For Margaret Renkl, a cedar waxwing is "A flying jungle flower. A weightless coalescence of air and light and animation." The squirrel at her squirrel-proof finch feeder surprises by "pulling it to his mouth like an ear of sweet corn at a Fourth of July potluck." The old dog howls "for his crippled hips" and "because it's his job to protect this house, but he is too old now to protect the house."
The 112 essays in Renkl's first book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, range from seven lines to just over four pages in length. Together they create a jeweled patchwork of nature and culture that includes her own family. This woven tapestry makes one of all the world's beings that strive to live — and which, in one way or another, face mortality.
Renkl's roots are in Lower Alabama, with its piney woods and red dirt roads, that "hot land" on which she has imprinted. A maternal family tree introduces us to the heart of her world, starting with great-grandparents Papa Doc and Mama Alice, Granley and Mother Ollie. When in 1961 Renkl is born, her kin surround her: "I am too small and always cold, but my people are looking at me as if I were the sun." They continue to surround her today in the landscape of memory.
In Tennessee, Renkl raises her own family. She requires the outdoors as she requires water but, for her, that does not mean wilderness adventures. A neighborhood walk or a session with binoculars trained on her own yard's ecosystem is enough — and vitally necessary to her well-being. Back during college days, her life was "unacceptably enclosed." First arriving at graduate school, she had become so "homesick" for the natural world that she laced her room with stale Cheetos to entice a mouse's companionship. Now, nature is her teacher.
The subtitle's promise holds: Love and loss are strongly wrought themes. In time, Renkl writes, the flaming cardinal will fall to the ground, "a cold stone," and, she continues, "I too will grow cold, and all my line." A memorable narrative arc focuses on her mother, described as "a mother who can't stop crying," who suffers from mental illness, who "needed her little girl to tipetoe in with a blue pill and a glass of water in the gloom." As both her parents age, they confront health crises and Renkl confronts caregiving. At dark moments, she becomes "unmoored." She dreams and she remembers; always that family tree is with her.
As a young girl in the 1960s, Renkl worried that her brother Billy will be sent to Vietnam: "Of course he will go this war has lasted my whole life," the child reasoned. "Vietnam" is a word she practiced, looking ahead to the day when she must travel there, "in my brother's place." Turn the page and find a new essay, one that blooms with birds who fight each other for flowers, seeds, and bugs. "A real threat and an imagined threat provoke the same response," Renkl writes. "I stand at the window and watch them, cataloging all the human conflicts their ferocity calls to mind."
Could this be an invitation to draw lines of connection from the Billy essay to the bird essay? Or instead is a reader's imagination at work? Either way, the experience of reading Late Migrations becomes active, engaged, and lively.
Drawings by Billy Renkl — yes, the brother about whom the author worried, who here has created a marigold, a blue jay, a fig, a thunderstorm, with an artist's sure touch — lend extra colors and grace to the book.
Renkl writes a weekly column for The New York Times with the tag line "Flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South." That's where to go if you close the book and crave more, to seek essays like "Praise Song for the Unloved Animals" and "Shame and Salvation in the American South."
Late Migrations is an ideal summer read. In one essay, Renkl provides what could be her own mini-review: "I am good at astonishment," she says. But there I must quibble. She's better than good, at times reaching magnificent.
Conjure your favorite place in the natural world: beach, mountain, lake, forest, porch, windowsill rooftop? Precisely there is the best place in which to savor this book.
Barbara J. King is an author and anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. Her most recent books are How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat.