Book Talk

Late Migrations


Barbara J King

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.