counts them on a small gadget held in his hand which he need not look at: he dare not take his eyes off them because, in thousands, they can take off as one bird and disappear he knows not where. He tracks them across the flatlands outside Norwich, loses them, finds them; to comprehend the patterns of their lives takes him years.

Even his understanding mother is compelled to ask, 'Why rooks?'. He is himself saddened, as well he might be, that some find the intensity of his interest and narrowness of focus 'sad'. …

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