IN HER RECENT BOOK “Late Migrations,” and also in big letters displayed across the homepage of her website, “New York Times” contributing opinion columnist Margaret Renkl reminds herself and her readers where to focus their attention.
“Every day, the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” she writes.
Margaret Renkl—gardener, lifelong student of nature, and writer—lives and gardens in Nashville, Tennessee. Each Monday, her opinion column appears in “The New York Times,” billed under the loose rubric “Flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South,” and covering topics as diverse as hummingbird migration and the recent dire assessment of bird population decline, to capital punishment, and even country music. Since reading her book not long ago, I couldn’t wait to tell all you readers and podcast listeners about “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” (affiliate link).
Margaret and I talked about our connections to nature, about the way we garden, and more.
Read along as you listen to the November 4, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win the book by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.
‘late migrations,’ with margaret renkl
Margaret Renkl: Thank you for that kind introduction.
Margaret Roach: Oh, well, I love the book very much. I suppose that doesn’t sound very objective or whatever, to say that, but boy, it’s a wonderful book. And we’ll talk about it.
But before we get to the book proper, since we’re among an audience of gardeners, I wanted everyone to meet Margaret Renkl, the gardener, kind of in her natural habitat. And your Monday columns in the Times, I wanted to read just a tiny snippet from one around this time last year, where you said:
“I’ve never been a very orderly gardener. In spring, I prefer planting to weeding. I like to watch birds pulling seeds from dried flowers, so I let the flowers fall to ruin in summer instead of deadheading them to force the plants to produce new blooms.”
So what’s the view out the window right there? And what kind of gardener are you?
Margaret Renkl: I actually think “gardener” might be a little bit of a stretch. [Laughter.] My garden consists of two kinds of weeds, the kind I cultivate and the kind I pull out. I plant really more for the sake of wildlife than for the sake of the human eye. So, much of what a person plants when trying to cultivate bees and butterflies and other pollinators are what other gardeners might call weeds. I mean, so many of these weeds … these flowers actually have “weed” in their name.
I’m looking at pokeweed plant right now that is bearing very deep purple berries that the mockingbirds love so much that they fight with each other continually to hoard the pokeweed berries for themselves. [Photo below of pokeweed from Margaret Renkl’s Instagram feed.] I’m also looking at the remnants of all the milkweed that I planted a few years ago and that, generally, not 100 percent of the time, but generally, drop seeds and returns in the spring. So some of those flowers that I’ve planted are actual weeds.
But I also have… we haven’t had a hard freeze yet, we’ve had a couple of light frosts, so I still have blooming zinnias, I still have blooming cleomes. I have daisies that are in their third round of blooming. I have some Gaillardia that’s blooming for the second time. So I think we’re going to get a freeze tonight.
Margaret Roach: Uh-oh. [Laughter.]
Margaret Renkl: But I actually let the garden go completely. Once it bloomed out, I know that there are pollinators who leave chrysalises and cocoons on the dried stems, and there are bumblebees that bury in the soil that I don’t want to risk dislodging by doing a lot of weeding at this stage or a lot of cutting back. So my garden stays a skeleton of its prior life all through the winter.
Margaret Roach: I’m inferring from your description—which by the way I believe in, especially a little bit of a messier approach to fall cleanup, to invite and accommodate those creatures, such important creatures, as you’re speaking about, or spiders, for instance, all these overwintering beneficials, right?
Margaret Renkl: Right.
Margaret Roach: I think you’re absolutely right about that. I mean, two Margarets think alike, North and South. [Laughter.] But I infer maybe from your description that it doesn’t look like the other yards on the block exactly, maybe? Does it look like everyone else’s front yard or backyard?
Margaret Renkl: It doesn’t look anything like anybody else’s yard. My neighborhood, like much of Nashville, is undergoing a really rapid, and almost shocking to me, kind of gentrification. This neighborhood was initially a very working-class neighborhood. It was built between 1945 and 1950. All the houses were built between 1945 and 1950 for soldiers returning to the U.S. after World War II and and buying their first homes on the GI Bill. So they all had two bedrooms, or maybe three bedrooms, very small little ranch houses that are now being scraped from the lot and large, grand homes are going up in their places.
And one of the things that happens when an area becomes more affluent is that, often, the people in those houses are working very demanding professional jobs, and they don’t do their own yard work. I mean, there’s almost no one here left who does their own yard work.
Margaret Roach: Yes. Yes.
Margaret Renkl: And they hire lawn services. And even without, I think, knowing what the lawn services are necessarily doing. There’s a lot of spraying of herbicides, a lot of insecticides that are designed to create an emerald lawn. Whereas my lawn is made up almost exclusively of clover and wildflowers that we mow down after they bloom to look sort of like a yard, but it’s very different.
Margaret Roach: So the book, it’s called as I said earlier “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” And I wonder if you would introduce listeners to it who might not have read it, sort of what’s the book about, jacket-flap version of the intention of the book?
Margaret Renkl: It’s still so hard for me to do that. I haven’t quite found the perfect elevator pitch for this book [laughter], because I didn’t understand that I was writing a book until well into the process. I thought I was writing a set of essays that were a response to my grief about the loss of my mother, her sudden death, and also the death, after a very long bout with 18 years of Parkinson’s disease, that my mother-in-law endured. And I started writing the essays about a month before my mother-in-law died. And they just were very short. I had very little time to do my own writing. I had a full-time editing job. I had children still at home, and my grieving father-in-law to care for. And so, I was just writing in little drips and drabs to try to crystallize my thoughts and my feelings about this tumultuous time we were undergoing.
And at the same time I was writing, I was spending more time looking out the window at the natural world of my backyard, in part, in response to the changes my neighborhood was undergoing. But in part because I found that that focus helped me with the grief, it helped me see that life and death are just … that cycle is very natural, and nothing to fight or to fear. My mother was 80 when she died. My mother-in-law was 81. These were not tragic or untimely deaths. It was part of the natural order of things. And it helped me, it was a great comfort to me.
And so after I had done a little pile of both kinds of essays, I started to see that really they were connected in fundamental ways. The creatures in my backyard felt like family. And what was happening to the natural world, both in my own neighborhood and to the planet in the form of climate change, was a source of great grief to me. So I began experimenting with ways to combine them, and what ultimately resulted was “Late Migrations.”
Margaret Roach: Yes. Well, it’s a little eerie for me, really, the book. We’re both Margarets, actually both MR, Renkl and Roach. [Laughter.] We’re both blessed with learning from some strong, important women in our lives. In my case, my grandmother handed down to me a lot of her wisdoms and her gardening passion, and so forth. We both garden, albeit a little messily here and there. I started my career at “The New York Times.” You’re working there now at this part of your life. I could go on citing moments in the book where I squealed or nearly cried at sort of intense recognition, even though I don’t know you.
You’ve done something with this book that I admire, and I’m jealous of, and love, which is its unusual structure that you just were referring to. And I think of the author Abigail Thomas, for instance, who writes about very, very different material, but in fragmentary little bits, little essays. Yet, they’re so connected, as you’ve accomplished with “Late Migrations” and-
Margaret Renkl: And I do, I love her work.
Margaret Roach: I bet you do.
Margaret Renkl: I love Abigail Thomas.
Margaret Roach: [Laugher.] See, I just knew that. I knew that you would. And me, too.
So the sentence I quoted up top where you say, on your website and in the book, “Every day, the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” reminds me of some favorite lines from a hundred-year-ago New York State naturalist, someone who lived across the river from where I live now, John Burroughs. And he said, “To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” And he also said, “Look underfoot, you’re always nearer to the true sources of your power than you think.”
So I think of you as echoing those types of statements, and you said, looking out the window, you found help with the grief, but also that it’s all part of a cycle. Are there some sort of plants or moments or things that you grasp? I think you have nine bird feeders hanging outside. Were there teachers, were there particular characters who, again and again, who come in, in the book, who did some of the teaching and the helping along the way, in particular?
Margaret Renkl: Well, you mentioned your grandmother. And of course, my grandmother figures prominently in the book. She actually speaks in several of the essays. We have a treasure trove, as a family, of her words, because my brother, years ago, spent some time interviewing her. And after our mother died, he found the tapes, cassette tapes, and transcribed them, and created a printout of a little book just for our family, of those interviews. And I found myself going back, and back, and back to that book, to verify facts or to check my dates.
And one day, I just realized I should just let my grandmother tell these little stories, because her voice was so important to me growing up. She was very much, even though my great-grandmother lived until I was in college, my grandmother was such a source of strength and power in our family. My mother struggled in my early childhood with debilitating depression, and my brother and I, this was before our sister was born, were often left with our grandparents. My grandfather had had two terrible heart attacks just before my parents married, and was largely an invalid. And of course, my great-grandmother lived in a house with them as well, and she was helpful, but very, very quiet. She was just a quiet person.
So my grandmother’s voice is the voice I hear when I think of the matriarchy that really raised me. And I was so grateful to have had access to those interviews because it allowed me to start the book in her voice with the birth of my mother, and to end the book when we were burying our parents’ ashes, my brother and sister and I.
Margaret Roach: I think you say in the book … And so the book, it’s obviously quite poignant and there’s sadness. But there’s also acceptance, and you see beauty and joy and the life force happening, too. It’s not just dark, at all.
Margaret Renkl: No, my mother was very, very funny. My mother was hilarious, and so candid. And I tried to convey some humor through the story, too, because I don’t think, even a book that’s so focused on natural cycles, which include death, can leave out joy. Because those things are companions, those feelings are companion feelings.
Margaret Roach: There’s one little essay in it, “In Praise of the Unlovely World,” that I especially remember and love. And I won’t ask you to read it because you probably don’t even have the book in front of you. I don’t want to spring it on you. But I just wanted to read two sentences of it, where you say:
“Teetering between despair and terror, alarmed by the perils that threaten the planet, defeated in imagining any real way to help, I’m tempted to turn away, to focus on what is lovely in a broken world, moonlight on still water, the full-body embrace of bumblebees in the milkweed flowers, the first dance of the newlyweds whose eyes never leave each other in all their turnings on the gleaming floor.”
So even with all the heaviness, you see past it and you see these glimmers, these hopeful glimmers. And I think that was, again and again in the book, what really spoke to me, because I find such solace … People ask me, what am I doing, because I live alone in a rural place, a town of 300, and they say, “What are you doing?” I say, “I’m looking out the window.” Do you know what I mean? That’s- [laughter]
Margaret Renkl: Mm-hm. Mm-hm.
Margaret Roach: That’s where I get informed all day long, is by looking out the window. And I felt like you also find great inspiration and solace in that.
Margaret Renkl: There’s a line in, I think it’s in “Walden,” but it might just be in Henry David Thoreau’s journals, and I know I’m not quoting exactly, but he says, “I have …” or something like, “I have traveled extensively in Concord.” And I’ve always loved that line because it’s exactly what I think is true. [Update: The precise line from “Walden” is: “I have travelled a good deal in Concord…”]
Margaret Roach: [Laughter.]
Margaret Renkl: I mean, I’m not in any way knocking grand traveling as a way of understanding the world, but I think there is an equal way of understanding the world by knowing very well your own little place in the world.
Margaret Roach: Mm. Do you have a daily practice, so to speak? Do you have something that you do every day? Are you a walker or a hiker? Is there some exploration or exercise or practice that you have that you engage with nature, or is it just part of all of every day?
Margaret Renkl: Well, I have two workspaces in the house now that my children are mostly grown. The table at the end of our family room, the wall of windows at the end of our family room, used to be the table where all their art supplies were when they were very small, and then later where their school computers and printer and all were. I’ve taken over that whole space now. And it looks out on the pollinator garden and also on the bird-feeding station that’s focused on peanuts and suet.
On the other side of the house is my actual little office. It looks out on a bluebird house and a whole bunch of trees and woody shrubs that produce berries, that I planted based on the timing when they produce fruit to feed the migratory birds. Actually, I’m looking right now at a red-tailed hawk sitting in a pine tree on the other side of the house. Earlier today, I saw a magnolia warbler, which I’ve never seen in this yard.
Margaret Roach: Oh, nice.
Margaret Renkl: And so, for me, working and looking out, and working and looking out, those are inseparable activities, because there’s just so much to see. But I do try, at least three or four days a week, to go out to the woods somehow. We’re blessed in Nashville with a number of beautiful parks. There’s a national wildlife refuge right in Nashville. There’s an extensive greenway system. There’s a city park, a wilderness, basically, that’s I think maybe the second or third largest protected area in an urban setting in the country.
Margaret Roach: Oh.
Margaret Renkl: So there’s a lot of walking trails very close to my house. And I have always, especially writing this book, I’ve gone almost every day. Things are a little different now. I’m only just coming off book tour, and I sort of feel like surviving book tour was my only goal.
Margaret Roach: [Laughter.] You lowered the bar.
Margaret Renkl: I lowered the bar to the point of zero practice.
Margaret Roach: I know, I understand. I just had a book come out in the spring and I feel like it just tried to wring the life out of me running around like that. Yes, yes, yes.
Margaret Renkl: It’s very heartening to talk with people who have read a book that, it is, you’re writing this book entirely in solitude.
Margaret Roach: Yes.
Margaret Renkl: And then, suddenly there are people who have read it and who have their own stories to share about a grandmother, or a mother, or a yard, a garden. And it’s very gratifying. It’s heart-lifting, really. But the travel is very difficult for me.
Margaret Roach: Me, too.
Margaret Renkl: Because I am one of those that just wants to stay in Concord.
Margaret Roach: Yes, me too. Me too. Me too. And walk pace over the same pathways and the same terrain all the time, over and again, and always see something new. Yes, absolutely.
One of the other voices–and I put that maybe in quotes, “voices”–in your book is your brother’s, because he created these, I think they’re collages, I’m not entirely sure. He’s an artist-
Margaret Renkl: That’s correct, yes, collages.
Margaret Roach: … to open kind of every section, or thereabouts. And that must’ve been very intimate, too, the fact that he would be there expressing it along with you—interpreting, reacting, responding, and interpreting from what you wrote. Have you worked together before like that? They’re wonderful. His work is wonderful.
Margaret Renkl: My brother is only a year younger than I am, and so I don’t have any memory of life before him. And we were possibly the last generation of children to be raised … I mean, we were essentially feral.
Margaret Roach: [Laughter.]
Margaret Renkl: We were, as long as we were together, we could go anywhere we wanted to go. We left when we were dressed in the morning, and we came home when we were hungry. And we spent almost our entire childhood outdoors.
As we got older … So his aesthetic is incredibly similar to mine, anyway. His work, if you look at the work that has nothing to do with “Late Migrations” on his website, you can see that his gallery work is so often concerned with stars, and trees, and flowers, and birds, and grasses. And he often begins a body of work in a text of some kind that he’s responding to. So that alone was reason enough to think about how to integrate his work into “Late Migrations.”
But we also have a long history, because we shared the same group of friends in high school and in college and grad school, of working together on school projects. When we were very young, we made little booklets for our parents and grandparents for presents. And later, we worked together on student publications. I was the editor of the school newspaper and he was the art director.
Margaret Roach: Oh, how funny. I didn’t know that.
Margaret Renkl: I was the editor of the college magazine, he was the art director of the college magazine, right up through graduate school.
Margaret Roach: Oh, O.K. Huh. I’m glad I asked.
Margaret Renkl: We went to the same high school, the same college, and the same graduate school.
Margaret Roach: Wow.
Margaret Renkl: Only a year apart each time. But as far as this particular book, I’m so glad for the way you described it, because I do think of it as a kind of dialogue, rather than that I wrote something that he illustrated. I tried to encourage him to put aside anything that he thought I might want, and just respond to the words.
Margaret Roach: Yes. Well, with the transcript of this conversation that we’ve been having I’ll also show a couple of examples of the work that we’re talking about so that people can visualize it-
Margaret Renkl: Right. That would be great.
Margaret Roach: … and a link to his website as well. Billy Renkl, correct? Is that right?
Margaret Renkl: That’s right, billyrenkl.com.
Margaret Roach: Yes. Yes. But I’m so glad to talk to you. And, as I said, I just enjoyed the book so much. And I know my listeners and readers are kindred spirits, and I think that they’re going to really enjoy it, too. And I hope they’re readers of your “New York Times” weekly columns, which I always look forward to. So I’m your fan girl, Margaret Renkl. [Laughter.]
Margaret Renkl: And I am yours, Margaret Roach.
Margaret Roach: Oh, good.
Margaret Renkl: Thank you so much.
Margaret Roach: Good. Well, thank you so much again for making time. And I’ll talk to you again soon, I hope.
(Collages from “Late Migrations” by Billy Renkl.)
more from margaret renkl
enter to win a copy of ‘late migrations’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, answering this question:
Is there a particular touchstone for you in the garden and the natural world beyond, some aspect of it or certain of its creatures that really inform your life more than just beautifies your backyard? (Margaret Renkl and I have confessed that staring out the window is part of our workflow, our writing process; we both also cultivate messiness in the name of connection with all the little beneficial creatures, for example.)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. A random winner will be selected after entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 12, 2019. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 4, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).