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The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year


The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year

To say that THE COMFORT OF CROWS is the most beautiful book I have read in decades would be a massive understatement. It is indeed that, on so many levels. But one has to begin somewhere in describing a work that expands the concept of personal meditation into every nook of 21st-century life, where one of the most frequent complaints we hear is how little time there seems to be for reflection.

Author Margaret Renkl exposes that big societal lie in her very first words to readers: “Wherever you are, stop what you’re doing.” If her words alone don’t stop people in their tracks, more than 50 magnificent full-page illustrations by her brother, Billy Renkl, multiply the impact of being suddenly and amazingly transported into a different level of awareness. They literally arrest the eyes.

"To say that THE COMFORT OF CROWS is the most beautiful book I have read in decades would be a massive understatement."

For so many of us, the onset of COVID-19 early in 2020 did just that. We were abruptly forced to slow down, stop what we had been doing, try doing different things and see the world in different ways. The most fortunate among us learned after the pandemic subsided how not to speed up again to the frantic and wasteful pace that for over a century has ignored and wounded the natural world, as well as the inner world of our own well-being.

In observing and gleaning a year’s worth of insights from her own semi-rural Tennessee backyard and places nearby, Renkl set out to do what countless writers have done through the ages --- create a cycle of intimate yet universal reflections covering an entire calendar year in the small but endlessly fascinating natural world at her doorstep.

But THE COMFORT OF CROWS (and crows are only one among a vast array of species from whom she draws comfort) does not read like vignettes preserved within a literary snow globe. There is no assumed privilege in her writing. Starting in the deadest and coldest depths of winter, each of her 52 weekly meditations captures universal and miniature miracles within the same physical space.

As each week weaves into the next, there is an almost tactile feel to the sense of growth and movement that goes on all around us yet is often barely noticed. Every particle of life, death, growth and change amid the ecology of Renkl’s backyard is connected to global cycles of weather, climatic patterns, habitat loss, environmental degradation, and myriad other effects of post-industrial human impact on an increasingly fragile planet.

Renkl doesn’t go in for preaching, rebuke or harangue; others have done that aplenty. In THE COMFORT OF CROWS, she describes vividly what it feels like to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenges we face as a species. The hard reality is that there is very little a lone individual can do to reverse many of the environmental changes we are now experiencing daily.

But Renkl is no cynical pessimist either. A pessimist wouldn’t bother to notice all the insect, bird and animal life sustained by her own backyard, or intentionally live a low-consumption and low-carbon lifestyle.

I see Renkl instead as one of a growing movement of engaged witnesses --- people (I hope I am counted among them) who habitually notice, care, act and teach good stewardship on a very small and informal scale, without calculating the impact of their efforts. They simply do what is right by the nature around them.

In that quiet and steady engagement, there is much cumulative power and a growing force of hope.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on November 17, 2023

The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year
by Margaret Renkl

  • Publication Date: October 24, 2023
  • Genres: Essays, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • ISBN-10: 1954118465
  • ISBN-13: 9781954118461