Margaret Renkl Melds Personal History with the Natural World in ‘Late Migrations’

Margaret-Renkl-Late-Migrations-Book-Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Margaret Renkl‘s debut, Late Migrations: A  Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.

Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.

In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.

When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patterns and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things.  She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.

On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:

The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.

In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.

The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.

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