Broken Ground | Season 2 | Episode 3

Margaret Renkl: Backyard Environmentalism

Author and New York Times contributing opinion writer Margaret Renkl talks about her book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Renkle essays reflect on the intersection of family life, grief and her natural surroundings.

Episode Transcript

 Author and New York Times contributing opinion writer Margaret Renkl talks about her book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Renkl’s essays reflect on the intersection of family life, grief and her natural surroundings.






HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South, and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we’re passing the mic to some of the leading voices of the environmental movement in the South. Over the next few episodes, you’ll hear from authors and scholars speaking about the environmental stories and truths that reveal the specialness and sometimes the tragedies of this region.




HOST: Margaret Renkl’s book Late Migrations, A Natural History Of Love And Loss is a collection of essays about family, grief and our natural surroundings. Her book won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Reed Environmental Writing Award this year, Renkl is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and this book, like her columns, finds metaphors for the human experience in her observations of nature in the South. Renkl grew up in Alabama and now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and that’s where she joined us from her home.


MARGARET RENKL: After my mom died, I was just, I, I don’t know how to explain it, I just felt this need to do something with those feelings and nothing I tried – crying, obviously that helped – but it didn’t go far enough. And, and one day it just hit me, well, I should write about it. And I started writing about it with the encouragement of some writer friends with no intention at all of collecting what I, the little essays I was writing or seeing any pattern to what I was writing. I was just initially writing about the experience of caregiving and grief. And then, and then those experiences were reminding me of childhood experiences and I was writing about those as well. And then I was taking a lot of comfort from the natural world outside my, my window. And I was writing about what I was seeing there. That had always been a great source of comfort to me.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: In many chapters of the book you get kind of a glimpse of the backyard environmentalist that you are. You know, you wrote about a backyard rat snake and the nuisance of chipmunk nests under your house and how you nevertheless don’t want to disturb any of these creatures. And there are just countless tales of backyard birds and cycle of life metaphors. I think I have a picture of your backyard, but can you describe it?


MARGARET: I think most people who form a picture of my backyard from reading, uh, what I write in the Times, or from reading Late Migrations might be disappointed to see my actual backyard. It’s, uh, I mean, it’s just a little half acre lot in a first ring suburb of Nashville and it’s not a wilderness or anything. There’s a, there’s a little city easement that runs across the back of the lot that connects our house to a tiny little wooded area. I think about three acres. And there, there’s a little Red Fox den back there and I’m sure that’s where the rat snake primarily hunts. Um, but they all kind of use that little city easement between our backdoor neighbors and us as a, almost like a little, uh, highway that gets them from the woods out to the neighborhood.


CLAUDINE: You know, you’re describing it as like this small half-acre lot, but you have so many great observations of the nature taking place in that area. Have you always had that putting a magnifying glass to nature?


MARGARET: I think I probably have, um, just because it interests me. I think people pay attention to what interests them. Depending on the time of year, whether the hummingbirds are here, whether the blue birds are nesting. I can have as many as nine bird feeders up at any one time. So no matter what window I’m walking past in the house, I can look outside and see birds. People ask me all the time, why birds? Are you especially, do you especially love birds? And I do love birds, but I think why they appear in Late Migrations more than any other creatures is first of all, they’re, they’re diurnal, so I can see them in the daylight. Much of the wildlife that happens in habitated areas happen at night where you can’t see them from the window. And also, you know, birds come to feeders so you, they can get fairly close and you can see them better than you could see creatures that you, you wouldn’t feed.


CLAUDINE: Your essays in this book, they ping pong between reflections on your family life and your youth to moments of really deep grief and loss of your parents, your grandparents, and also to keen observations about nature. And when I say that, it sounds kind of like a mishmash, but it’s not at all a mishmash when reading. I mean, I found that there was a rhythm to the essays and the chapters that were reflecting on moments of, like, family nostalgia and on deep grief and loss that were very emotional, sometimes I found afterwards there would be an essay that was really reflecting on nature that was just kind of like giving me this moment to breathe. Did you intend it to be like that?


MARGARET: In the beginning, I thought I was writing two different things. You know, like I thought I was writing a bunch of essays that their common ground was the natural world, and a bunch of essays where the common ground was my family life. But when I started thinking of the essays as a collection, it became, it really became clear to me that one of the reasons I was taking so much comfort from what I was seeing through the window, what I was seeing in the woods when I was walking early in the morning or late, or late in the afternoon was that these cycles of life and death are, are universal. It’s not just parents who grow old and sick and die, it’s everything. And when I was paying such close attention to these, to the dramas that were happening in the yard, I mean, so often they came to a really tragic end and, I don’t know, I guess that sounds a little, almost counterintuitive that recognizing that mortality just drenches the natural world, that that would be in some way helpful to me as I wrestled with human mortality, but it did, it gave me a great deal of comfort to see my experience as part of a larger cycle.


CLAUDINE: I was hoping that you could do this reading from the beginning of the chapter “He Is Not Here.” And it’s one of these kind of nature reflections in your backyard.


MARGARET: I’m happy to read this one. Um, he is not here. One year helping me in the garden in early spring. My middle son inadvertently uncovered a cottontail nest tucked beneath the rosemary. The baby rabbits seemed hopelessly vulnerable, thumb-sized creatures, eyes still closed without any shelter from the cold March rains. And yet their nest under the rosemary plant was a snug nursery. Their mother had scooped out a shallow hollow in the soil and lined it thickly with her own fur. More fur lay on top of the babies, and on top of that was a final layer of leaves and pine straw and dried rosemary needles. It was impossible to distinguish the nest from the jumble of dead vegetation that had piled up during fall and winter. And as my son pointed out, the location of the nest was ideal. To predators, it would smell exactly like rosemary and not at all like rabbit. We tucked the babies in again and left the bed unweeded until they were safely out of the nest and on their own. I’ve been desultory about weeding in springtime ever since. Spring is the time, Gerard Manley Hopkins noted, when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush. And there is another reason for waiting to clear out my flower beds: the neighborhood bees are busy among the flowering weeds long before the perennials bloom. Who can resist the names of wild flowers? Fleabane and henbit and purple dead nettle and creeping Charlie. Finally though, the day comes when there can be no more waiting or the weeds will choke out all the flowers I planted on purpose. That day came one long Easter weekend. My reliable garden helper was away in college and I worked alone gingerly, careful to watch for signs of a nest. There was nothing beneath the rosemary, but mock strawberry vines. Moving from bed to bed, I hauled away weeds by the wheelbarrow load. Then in the next to last bed, I tugged up some purple dead nettle growing around the fragrant skeleton of last year’s oregano and what came away in my hand was a tuft of rabbit fur. The nest was empty, but so newly vacated as to be entirely intact, an absence exactly shaped to denote an ineffable presence.


CLAUDINE: Do you remember why you placed that particular essay there, I think before you talk about the loss of your father?


MARGARET: Uh, he is not here is an allusion to what the women say when they go to the tomb after Jesus’s burial and find the stone moved and the tomb empty. It’s a reference to resurrection and I don’t think many people probably see it that way, but that is definitely the way I thought of it happening on Easter Sunday and thinking about my dad.


CLAUDINE: Did you need these essays to get through your grief?


MARGARET: I don’t think people really get through grief, honestly. I think they just learn to live with it. I think one of the things that I kept thinking about when my father was dying was that I just wanted my life back. You know, I wanted things to go back to normal. Um, he was sick for two and a half years. Sometimes, you know, he was in a really debilitating cancer treatment. Sometimes he was in a remission and almost normal. But it was always there. And I just wanted things to go back to the way they were. And I don’t think I consciously understood that that was not going to happen, that when the, when his suffering was over and all the back and forth between Birmingham and Nashville and all the worry and all the pain, all of that would not go away just because he had died. It was, it was still there and he was gone. So, I mean, I, it was, I was young enough, I was 41 and that’s young enough that I did not know anybody else. None of my close friends had buried a parent. So I was figuring this out all on my own. By the time my mother-in-law was dying, when I wrote the essay “No Exit,” where I say the end of caregiving, isn’t, you know, relief; the end of caregiving is grief, I think I understood a lot more about how grief works and I don’t think you get through it, really. I think you just – you have a different relationship with the person you loved who’s gone, but you’re still in a relationship with them. You’re still remembering. And so writing this book wasn’t healing in that way, but it gave me something to do, and that was good. It gave me some place to put everything I was feeling. And I think most people could probably benefit from that. It might not be writing, it might be painting, it might be singing, it might be pottery, it might be sculpture. I don’t know. But I think doing something that helps express what’s happening to you is it important for people.


CLAUDINE: You know, the illustrations in this book are stunning and they’re the work of your brother. Is that right?


MARGARET: That’s right. Yes.


CLAUDINE: I mean, the book is so personal about your family. What was that experience like to be able to collaborate with your brother?


MARGARET: Well, there was never any question that this was going to be a conversation between the way I cope and the way he copes. Mine is with words and his was with images. But he – Billy and I are only a year apart – and so we’ve been doing something like this, this kind of collaboration, our entire lives. I mean, we used to make little cards and books for our parents and our grandparents and, and later for our friends, little things that I would write and then Billy would illustrate and then make into a little hand-bound booklet. And then in high school and college and even graduate school, I would end up the editor of a student publication and he would end up the art director. So we did this all through our childhood and our education. And then, and not again until this book. But, but the art director at Milkweed and the editor and the publisher, they all thought it would be great to have some images in the book. And Billy was always going to do the image on the cover, but he, in one summer, did all the images, all 18 or 19 images in this book. I think it is such a, an important part of this book, not just for me in the process of collaborating with my brother who was also grieving, but because I think for readers it creates, uh, a kind of intimacy that I think hearkens back to reading children’s books with a parent snuggled up, because we don’t, as adults, typically have pictures in our books. And so to see illustrations in a book for adults almost creates a kind of unconscious warmth that the book wouldn’t have without them.


CLAUDINE: Toward the end of the book, it felt to me like the reflections on loss turned away from loved ones and kind of toward the losses the earth is experiencing. I think this moment right now in our history, as a lot of people are saying unprecedented, challenging times, is one where people are taking hopefully a moment to reflect on that. Your recent opinion piece for the New York Times also kind of touched on what this loss means. At this moment you wrote, “The coronavirus will not reverse the ravages of climate change, and it will not interrupt our progression toward an even more desperate future, but it is allowing us to see with our own eyes, how ready the natural world stands to reclaim the planet we have trashed, how eagerly and how swiftly it will rebound If we give it a chance.” Are you seeing that rebound happening around you?


MARGARET: You know, I think it’s important to make a distinction between what we see and what’s actually happening. So that, that column you’re talking about is a discussion of how many people are seeing animals that they wouldn’t normally see and in places they would definitely not normally see them. A coyote walking down the middle of a major thoroughfare in Chicago, or, um, a groundhog sitting on a sidewalk, eating a piece of pizza in Philadelphia. Those are things people are seeing because they’re home and they’re looking out the window. I’ve, I’ve worked for my home office for the last 24 years. So I’ve always been seeing these things during the day. And, but most people are not working from home, and so they’re seeing them for the first time, even as there’s more to see because the animals are going, ‘Well, I don’t know where everybody is, but I’m coming out now because there are no cars on this road, or there are no people on the sidewalk.’ And that is visible, but it isn’t a sign, really, not truly that the earth is recovering. For me, it was just, it’s just a sign of what can happen. If we all disappeared right now, I think the earth would be fine. There are creatures that are gone, that will not be coming back, but that’s always been true. We are just accelerating this rate of extinction so dramatically and so devastatingly that our ceasing to exist, if we became extinct, you know, I think that – the earth is going to survive us in some form. But when we stop driving so many automobiles in congested cities and suddenly the air becomes clear and people can see the mountains for the first time that they haven’t seen in decades, that should be a lesson to us that we need to do something about our emissions. And I, you know, I have this belief – I guess we’ll find out if it’s true – that if people are aware of what’s happening, they will be more committed to changing it, to stopping it from happening. If they, if they feel a connection to this natural world, if they know. They didn’t know before, but now they know that coyotes live in their cities and they know that red foxes live in their backyards and that rat snakes, um, are not going to harm them. If they know these things, if they learn these things, they’re going to feel differently about that world. I hope that’s true. It’s, it’s my hope anyway.


CLAUDINE: In the book you write about a time when you left the South to pursue your studies in Philadelphia, but you also write about how you had to come back home to the South. Can you describe what draws you back and keeps you here?


MARGARET: I do think feeling connected to the natural world means you’re connected to a landscape. So if you grew up in woods or fields or near creeks and, or near an ocean or on a prairie, whatever that landscape that formed you is, it’s difficult to leave that and not feel in some way alienated, to, to, to not feel that you are an outsider and don’t belong. So I think it’s partly the landscape. I think it’s partly just the, the old ways of the South are still here. That, um, famous hospitality where, ‘Come in, you know, have a glass of tea, sit down, tell me what’s happening.’ That’s still so strong here in the South, that connection to your neighbors. And I don’t know that I would ever feel at home somewhere where people didn’t work that way, where communities weren’t about pitching in and helping in crisis and bringing food and writing notes. And so it’s this, it’s the people and it’s the place. And as tragic as this place is, as much darkness as it has, I mean, we don’t have a corner on that market here in the South. White supremacists exists in Chicago and Boston and Los Angeles and Seattle and everywhere. It’s, it’s not that. But the history of slavery is, is, is such a bloodstain on us that it’s impossible to love this place without also recognizing that darkness. And I don’t know if that’s unique to the South, but I feel that being here is a matter of reckoning with that. It’s a constant negotiation in your own mind between these really wonderful qualities that people have and this unearthly beauty of this, of the natural landscape, coupled with this history that isn’t really strictly in the past. I mean, there’s, as we all know now much more clearly than we perhaps knew before, it’s still here and it’s still terrible. And I think trying to work that out is such a project for a Southerner that it possibly, that’s why it really solidifies a Southern identity is because you’re, you’re just always trying to work that out.


CLAUDINE: Could you ever work that out in some essays, do you think?


MARGARET: Uh, you know, I feel like I’m trying.


CLAUDINE: Yeah. You’ve written about this topic before?


MARGARET: Well, I think in some ways, that’s my only subject for the New York Times. I mean, I just, I mean, part of …




MARGARET: … part of what my self-assigned mission is, they never said to me, ‘Here, this is what we want you to write about,’ but it’s, it’s to try to reckon with the complexity of this region, to be very clear-eyed about what’s terrible, and to be committed to making sure that everybody else who’s not here understands that that’s not all we are.


CLAUDINE: in thinking about the book that you’ve written in Late Migrations, there’s a clear-eyedness to that book of what, what it is to lose someone, what it is to feel that pain and both the beauty and the ugliness of grief. The passage in the book that just made me weep felt like it was a gift to anyone who had ever felt like a deep loss. It felt like you were giving forgiveness to the person who was grieving, which I’d never thought of it that way, but that is how it struck me. It’s the “After the Fall.”


MARGARET: Oh yeah. That one gets a lot of people.




MARGARET: I always think of that one as sort of a hopeful one though.


CLAUDINE: I found it very hopeful, but I think there’s, um, if you’ve ever felt deep loss, it felt like this was the place where I felt seen where I was like, this is the thing that I needed that I didn’t know that I needed.


MARGARET: Yeah. You know, that’s funny because that’s exactly why I wrote it. It’s like, these are the things I wish someone had said to me. I mean, that’s one of the things that I felt a little bit self-conscious about because this is the natural order of things. This is not like losing a friend or a sibling or a child. This is, this – you expect to outlive your parents. So it’s an ordinary kind of grief. It’s not, um, a tragedy and yet it’s still just terrible. It’s just terrible. Anyway, “After the Fall.” This talk of making peace with it, of feeling it and then finding a way through, of closure? It’s all nonsense. Here’s wha,]t no one told me about grief. You inhabit  it like a skin. Everywhere you go, you wear grief under your clothes. Everything you see, you see through it like a film. It is not a hidden hairshirt of suffering. It is only you. The thing you are. The cells that clean to each other in your shape. The muscles that are doing your work in the world. And like your other skin, your other eyes, your other muscles, it too will change in time. It will change so slowly, you won’t even see it happening. No matter how you scrutinize it, no matter how you poke at it with a worried finger, you will not see it changing. Time claims you. Your belly softens, your hair grays, the skin on the top of your hand goes loose as a grandmothers. And the skin of your grief too will loosen, soften, forgive your sharp edges, drape your hard bones. You are waking into a new shape. You are waking into an old self. What I mean is: time offers your old self, a new shape. What I mean is: you are the old ungrieving you and you are also the new ruined you. You are both. And you will always be both. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out into the springtime and look. The birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year’s leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall.


HOST: Margaret Renkl is an author and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Her book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Reed Environmental Writing Award this year.




HOST: Join us next time on Broken Ground for a conversation with author Earl Swift about a remote community off the coast of Virginia on Tangier Island.


EARL SWIFT: You could see that the island was dissolving before your eyes. Even a regular high tide now brought water up over the roads, and that was something that had not occurred 15 years before. It was shocking.


HOST: Available wherever you get your podcasts.


CREDITS: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley, Paige Polk, and Kelley Libby, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.