Finding Nature in a Half-Acre of Ground in ‘The Comfort of Crows’

Lee Polevoi


The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year

By Margaret Renkl

Spiegel & Grau

288 pages


No one needs reminding of our perilous times, from the onslaught of natural and manmade ecological disasters to wars of religion and the spectacle of an indicted grifter running for president. For that reason, among others, Margaret Renkl’s new book of essays, The Comfort of Crows, offers welcome relief from endless bad news.


The Comfort of Crows consists of 52 short chapters (accompanied by lavish illustrations by her brother Billy Renkl) highlighting the natural world in a half-acre of land outside Renkl’s home in Nashville, Tennessee. Through the passing seasons, she enthusiastically observes a variety of species that come and go in her backyard, including crows, foxes, and operatic songbirds.



At the same time, the author is keenly aware of our dire political and climate conditions. She strives mightily to resist the bad feelings these situations engender: “Too often I feel I am living in a country I no longer recognize, a country determined to imperil every principle I hold dear and many of the people I love, too. Immersing myself in the natural world of my own backyard … is the way I cope with whatever I think I cannot bear.”


Renkl is always ready to embrace the mysteries of nature. One day she comes across an unidentified pellet on her outside deck. Mostly likely deposited by a great horned owl, she thinks, but she can’t be sure. After some heated online speculation from other nature buffs, the mystery is solved. (Spoiler alert: the pellet is a dust-ball from a vacuum cleaner.)


Her close scrutiny of backyard activities yields many insights, not least of which is the stark brutality of the natural world:



“The only thing to do when a Cooper’s hawk stakes out a feeder is to take the feeder down, much as it kills my heart to leave my avian neighbors unprovided for in this changing neighborhood where natural food sources have become so much less plentiful. The hawk and the owl must eat, too, I know, but I don’t wish to make their bloody work any easier.”


Loss is a constant theme in The Comfort of Crows. The author mourns what’s vanished from her backyard—the dwindling quantities of birds, frogs, and foxes, as well as other creatures that formerly passed through in large numbers. She writes eloquently about mankind’s never-ending encroachment into nature, deploring the spread of insecticides, the harm caused by humans’ attachment to lawns, pollution to rivers, and so on.


Overall, The Comfort of Crows is a quiet book. Rarely during its 52 chapters does the author sound querulous or gloomy, though a tonal shift along these lines might have made for more unpredictable and compelling moments in the text.



As it is, the tone of the book remains low-key throughout, never rising to the level of shrillness or outrage. That’s simply not how Renkl experiences the natural world. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she won’t succumb to despair or relinquish her joy:


“The world is burning, and there is no time to put down the water buckets. For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway. Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future but who build the future nevertheless, leaf by leaf and straw by straw, shaping them into the roundness of the world.”


Author Bio:

Highbrow Magazine chief book critic Lee Polevoi is the author of a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.


For Highbrow Magazine


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