“Human beings are storytelling creatures, craning to see the crumpled metal in the closed-off highway lane, working from the moment the traffic slows to construct a narrative from what’s left behind. But our tales, even the most tragic ones, hinge on specificity. The story of one drowned Syrian boy washed up in the surf keeps us awake at night with grief. The story of four million refugees streaming out of Syria seems more like a math problem.”
Margaret Renkl nestles that observation into “The Unpeaceable Kingdom,” an essay midway through Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. But it could serve as a thesis for her collection.
Late Migrations is a collection of essays, some as short as a paragraph, that reconcile Renkl’s lived experience with the natural world around her. She resides in suburban Nashville, not a wilderness, and works at a desk, not in the outdoors. Even so, Renkl is so in touch with the birds and butterflies of her yard that one could mistake her for a trained naturalist. Indeed, she is known as a nature writer; as a New York Times contributing op-ed writer, she writes about flora and fauna, as well as the American South’s politics and culture.
The essays that compose Late Migrations stand on their own, offering glimpses into loss and living as they toggle between Renkl’s past and present across the Southern U.S. Taken together, though, they create a narrative that depicts not only the migrations of winged creatures but also the lives of Renkl’s family. (Appropriately, Renkl’s reflections are punctuated with illustrations by her brother, Billy Renkl. The images are as captivating as the author’s contemplative yet powerful words.)
As Renkl observes the lives around her, she notes that a “life cycle” could just as accurately be dubbed a “death cycle.” But the term we use is more reflective of the human approach to life, as evident throughout Renkl’s quiet, lovely observations.
She writes, “Human beings are creatures made for joy. Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies, unwelcome variations from the pleasure and calm and safety that in the right way of the world would form the firm ground of our being.”