Margaret Renkl. Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Milkweed Editions, 2019. 248 pp. $24.00 (paper)
Where do we go when the world feels too heavy to hold? When grief and loss stack up around us, leaving us breathless, surrounded by absence? For Margaret Renkl, the answer is in the ineffable outdoors. Take to woodland paths, to butterfly gardens, to overgrown yards, she instructs by example. Stand at the window and take notice. Her debut book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, warmly invites its readers to see the world as Renkl does: in reverent wonder and awe of the natural world, understanding that humanity is connected to nature while at the same time audience to its spectacle. These essays teach us to revel in our smallness, to find peace in our position within the natural ecosystem. We are a part of it, at home in it—all that “life piled on life.”
In this collection, Renkl artfully weaves the personal and familial together with the natural and ecological. They are tethered, nearly inseparable, in all the ways they have shaped Renkl’s life and understanding of the world around her. In “Jaybird, Home” she writes:
“I am a creature of piney woods and folded terrain, of birdsong and running creeks and a thousand shades of green, of forgiving soil that yields with each footfall. That hot land is a part of me, as fundamental to my shaping as a family member, and I would have remembered its precise features with an ache of homesickness even if I had never seen it again.”
Here, and throughout the collection, that “hot land” she was born into acts as extended family—a site of nurture and nature. So in telling the stories of her family, she also tells the stories of birds in her yard or plants in her garden. These stories echo with the sounds of a home intrinsically connected to the land. For Renkl, home sounds like leaves turning over in the wind. It’s her mother’s laughter and the music of rivers. The snore of a beloved great-grandmother, the squeak of a screen door, or the howl of the family dog. But of all the sounds that summon the “ache of homesickness,” none are more powerful for Renkl than the call of the jaybird. She hears that call and instantly she is “in the wiregrass region of Lower Alabama.”
With her family tree rooted in this region, Renkl generously shares with her readers the houses, backyards, dirt roads, and forests of her life—a life that revolves around the people she loves. When she’s born, Renkl’s family gathers around her protectively, in wonder, as if she were the sun, “as if they had been cold every day of their lives until now.” And if Renkl is their sun, these people are her whole universe. These family members act as tour guides through the narrative threads of Late Migrations, leading us through present day Nashville to the rural Alabama of Renkl’s childhood. In a series of essays, “In Which My Grandmother Tells the Story of…” we hear the warm voice of a grandmother passing down stories of family births and deaths. In “In the Storm, Safe from the Storm,” we meet a father who wraps his daughter in his jacket so only her toes feel the spray from the falling rain, a man who will remind her, again and again, that she can always come home. Her brother himself becomes part of the book’s physical makeup by providing the stunning illustrations throughout—the marigolds and bluebirds and figs that render these familial memories into physical, visual works of art and reflect a lifetime of leaning into the embrace of wilderness.
Tantamount to these themes of family and home is the collection’s depiction of Renkl’s mother and the development of their relationship. In “Things I Knew When I Was Six,” we learn of her mother’s struggle with mental illness. She writes, “if your mother is crying and cannot stop, there’s a little blue pill in the bathroom that will help her sleep.” In the next piece, “Things I Didn’t Know When I was Six,” her childlike mind cannot yet fathom mental illness, cannot yet make sense of her mother’s tears. But their relationship is cyclical, mirroring the cycles of the natural world around them: a mother bird nesting eggs; her chicks then becoming new mother birds nesting their own eggs. Later in life, now a mother herself, Renkl can see her mother as a whole person beyond motherhood—one whose creativity and dreams have been suppressed by the culture and circumstances in which she lived. She is a gardener, a dancer, a loving grandmother, and the protagonist in her own love story.
After a sudden stroke takes her mother and leaves an impossible hole in Renkl’s world, she remembers her with palpable affection in “History” as she proudly steps into her mother’s wedding dress in which “not a single seam needs adjustment.” She sees her mother in her “own thickening” waist, having had three children just as her mother did. She paints mirrored images of herself and her mother in essays like “My Mother Pulls Weeds” and “He Is Not Here” in which both women, in different seasons of life, are working in their gardens, hands in soil, cultivating what they can. They’ve both learned to turn to gardens when they need to. They’ve both known what it feels like to be in love with the land. And in “Ashes, Part Three,” Renkl helps her mother return to the land a final time when she travels back to Lower Alabama, the place she “still thinks of as home,” to bury the ashes. “They are buried now,” Renkl writes, “deep in the soil she sprang from, deep in the soil her parents sprang from, deep in the soil their parents sprang from.” That same soil still runs hot in Renkl’s own veins, still calls out to her to the tune of the jaybird.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, these kind of losses and love permeate the collection as the family members Renkl affectionately introduces eventually pass on. In “No Exit,” she remembers and mourns her sweet-spirited mother-in-law. In “Choke Cherry,” she loses her father:
“I didn’t see it when the last breath finally came, when my strong, sheltering father ceased for the first time in my lucky life to be my father. I didn’t see it because I had lifted my eyes from his face just once, turned for only a moment to the window on the other side of the room, wondering when the light would come.”
All throughout, Renkl writes these beautiful, though haunting, articulations of grief as she’s experienced it and observed it in the world around her. The wren’s song turns to mourning when a rat snake snatches its eggs in “Nests.” The seasons change and bring decay. But as she reckons with all these losses, she also recounts the countless gestures of care to which she’s borne witness. An older sister who worries over her younger brother’s future. A mother who takes all her children’s tastes into account when baking a cake. The bird in the underbrush searching for food to bring home. She finds theses gestures in her family, in her yard, and, ultimately, in herself. So while the moments of loss are monumental, moments of beauty are quietly woven into each essay. Renkl has attuned her mind to notice the beauty, to see splendor in the decay and “to focus on what is lovely in a broken world”—even in times of great personal and planetary devastation.
Herein lies another important gift of these pages—the remarkable ability to look at
moments that might seem quotidian and to find, instead, something almost miraculous. The wren that keeps on singing. The quiet dignity of nesting. Knowing the home might fail to protect, but building it anyway. The leaf that will never again be the same shade of crimson. The monarch butterfly that finds the poppy. The daughter who becomes a mother. Renkl says she is “good at astonishment,” but she is far better at astonishing. This is a book to linger with. It begs to be felt. It asks its reader to consider home and know that the miracles do not only occur in the large and loud moments, but also “in the damp weeds of an ordinary backyard.”
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl
ANGELA WINSOR lives and writes in Auburn, Alabama where she is a second-year master’s student at Auburn University in creative writing. She’s currently the assistant managing editor at Southern Humanities Review.