The yard grows wild with pollinator blooms. It’s early October in Nashville and the scorching summer just relinquished its relentless hold. Many of the black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, and zinnias have been picked dry by birds and insects. The caretaker of this garden, the author and essayist Margaret Renkl, leads me to her leaf-strewn deck out back, to show me a glimmer of hope.
Renkl hasn’t seen many monarch butterflies this year, but on a wooden table in her backyard, a smooth, jade green chrysalis hangs from the top of a white mesh cage. She placed the monarch caterpillar and the butterfly weed it was attached to inside the cage to protect it from red wasps. In her gentle Tennessee-by-way-of-Alabama lilt, she instructs me to move close for a better look.
“They look like little jewels,” Renkl said of the chrysalis. “If you know what you’re looking for, you can see the outline of the wings.” I squint, eager to see what she sees.
One of Renkl’s skills as a writer is to transfer her ability to perceive the nuances of the natural world, things most of us overlook, onto the page. In her new book, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” published on Oct. 24, her powers of perception are on full display.
All 52 essays are meditations on the changing seasons of the natural world. She writes about growing older, watching her sons move away and coming to terms with the fact that she may have more life behind her than ahead. Paying attention to the living things in her backyard helps her cope with climate change, political strife and cultural upheaval — and she hopes it will help the reader, too.
“The world is burning, and there is no time to put down the water buckets,” Renkl writes in a chapter called “Wild Joy.” “For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway.”
CreditCredit…Video by Julie Holder For The New York Times
After we finish peering into the chrysalis we settle into cozy chairs in Renkl’s den, which also happens to be her writing room. Her dog Rascal hops into her lap. A wooden art table that her husband Haywood made for their three sons when they were kids now serves as her desk. It faces three large windows, so she can peek up at the wooden bird feeder outside and catch a glimpse of a goldfinch or a blue jay. The walls are lined with shelves full of books — the “Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry,” “The Art of William Edmonson.” A few dried seed pods and smooth, round buckeyes (“for luck”) rest in little trays on the coffee table. We sip iced tea from tall glasses.
Renkl isn’t a climate scientist or botanist, but she knows the summers are getting hotter and drier, and hurricanes come earlier each year. She aches for the century-old trees getting chopped down in her neighborhood so that real estate agents can get a pretty photo of a newly constructed home with a manicured lawn. She knows bees need pollinator gardens. Still, even if Renkl is not optimistic about the state of things, she has hope.
“Hope is almost a spiritual practice,” Renkl said. “You look for reasons to feel that it’s possible that everything will be OK, especially in response to the climate and extinction crises. There’s a line between grief and joy. If I can occupy that exact space, that’s my goal.”
Like Renkl’s two previous books, the cover art for “The Comfort of Crows” was created by her brother Billy Renkl, a collage artist. He also created 52 original full-color collages to go with each section of the book. Renkl said she and Billy, who are 18 months apart, “grew up in lock step.” Early on, Renkl fell in love with words the way her brother gravitated toward images. According to Billy, they started collaborating as children. “She would write a story and I would draw the pictures,” he said.
Billy thinks “The Comfort of Crows” addresses “the central issue of our time”: a planet in peril, and the small but crucial ways we can change our own tiny plots of earth, whether it’s a backyard, a community garden, or an office courtyard.
In her yard, Renkl points out the goldenrod, sea oats, and blue flag iris, the state flower of Tennessee. She’s partial to the plants’ “old timey” names. “How can you not like stickwilly or Joe Pye weed? Those names are so evocative,” she said.
She talks about her pond and her tadpoles, which are impossible to see in the murky water thick with vegetation. (In “The Comfort of Crows,” Renkl’s pond and her quest to rescue tadpoles and tree frogs play out like a dramatic saga.) Several of the tadpoles came from her longtime friend, the fellow Nashville-based author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett, who took them from a fountain outside the building where her mother lives because she knew her friend was in the market for some frogs-to-be.
The two became close when Patchett read a galley of Renkl’s first book, “Late Migrations,” in one sitting. “I get manuscripts on my doorstep the way people used to get babies on their doorstep,” Patchett said. She was awed by Renkl’s talent, and now they go on double dates with their husbands and take trips to New York together.
“She is able to hold the enormous beauty of the world and the suffering simultaneously, and she doesn’t let one get out ahead of the other,” Patchett said. “We want to do better and to live on the earth in a better way and we don’t know what that means, and Margaret tells us. She has shaped our lives.”
Because of Renkl’s writing, Patchett’s yard also grows thick with flowering weeds. “The Comfort of Crows” is full of appeals to put away the leaf blowers and pay attention to the small aggressions we commit each day. She’s not asking the reader to save the planet in one fell swoop. She’s asking us to do a little bit better.
“The data is devastating,” Renkl said of what’s happening with our climate. “And yet I have hope because this planet is still just magnificently, breathtakingly beautiful. My hope is that people will recognize that that beauty is so imperiled and will begin to wake up.”
Before I leave, Renkl places a few swamp rose mallow seed pods and a honeyvine milkweed pod in a container for me to take home, the way someone else might hand you a to-go box of pie before you leave a party. She opens the passion vine pod to show me a bed of brown seeds attached to white feathery parachutes, and gives me some tips about how best to sow them.
A few days after our visit, Renkl shares an Instagram post showing the monarch butterfly that emerged from the chrysalis in her yard. She tells her followers, who had been anticipating the emergence of this butterfly for two weeks, that it flew straight to the purple asters. The photo reminds me of the little container sitting on a shelf inside my house, so I take it outside to my own haphazard plot of wildflowers. I pop off the top and place the swamp rose mallow seeds into the soil. Next I lift up the milkweed pod. I free a few of the tiny parachutes, and watch them drift.