book review by L.R. Miller
Three mornings ago, Kristi heard one of her peacocks making an unusual series of sounds. Looking down to our small orchard she saw him walking the perimeter of the fruit ladened McIntosh tree. Soon Kristi could make out the form of a coyote ignoring the peacock while standing on his back legs and picking an apple to eat. She shared the story with me as we share so many stories most every day of our immediate and interior working life on this small ranch of ours. Nature governs, comforts, chastises, explains, conceals, burns, slaps, caresses and heralds constantly. As I am reading a superb new book, the freshness of Kristi’s shared story sends me across time and space to stand alongside that author, Margaret Renkl; to stand quite still – eyes gently wide, nostrils at the ready, poised and anxious for the package and packaging of nature’s evidence. The songs, maybe screams, certainly shudders, and the breath, steady breath of life in nature.
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss is a very new and vibrantly important book by Margaret Renkl, a weekly contributor to the New York Times from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Looking for a book that will realign your soul and refresh your observational senses? Here ‘tis. 219 pages of tiny, sweet, sad and illuminating stories, each spinning in place and pointing within and without to natural universe and universality. These stories, some a paragraph long, some a page, a few at two pages, are air-filled word pastries that effortlessly combine surgical sadness, giddy memory, and astounding poetry of observation. Even so, every opportunity is taken to sprinkle, in context, zen-like asides such as;
“Where were the nuns all hiding while
we were walking on the hot concrete?”
“At home it is almost time for supper,
but we can’t tell time.”
Renkl’s work gives – in most any sense of the word, it gives. One obvious gift is how she repeatedly shows the reader the life affirming properties of intimate valuation – to know through her shared evidence and conclusions that we might own our happy small comforts of observation and discovery, and that this may nest us. And that, equally, our private tight personal sadness can bridge to energy and worth.
Magnificent little book; here we find treasure, after treasure, after treasure. Renkle brings an accuracy of observation and a generosity of measure with her splendid strong posture of kindness as a necessity as natural as breathing.
In the story titled Faith; Birmingham, 1970 she writes of how, as a young girl, she would divert her church service boredoms with her mother’s and great grandmother’s diamond wedding rings.
“My great grandmother’s ring is not nearly so grand or gleaming, but there is another game I play in church with Mother Ollie’s hand. I take it in my own and pat it smooth, running my finger across its impossible softness, marveling at the way it ripples under my finger as yielding as water. My great grand-mother’s skin is an echo of her old Bible, the pages tissue-thin, the corners worn to soft felt. I gently pinch the skin above her middle knuckle, and then I let it go. I count to myself, checking to see how many seconds it can stand upright, like a mountain ridge made by a glacier in an age long before mine. Slowly, slowly it disappears. Slowly, slowly it throws itself into the sea.”
From Bunker, a story about chipmunks under her house;
“All summer long the chipmunks dart in and out of the crawl space through the tunnels they’ve dug under every side of our house. Open either door and a chipmunk will flee, disappearing into a potted plant, up a tree trunk, or under the front stoop where they have fashioned their bunkers. Solitary creatures except during mating season, they ignore their own kind, each keeping to its personal private entryway into the dark. They are like neighbors who check the mailbox from the car and then drive straight into the garage, never a friendly word.”
The title story, Late Migrations, is about the fragility of Monarch habitat, something Jim Anderson speaks about in this issue. The last two paragraphs offer wonderful insights into Renkl’s earned credential as a naturalist warrior.
“And then, a miracle. Walking to the mailbox on a sunny November afternoon, I spied a flash of orange in the flower bed. I was a step or two on before I saw it: a monarch, riding a hot-pink zinnia nodding in the wind. I walked closer, and there on a yellow zinnia was another. And on the red one too — and on the orange, the white, the peach ones. Monarch after monarch after monarch was gathering nectar from the flowers. All that mild afternoon, my butterfly garden was a resting place for monarchs making a very late migration to Mexico.
“Monarchs migrate as birds do, but it takes the monarch four generations, sometimes five, to complete the cycle each year: no single butterfly lives to make the full round-trip from Mexico to their northern breeding grounds and back. Entomologists don’t yet understand what makes successive generations follow the same route their ancestors took, and I can only hope that the descendants of these monarchs will find respite in my garden, too. Every year will always find me planting zinnias, just in case.”
This is one of those rare books that I know I will return to, time and again. A book that stands to be read many times. A book that affirms as it refreshes. I can open it at any page and find solace and feel myself nodding in unison. Margaret Renkle is nature’s poet laureate.
Late Migrations : A Natural History of Love and Loss
©2019 by Margaret Renkl, with art ©2019 by Billy Renkl.
Published by Milkweed Editions.