ECOS 39(5): Book review: A SHADOW ABOVE

ECOS 39(5)

A SHADOW ABOVE

The Fall and Rise of the Raven

Joe Shute

Bloomsbury Natural History

2018

272 pages

Hardback £16.99

ISBN: 978-1-4729-4028-5

Review by Andrew Irving

A place for the raven in our wilder soul 

The Raven Corvus corax is an iconic, emotive creature, capable of inspiring awe and superstitious foreboding. A bird of wild lands and urban townscapes, it soars over all with intelligent indifference, utilising land and people alike. A Shadow Above captures the myriad personality of the species alongside the polarising views of the cultures intertwined with it.

Shute’s work is engaging from the first word. The writing style is dynamic and multi-faceted, instilling the mood of each chapter in the reader effortlessly. The journalistic background of the author makes itself present in the book interlacing hard-facts, thought-provoking prose and humour to draw you in.

Shute travels the country in his pursuit of the Raven. The book takes us to the farthest northern reaches of the British Isles to examine the mythical qualities of this species still entrenched in the local culture. We also find ourselves in metropolises, as the rise of the Raven is unravelled in these areas by its ability to coexist with modern life and make use of our often surprising and overlooked urban wildlife features. Between these contrasting locations, the writing takes us to National Parks, wildlife centres, and farms; even into the homes of individuals the author has travelled and conversed with over hearths and kitchen tables. In each place visited, we do not just hear of the Raven. The history, lore, ties to the arts, science and the opinions of those who live in each location are explained in detail, making the content diverse and eclectic. An expert on corvids would still find knowledge to gain from this book.

A Shadow Above places science as a core aspect of the book. Throughout the book, Shute’s explanation of the rise of raven and its intricate mind-set is supported with relevant empirical studies. Population and distribution are covered, with the use of statistics, but the inclusion of maps and figures would have accompanied the text well to give the reader a better sense of scale. The intelligence and emotional depth of the bird is revealed in an eye-opening manner using studies targeting the animals’ psychology, communication and problem solving.

The wealth of knowledge presented discussing the Raven’s abilities to learn and comprehend beyond what many of us would expect poses an interesting question for nature conservation. Should we step away from data and anthropomorphise wildlife to better connect with the public on the vulnerability of nature? Would showing the actual intelligence and traits of a species aid conservation further than merely explaining the declines?

The book has multiple ties to rewilding, both direct and inferred. This more contemporary school of thought in conservation has a growing following and Shute has definitely adopted this mindset in his work. There are numerous mentions of nature being out of balance because of human action and he makes an ongoing comparison between the rise of raven populations and “nature reasserting itself”. Humanity acts as the antagonist of this book, the cause of the species decline. Even where populations have grown to the point of harming local farming economies, Shute explains how man is not faultless, altering the landscape and providing a perfect hunting ground filled with tempting lambs. Despite his views being made clear in his own reflections, Shute accurately represents the views of those affected by a growing population of ravens, giving the reader a chance to gauge both sides of the argument, species recovery versus local agriculture.

Above all this book is a story of one man’s love of the natural world, and a deep-rooted connection to the Raven. Throughout the chapters, we travel with Shute to meet old friends, to share the joy of watching this species. We hear of him pursuing this creature wherever he goes. The deep tie he has to this bird can be felt by the reader. For Shute, the Raven is a species that represents our fascination with and longing for wild places. The fall and rise of its numbers strikes a coincidental chord with the resurgence of our awareness of the need for wilder nature in the modern day.

ECOS 39(5): Contents

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather by Tessa Boase

Ploughing a New Furrow by Malcom Smith

Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell

End of the Megafauna by Ross D. E. MacPhee

A Shadow Above by Joe Shute

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