Thursday, October 30, 2008

Corvus : a review

I didn't do it justice on National Radio this morning. Not one bit. But listen if you must. Checking in just prior to the review, I was told I had ten minutes (a long time on radio) so I lined up the facts in my head, ringed important notes, firmly marked a place to read from ... but as I was waiting, the NASA astronaut being interviewed before me slipped over the 10.30 a.m mark (talking about being smelly in space!) and then the 10.35 mark, and suddenly ten minutes was just over four. Such a shame, but that's radio for you.

It doesn't always matter - a lesser book can cope with four minutes - but Corvus is one of those books that almost overwhelms a radio reviewer because there's so much to talk about, and that discussion can go in all directions. The book itself is a forest of ripped slips of paper marking extracts that have to be remembered or read out loud (my poor family has patiently listened to most of them). Frankly, it looks like a rook has got to it.

And now I have no time to write up a proper review for my blog because I have to mark short stories and poems by my extramural Massey students. So here are some notes on this glorious book which can be characterised as a memoir about a family that lives with birds not unlike Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. It is also a paean to birds and in fact to all wild creatures, to wilderness, to nature, to the whole of the earth.

Birds, says Woolfson, are indivisible from their environment, unlike humans who have lost that connection over time. Birds are the marker of the health of our environment, too. We may curse them and the way they live cheek by jowl with us in ways that don't always suit our need for control. But, as she says, imagine a world without them, without bird song. What that silence would mean.

Corvus: latin for raven or crow.
Corvids: an order of birds that includes rooks, magpies and crows.
  • among the most intelligent, if not the most intelligent, birds - brains the same size and capacity of apes and known by some as 'feathered apes'
  • complex social organisation, gregarious
  • live cheek-by-jowl with man
  • surrounded by superstition (the 'devil's bird'), treated with suspicion and active dislike due to black colouring, being 'hoarse-voiced', cleaned up after battles (carrion) and disaster (Great Fire of London for example) but can't pierce skin with their beaks - need others to do that
  • live in rookeries with large, untidy nests
  • eat insects, birds eggs, very young birds
  • live around the planet - some in NZ

Esther Woolfson lives in Aberdeen. She's a writer and fell in accidentally with birds. Her adoptions included:

  • Doves in a doo'cot
  • Bardie a cockatiel (her daughter's bird)
  • A Rook called Chicken
  • Spike the Magpie
  • Ziki the Crow

She says living with birds was like marrying into another family, being introduced to a new society. Her book is full of her observations, but it is also full of the knowledge she amasses about these fascinating birds. There is a large bibliography and she wrestles with the things she learns - the intelligence of the birds, their capacity for feeling, whether or not they are happy or unhappy living with her. There are some wonderful stories - moving, heart-warming, stimulating - and some simply fascinating information for all those bird lovers out there. For example, the details of how birds fly and the historical envy humans have for this singular skill.

Signs of corvid intelligence:

  • vocalising - Spike and Chicken can say words - especially Spike who can say his name and say 'hello' - one of his favourite curious sounds was 'eh?'
  • caching (hiding) food in case of future need - or just to keep it - shows an ability to think ahead and to lie - Woolfson's birds hid things all over the house in holes in the wall, cushions, books.... and took great care over this
  • reaction to the environment - the birds show fear of some things (men with ladders) but not others, they don't think their reflections are other birds but assume they are simply themselves (Woolfson refers to scientific research to confirm this), they consistently like some music (Schubert, Bach) but not other music (Benjamin Britten), they think black things such as rubbish bags are dead Corvids and react angrily or upset ... and so on
  • feelings - woolfson is convinced corvids show empathy, joy, grief, mischievousness, anger - it's a controversial view and it is hard to measure this or to be sure but Woolfson can have no other explanation for what she has seen living with these birds - some literature says that without words there are no feelings but she asks why this should be so - this discussion in her book takes the reader (as much of the book does) away from birds and into a philosophical discussion on what makes us human

Woolfson writes simply and movingly about the business of living with birds. The formality of the rook who bows on greeting, caws 'good morning' every morning, preens carefully every night, who offers gifts with precision and care. There is wonderful humour e.g. the family never mentions James I to Chicken the rook because he decreed that all rooks should be killed. Spike is simply hilarious with his 'human' voice calling 'Spiky!' or yelling 'Hello!' down the phone to Woolfson's daughter.

She tells us other famous people - writers like her - have kept corvids. Charles Dickens had a pet raven and Truman Capote had a pet rook called Lola. The latter friendship is especially fascinating and wonderfully rendered in The Truman Capote Reader. Lola cached things inside The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Capote found all sorts of things in there including someone's car keys and the first page of one of his short stories - one he had abandoned because he couldn't find the first page. His grief on losing her is intense.

Oh, there is so much more from the history of birds (the discovery of the feathered archaeopteryx, the hummingbirds that are 30 million years old) to the beauty of flight and feathers. There is some exquisite writing about birds in the wild, and corvids in particular, and about Aberdeen and about the wider world of nature.

And were Woolfson's birds happy? She says they seemed to be happy in the way they acted, their health etc, and, as she points out, they were members of the family whom she believed she could read as well as her own children. As she also says, there were no other options for them as abandoned birds - in the wild they'd probably have died. In the end, Spike the Magpie becomes more aggressive and territorial and suddenly and inexplicably (and terribly sadly) dies. Why? Woolfson doesn't know, but suggests he needed more than she could give. Chicken, on the other hand, seems content with domestic life.

Of course any family living with birds or animals must be a bit mad - there are bird droppings, food cached everywhere, birds homes to clean, windows that must be kept shut - but by the end of the book I felt that we could all do with more of this sort of madness. People like Esther Woolfson are surely closer to where humans used to be - 'indivisible from the environment' - and remind us what we have lost.

This is a humbling book. A wonderful book. Highly recommended. And it's going off now to my friend Helen who has a blackbird nesting outside her kitchen window. She says I can go and see it. Any day now they expect the eggs to hatch.


Anonymous said...

Hurrah! What a fantastic collection of thoughts about one of my most favourite books in many years - thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

I heard your review Mary. You were fine. But I know the frustration of being cut so short. Sometimes mine have been reduced to 2.5 minutes because of the previous interview going on so long.
Two years ago I started my blog because of this very reason - my review of Martin Amis' novel was cut so short I was left frustrated and angry and decided there and then to publish it myself, and so Beatties Book Blog came into being.
Every cloud has a silver lining!

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks GG and Bookman - you two are the reason I sat down and wrote up my thoughts here after the radio review. Bookman, because I remember your blog coming out of a disappointing radio review and thought 'good idea', and GG, because you'd asked me to share my thoughts on the book and I so loved that we were reading the same book at the same time across the ditch and were similarly smitten - it felt mean not to. So thanks! I enjoyed myself.

Anonymous said...

love that expression 'across the ditch', what was great about your review was you captured the love of the book like Woolfson does for her birds, wish I could have written it ( that is the best writers compliment there is I think!)

Andrea Eames said...

I can't wait to read this. It sounds amazing.

In Zimbabwe my family lived with many birds - a cockatiel, an African grey Parrot, chickens, bantams, guinea fowl, a peacock, an aviary of lovebirds and pigeons. And that doesn't include all the wild birds we fed! I love birds and miss living with them.

And thank you for your comment yesterday - don't worry, I didn't read your first one as being cold, I just assumed you were leaving a quick note! :) Your advice is much appreciated.

Andrea xx

Catherine said...

Interesting that you say there are corvids in New Zealand - from what I can gather, we have some extinct prehistoric native crows, and we also have rooks which have been introduced. My friend tells me that the residents of Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula call the birds there crows, but as far as I can ascertain they are actually rooks. I've been trying to figure out exactly what species the birds we saw at Stonehenge and at Stirling Castle last year were. I want the name for a poem :)
I've been wanting to read Esther Woolfson's book, and have reserved it at the library - thanks for the review