The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year

  • By Margaret Renkl
  • Spiegel & Grau
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Julie Dunlap
  • October 27, 2023

How can we keep loving the world as it breaks our hearts?

The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year

Bleary-eyed and pandemic-weary, Margaret Renkl awakened early on New Year’s Day 2022, eager to spot her first bird of the year. Many birdwatchers in her Nashville suburb likely wished for a vibrant cardinal or sprightly chickadee to set the coming months’ tone, but Renkl exults in her luck at spotting a crow. What others might regard as noisy, greedy, or even ominous, she embraces as a “playful prankster,” a “curious collector,” and a “bold, problem-solving bird.”

Incongruous insights on nature are a hallmark of Renkl’s tender and devoted essay collection, The Comfort of Crows. The esteemed New York Times opinion writer has crafted here a third volume of numinous prose, again lushly illustrated by her collage-artist brother, Billy Renkl. This new work is part memoir of a covid-sheltering family’s joys and sorrows and part homage to the solace of Earth’s enduring seasonal cycles, all interwoven with reflections on the book’s sharp-eyed spirit bird.

Renkl begins her seasonal progress in winter, at least the truncated version that now visits her native Deep South. She depicts a time of propitious waiting, of bumblebee queens curled up in soil chambers, of snapping turtles snoozing in pond mud. Piles of gardening catalogs beckon, reminding the author of her late mother’s “beautifully extravagant” flowerbeds and propelling her own yearning for spring. Time and change have taken on new meanings for Renkl, now in her 60s. “What more could anyone ask from a new year,” she reflects, “than the promise — or just the hope — of renewal?”

Not surprisingly, crows in winter are her favorite backyard birds. Their black silhouettes against lowering skies punctuate the quiet cold. Readers beguiled by natural history will delight in the flocks’ preening, foraging, tussling, and courting heedless of the chilly wind.

Too respectful of wildlife to anthropomorphize it, Renkl is nevertheless gifted at discovering metaphors and object lessons outdoors. Crows’ tight intergenerational bonds, which can last 30 years, contrast with her adult sons’ eagerness to leave her nest. Driven home by pandemic shutdowns, the young men grouse about sleeping in their childhood bedrooms and plot their escapes. The remarks sting their mother. But backyard clacking, cawing, and squawking among feathered family members salve her pain. Understanding may sometimes be impossible for parents, she says, “But I am trying to listen.”

In spring, the author ventures further south to her Alabama hometown. Her Times columns sometimes rail against rivers fouled by coal-ash pits, pine woods ravaged by clearcutting, and other wounds no keen observer could ignore on the drive from Nashville to Birmingham. In Comfort, however, she chooses to focus on the charms of the terrain and its people, whose deep roots entangle her own.

The old neighborhood, she finds, still smells of gardenias, yet the author feels disoriented while exploring once-familiar streets. Her parents’ former home is nearly unrecognizable without her mother’s gardens or cherry tree. Yet one maple remains, towering over the altered landscape of Renkl’s youth. “I stood and listened to those trembling leaves,” she writes, “for longer than anyone watching from the inside would have understood.”

The prose is most lush and poignant in summer. On “thick days and thicker nights,” pavement gets so hot that rainfall sizzles into vapor. But there are so many voices in her trees, flowers, and berry bushes — trilling frogs, humming bees, warbling bluebirds, and shrieking crow fledglings — that Renkl dubs this “the singing season.”

Heat persists “with a vengeance” into September, and wildfires erupt after months of drought. Passages on chipmunks stuffing their cheeks and birds migrating south for winter as temperatures soar feel dystopian, not comforting. Then, an unprecedented storm drenches the city with 10 inches of rainfall in one night. Watching a hummingbird perched motionless through the torrent, Renkl longs to be more like him:

“Flexible, adaptable, untraumatized by change.”

All is not well, the author admits, in her Tennessee half-acre. Dwindling snow, vanishing insects, and expanding droughts disrupt the year’s cycles at an accelerating pace. “These changes,” she warns, “repeat from year to year, but this pattern is not a wheel. It is Yeats’ widening gyre. Its center cannot hold.”

Yet as the sun’s angle declines further in October, Renkl seeks and finds more to cherish. In one of the book’s finest mini essays, “Praise Song for the Ragged Season,” she watches a cardinal pair, bald from their molt, feeding their patchy-feathered fledglings. If only she could assure those fellow parents that “raggedness is just a first step toward a new season of flight.”

From another writer, so much optimism in response to heartache might feel forced. From Renkl, missing her grown sons and late parents, and fearing the future of a living world she knows so well, it feels like courage. Instead of turning away from harsh truths, she lingers on them just as she tarries outdoors in autumn’s fading light.

Knowing her own days are also waning, she devotes her time to noticing the iridescence of crow feathers and all the colors in piles of fallen leaves. Even in her most troubled moments, she insists, “The night sky is full of stars best seen from a dark place.”

Renkl’s writing is often aptly compared with Annie Dillard’s. As in Dillard’s classic works, The Comfort of Crows unites the personal and the natural, the mundane and the holy, in an exuberant meditation on loving life in a time of transformation. Most important, these essays guide us through life and loss on our fragile, flailing planet. How do we love a diminishing world? Look closer.

Julie Dunlap writes and teaches about wildlife ecology, environmental history, and climate change. Her latest children’s book is I Begin with Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau (Tilbury House, March 2022).

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