My mother and the majestic rook seem to have a thing going on. He has become quite tame

In this essay, Dave, by Sara Baume, the author realises that someday she will become responsible for the much-loved family garden

Rook illustration for essay, Dave, by Sara Baume

We are sitting in the yard between the back of the house and the front of the shed, my mother and me. There are islands of pot-plants in the weathered concrete and a flowerbed running along the wall behind us. It is summer and everything is in bloom – the geraniums, the lavender, the columbine, several spears of verbena, and a pillow of lithodora heavenly blue. There are windmills and other colourful plastic things that spin in the breeze on the end of long sticks protruding from the dirt. Above the flowerbed there is a trellis that supports a wisteria, a clematis, and an Albertine rose. My mother is particularly proud of that climbing rose. Apparently it is old-fashioned and was a gift from her mother.

We are sitting on the bench with the yard table in front of us. On the table there is an embroidered linen cloth, a wooden board of cheeses, and a basket of chunky, seed-studded bread. My mother’s garden is lovely in summer and we always sit out for lunch. We sit out in spring and autumn too, and sometimes even in winter. In spring and autumn and winter we sit out in our hats and scarves holding bowls of vegetable soup so thick you could turn them upside down and make soup castles. But today it is summer and everything is lovely when an enormous rook lands in the gutter of the shed and takes a moment to arrange himself comfortably and then peers down, enquiringly, at us and our detritus.

He is radiantly black, with a prominent beak pouch – this is how I know that he is male. Males have pouches for carrying scavenged food around to impress the ladies, and then later – after they have been successful with the ladies – for collecting food to bring back to their young. All rooks have a patch under their chin that is bald except for a sparse, grey stubble – an adaptation that allows them to feast on carrion without getting flecks of blood in their black feathers. They are the ugliest of the crows, but this one is majestic, with the sun glinting off his neatly folded wings. My mother, it appears, is already acquainted with him. He gets special rations, she tells me, a scoop of peanuts on the flat of the roof whenever he comes looking, which has become, for obvious reasons, increasingly often. They seem to have a thing going on – my mother and the majestic rook. He has become quite tame. We should call him Dave, I say, after my father.

I am standing at my mother’s kitchen window; it is six o’clock in the morning. My mother wakes very early – three at the earliest, more often four or five. If it is three or four in the morning she will eat half a banana and neatly fold the peel around the other half and place it on the top shelf of the fridge and go back to bed. If it is five she gets dressed and has muesli. Without fail my mother is always up by six. This morning I have beaten her downstairs by seconds. I draw back the curtain to find a congregation of rooks – they are lined up along the gutter of the shed and the stone rim of the flowerbed; they are squatting on the bench, the table. They are waiting. They squint through the glass as soon as my face appears. Mum! I say, as she comes in after me in her dressing gown. There’s a scene from a Hitchcock movie happening out there! Her hair, which was always short, grew long during the pandemic and she has left it that way. It is completely grey now and curls at the ends where it hits her shoulders. They’re waiting for their breakfast, she says, and heads out the back door, barefoot, with her plastic scattering cup and a huge sack of peanuts. The rooks fling themselves down into the yard; they shout and flap. And there is Dave at the heart of it, unmistakable, taking angry swipes at his rivals who are too many, too fast.


I wheelbarrow logs around or weed the onion patch or pick beans, but mostly when I am at my mother’s I just sit around talking to her

I stay with my mother – sometimes for a night or two, sometimes for a whole week. I’ve done so with regularity since my father died and I am aware that when I tell people this it sounds as if I am doing it to keep her company, or to lend a hand with the domestic upkeep, but in fact my mother is less in need of company and help than anyone I know. My mother is constantly occupied – with her casual work as an archaeologist and in the archives of a local museum; with her garden, her reading, her granddaughter. She is so self-contained and solitary nowadays that I find it baffling to remember that she spent forty years cohabiting with a man. In truth I go and stay with my mother for selfish reasons – as a hiatus from my own life. Sometimes she invents little chores for me. I wheelbarrow logs around or weed the onion patch or pick beans, but mostly when I am at my mother’s I just sit around talking to her, or I go off walking the dogs over the barley fields, along the channels flattened by the tyres of gargantuan tractors. In my own life I live close to the coast and I always miss the sea after a few days at my mother’s, and then I find that the barley fields give me a similar kind of fix – something about the purity of the horizon line, the undulation.

We are sitting on the garden bench beneath the macrocarpa, my mother and me, drinking mugs of hot water with mint leaves floating in them. The bench is several feet away from my mother’s tiny wood. The wood is no more, really, than an untidy line of miscellaneous trees. The oldest is a Scots pine and the tallest is an ash and the youngest is a beech. Then there are a couple of sycamores. When I was a child, the wood was unobtrusive but now the canopy is profuse; the branches grapple one another and overshadow the lawn. There has always been a rookery in the Scots pine, just a few big nests, my mother tells me, and Ruth who lives across the road had a similar-sized rookery in her garden. But then Ruth started to worry about her trees. They had become tall and unruly, and – unlike my mother’s tall, unruly trees – Ruth’s were overhanging the main road. My mother and Ruth live at a rural crossroads on the top of a hill. When I was a child it was bucolic, but in the two intervening decades it has become a commuter village for the city, and the crossroads suffer a stammering flow of traffic, and because everybody sues everybody else over nothing nowadays, my mother says, Ruth became justifiably worried and summoned the tree surgeon who came with his ladders and straps and chainsaws and hacked all Ruth’s trees back into gnarled stumps. And so her rooks had no choice but to cross the road and move in with the neighbouring rooks, and this explains how my mother’s small, inconspicuous rookery came to be large, the dominant feature of the garden.

All over the grass, the hawthorn and the laurel, the fuchsia and japonica, the lupins and hydrangea, the red-brick path my father laid and the sandstone gravel he poured – there is crow shit. In wet weather it is slippery; in dry weather it is crusty. There is also a littering of bits of the things the rooks have carried home to eat – sugar-beet, apple-cores, rock-hard husks of bread. For most of the year it is impossible to linger comfortably in this zone of the garden. In spring the shit is mingled with broken eggshells and lifeless fetuses. On more than one occasion I have wrestled a mangled blob of dead baby bird from the jaws of my scavenging terrier, alerted to its presence by the crunching of delicate bones.

Rooks are the noisiest of the crows; all day they yak and cackle – quarrelling, cajoling, exchanging important information

When I am planning to stay at my mother’s for more than a weekend I bring my laptop and set up a makeshift office space for myself at a table in front of the window that faces the garden and the wood. While I am working there, I spend a lot of time gazing vacantly out the window. My mother has a bird feeder set up in the lower branches of a sycamore. She used to hang it on the washing line directly outside the kitchen window but then a rat embedded itself within the cotoneaster and loitered around the yard all day and so she moved it to the wood where the rat now lives happily embedded in the laurel and my mother conducts her BirdWatch Ireland surveys from the house through a pair of binoculars. Every time I glance at the feeder there is a rook swinging off it and at least three more poised on the ground, pecking up the spoils. They seem to take it in turns. The other birds – sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches, goldfinches, woodpigeons, blackbirds – hop sadly around the edges of the black fracas.

When I am not staying with my mother, I phone her on Sundays. We text ahead and arrange a time and so when she answers she has usually made a cup of tea and is sitting on the garden bench, or in the greenhouse, if it’s raining. Wherever she is in the garden I will always be able to hear the noise of the rooks in the background. Rooks are the noisiest of the crows; all day they yak and cackle – quarrelling, cajoling, exchanging important information. They are louder than the cows, louder than the wind and rain, louder than the passing cars. Sometimes they are so loud that I miss what she is saying. From where I am, back in my life, I listen and I picture them: my mother and her obstreperous crows.

He swoops down and taps on the glass and when she draws back the curtain there he is, sitting on the windowsill, waiting for her

It is six years since my father was alive and since my mother became chief custodian of the garden. When my father was alive the lawn was always mowed; the hedges neatly clipped. The flowers remained within the confines of their beds and the vegetables grew in tidy rows. Nowadays the lawn is as much moss as grass, the gravel is invisible beneath the weeds and big clumps of the vegetable patch have been given over to borage and phacelia. The chaos is carefully ordered though – she shows me the drawings that she makes every new planting year in her garden notebook – each is an esoteric map of circles and scribbles and wiggly lines. Just recently Dave has started to tap on the bathroom window in the mornings, she tells me. He always seems to know the moment she gets up, and which room the bathroom is, and that this is the one she goes to first. He swoops down and taps on the glass and when she draws back the curtain there he is, sitting on the windowsill, waiting for her. And when she goes out to the yard to have her morning coffee he swoops down and sits at the opposite end of the bench beside her, and so my mother breaks tiny pieces off her slice of toast or her flapjack or her biscuits, and offers them to Dave.

She finds the noise of the rookery pacifying. It pleases her, she tells me, to see the rooks start to return early in the year. They go away to their roost in winter but by February she will start to notice them arriving during the daylight hours, clearing out the old nests and making repairs or building replacements. You’ll see one with a big, awkward stick in its beak, she says, poking around, trying to find a place for it to fit. If a stick isn’t exactly right, then they just cast it out. And then she collects the rejected sticks in her wheelbarrow for kindling, usually on Fridays when she babysits my niece. On Fridays I picture them – the oldest and youngest members of my family – together on the concrete floor of the shed stacking up twigs; building a human-sized, mountain-shaped nest.

In the morning Dave is sitting – enormous, majestic, unperturbed – in the gutter of my father’s shed. Pink petals cascade from the trellis beneath him

We are crouching beneath the beech tree in the dead of night, my mother and me. She heard somewhere, on the radio, she thinks, that rooks snore. Apparently this occurs when it is very dark and they are at the deepest stage of their sleep-cycle, but it is almost impossible to hear because they will hear you first and wake up and alert the still-sleeping ones, which is what has happened now. The sound the rooks make tonight is a disgruntled squabble as opposed to a snore. Our knees are clammy with dew and the eyes of a rat flash from the hedge, and out on the crossroads we can hear the voices of people walking home from the pub, laughing at a muffled joke. In the morning Dave is sitting – enormous, majestic, unperturbed – in the gutter of my father’s shed. Pink petals cascade from the trellis beneath him. The morning sun illuminates his iridescent feathers – azure and emerald and plum. Inside the shed, amongst all my father’s abandoned things, my mother’s car is parked. She used to leave it out on the side of the road but since my father died, she always puts it away in the shed so that no one will know whether or not she is at home. This means she can hide if somebody rings the doorbell and not have her presence betrayed by the car. When we were children I remember hiding from the neighbours. We would switch the lights off and lie flat on our bellies behind the sofa, below the windowsill – my mother and sister and me – waiting for the doorbell to stop ringing so that we could get on with our lives, and it perplexes me now – when I think about it – that my sister grew up to be a perfectly well-balanced, sociable adult whereas I grew up to hide from people, exactly like my mother.

I try to make an effort – when I am helping her – to memorise the details of whatever it is we are doing – pricking out seedlings, building a bamboo wigwam, sorting the winter sticks – the why and the how of it. Someday I will be responsible for this garden – the vegetable patch and the greenhouse, the little orchard and the mossy lawn, the redbrick path and the sandstone gravel, the tousled hedges and overflowing flowerbeds, the wisteria and her beloved Albertine rose, the shed and its rusted, seized-up contents, the unruly trees and the tremendous rookery. Someday all this will be mine, even though I do not want it.

Dave by Sara Baume is included in Running Feet, Sharp Noses: Essays on the Animal World, published by Paper Visual Art Journal (€15)