‘The Comfort of Crows’ and our relationship to the natural world


Even if you never garden, the fact that you are reading a gardening column probably means you’ll like Margaret Renkl’s new book “The Comfort of Crows.”

You don’t have to like crows to like this book either; you just have to care about the natural world and our future in it.

Renkl, a teacher-turned-writer, and her husband, still a teacher, live on half an acre in what she calls “a first-ring suburb” of Nashville, Tennessee.  Their kids are grown and flown, and she has entered what she calls “the last third of life.” As the neighbors of her generation are aging and selling their houses, those houses are being razed and replaced by bigger, fancier ones, surrounded by weedless, well-groomed lawns.

The Renkl’s half acre is out of step with that trend.  It’s devoted to native plant species, pollinators, birds, rabbits, chipmunks, skinks, and frequent visitors from an even wilder, as-yet-undeveloped world. The Renkls don’t do much mowing, and dandelions are prized as a treat for wild rabbits. Renkl has even given up growing vegetables to make more room for all that is native and wild.

She explains why in 52 essays that track the seasons, signaled by the book’s subtitle, “A Backyard Year.”

Her readable, eloquent essays brought to mind Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forester and poet. He famously said in 1968 that "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught."

Renkl writes to teach – gently, passionately, and with humility and humor. Her first lesson – the prerequisite of Dioum’s famous observation – is to see and to pay attention to what we see in the natural world. That is the practice that sets us on our way to love, understand and learn our way to conserving a world worthy of our children.

These essays are like chocolate cake: so rich it might be wise to only take in a single piece or two at a time. Each one – even the micro-essays she calls “praise songs” deserve time for rumination. (However, I couldn’t put the book down, and failed to do this.)

Her world in Nashville is different than ours; her sensibility is too. Our eyes will take in different birds, leaves, smells, mountains, waters, insects and animals.

But we share the need to deepen our connection to the natural world that both sustains us and needs us in this hour of climate peril and political division.

A recent article in The Atlantic bolsters the case for our need for that deeper connection, and its possible role in also improving our connection with each other. It quotes environmental-studies researcher David Orr, who wrote 30 years ago that “more than ever we dwell in and among our own creations and are increasingly uncomfortable with the nature that lies beyond our direct control.”

This is most true of urban-dwellers, especially those whose only knowing encounters with other species are hard-to-love rats, cockroaches, and pigeons, but it is more broadly true of people who simply don’t spend very much time outdoors. This can lead to biophobia – that is, fear and loathing for the natural world.

“Although our relationship to nature and our relationships with one another may feel like disparate phenomena,” author Hannah Seo notes, “they are both parallel and related. A life without nature, it seems, is a lonely life—and vice versa.”

“. . . Being in nature or even just remembering times you spent there can increase feelings of belonging, says Katherine White, a behavioral scientist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2021 paper on the subject. The authors of one 2022 paper found that “people who strongly identify with nature, who enjoy being in nature, and who had more frequent garden visits were more likely to have a stronger sense of social cohesion.” In a 2018 study from Hong Kong, preschool children who were more engaged with nature had better relationships with their peers and demonstrated more kindness and helpfulness. A 2014 experiment in France showed that people who had just spent time walking in a park were more likely to pick up and return a glove dropped by a stranger than people who were just about to enter the park. The results are consistent, White told me: “Being in nature makes you more likely to help other people,” even at personal cost.”

This research may not be as rigorous as science ideally should be, but it may be at least an arrow pointing to truth.

It makes me think that the more people read Renkl’s book and heed her advice, the more hope we might have to build the common bonds among people we need to conserve what we love.

And there’s another bonus: our love for the natural world enriches our own happiness every day of our lives.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


4 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Esther

    It's all true! Lovely column

    Saturday, November 18, 2023 Report this

  • GinnyAnn

    I'd just read a review of this book in a magazine and decided I want to read it. Now I'm sure of it. Your essay makes me stop and think about my little grandkids who have their noses in laptops all day. Taking them out to the parks or zoo is the closest they get to nature. For these young urban kids, getting them to play outside is an adult-controlled, limited activity rather than free roaming and exploring. I wonder how the Earth connects to their emotional psyche when they perceive their environment as an artificial experience. Something exquisite has been lost for them.

    Saturday, November 18, 2023 Report this

  • Drutty

    What a wonderful article! I believe you have a book in the making (in your mind)! For me being outdoors always soothe my mind and opens my heart. Thank you for this!

    Monday, November 20, 2023 Report this

  • PegGerdes

    Exquisite! Thank you, and I couldn't agree more with every line. My next read!

    Tuesday, November 21, 2023 Report this