Just a few days after her publisher sent the final draft of her new book to the printer, Margaret Renkl saw the turtle. It was missing an eye, its shell was scarred — and it was cause for celebration.
Renkl, a weekly contributing columnist for the New York Times and bestselling author of “Late Migrations” and “Graceland, at Last,” was delighted to spot the gnarled creature because she hadn’t seen a wild box turtle in her suburban Nashville yard for more than two decades.
She’d lamented that fact in her latest book of essays, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year.” And then, that improbable reptile “amazingly” appeared after she had literally written off hope, said Renkl.
The sense of delight in watching the creatures she loves even as she mourns those she misses fills the pages of “The Comfort of Crows.” In the book, Renkl, a self-described backyard naturalist, chronicles Tennessee’s seasons and her family’s emptying nest over 52 weeks. She describes days of weather out of whack and ever fewer butterflies and birds.
Funny and vibrant, the book is by no means a downer, despite the fact that she writes of upended natural patterns and biodiversity loss.
“The book does occupy an uncomfortable sort of space,” Renkl acknowledged. “I want to revel in the beauty and the joy of the world, but I want to be very conscious of how imperiled that beauty really is.”
She knows, though, that getting people to care, truly care, is a more likely path to action.
“I hope that readers might fall in love with the things I love, because I have this really strong sense that people save what they love,” she said. “So if it means that somebody reads this and notices the birds or the insects or other crawly critters in their own yard, and then thinks, ‘How can I help?’ That would be my real hope. If you think, ‘How can I help?’ then the world opens to you.”
Her love for the underdogs of the natural world and for the part of the country she calls home is apparent every Monday, when her New York Times opinion column on “Flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South” appears online.
She’s described escaping the heat at the mall, explored the wrenching legislative inaction on gun violence in Tennessee and praised the last days of her garden, with its scraggly zinnias feasted on by goldfinches and daisies nibbled by bunnies. (She even went so far as to suggest that powdery mildew can be lovable because it provides food for ladybugs.)
Born in Alabama, Renkl grew up “half feral,” spending hours collecting tadpoles and exploring the outdoors in the early 1970s, when “no one entertained children or signed them up for games where adults set all the rules,” she writes in “The Comfort of Crows.”
Renkl’s first book of essays, “Late Migrations,” was all about her childhood and family history, intertwined with closely observed tales of nature. Stories about the people she cares about fill “Crows,” too — as does striking artwork by her brother, Billy Renkl, an art and design professor at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. He also created the illustrations and cover for “Late Migrations” and the cover for “Graceland, at Last.”
Working together is something the siblings — born just one year apart — have done since they were children.
“My mother had her hands full. The general idea was that as long as Billy and I stayed together, you know, the buddy system, we were set. So, we were left to our own devices,” she said. “And a lot of the time when we were kids, I would write something and Billy would draw pictures to go with it. It could have been a birthday card for a parent or grandparent, or as we got older, little booklets we would make — for them, and then later for our friends — it just went on.”
They kept up this partnership in high school and college — serving as editor and art director for school publications. Anytime she felt like she couldn’t quite capture what she wanted in her writing while working on “The Comfort of Crows,” she would think about her brother’s artwork.
“I would say to myself, ‘But the artwork alone will make it worth buying this book,’ ” she said. “I don’t mind just telling you — it’s magnificent.”
A song for skinks
“The Comfort of Crows” follows the framework of a religious devotional, interspersed with “praise songs” for flora and fauna like skinks, moulting redbirds and dead leaves. Renkl traces a year in nature in the tradition of Annie Dillard’s 1974 classic “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
The book also paints a vivid portrait of what it’s like to live in one of the last original homes in a booming suburban neighborhood that is rapidly changing.
As the longtime neighbors — who have been there since the days Renkl’s children were babies — move or pass away, developers are buying the lots at prices unaffordable to most homebuyers, Renkl said. They then tear down the small home and build a large modern “farmhouse,” with a much smaller yard that’s scraped and landscaped with a tidy lawn and a few boxwoods.
Homeowners like Renkl — who embrace messy native pollinator gardens and wild bee lawns — are now few and far between.
Not that she doesn’t like her new neighbors. She does.
“They’re friendly and neighborly, and they have adorable children,” she said. “But it isn’t ever going to be a working-class neighborhood again.”
She’s hoping that someday, what’s in style will change, and the manicured grass lawn will no longer rule, even in suburban Tennessee.
“What it’s going to require is a change of heart. We have to tune our eyes to see that the serviceberry is actually far more beautiful than the Yoshino cherry — if by beautiful you mean it provides food and habitat for our native wild neighbors,” she said. “We haven’t yet gotten to the place where it’s convenient and easy and affordable to do the right thing in your yard.”
In the meantime, Renkl, who lets pumpkin vines grow willy-nilly in her front yard where the squirrels plant them and proudly shares photos of the plants’ progress on Instagram, makes her hatred of leaf blowers and chemically created tidiness very clear.
Joy even as the world burns
There’s plenty that’s delightful about this book, including the way Renkl describes the winter week that she finds what she fervently hopes is an owl pellet — those packages of undigestible bones and fur the birds cough up — outside her back door.
“I had never seen one in real life before,” she writes. “Its shape and color and its position on the back deck, just below a maple tree where I have often seen an owl perched for hunting, certainly pointed to that possibility.”
After searching on her phone and consulting naturalists online, the evidence suggests otherwise. She’s still convinced.
She shows it to her husband, Haywood, sharing her delight in the discovery. It’s on the big side, but maybe it’s from a great horned owl. “My husband was visibly struggling for composure,” she writes.
Then he breaks it to her: The vacuum was clogged. Guess where he emptied it?
This open-hearted book also includes anecdotes of wildlife rescue from 1975 to today in a chapter called “My life in rabbits” and recounts the months when Renkl’s grown children, back home for a while during the pandemic, then leave once more. Throughout, she shares small but extraordinary moments in nature with an affection that’s both moving and contagious.
Renkl knows that everyone has plenty to worry about right now. So instead of worry or despair, she’s hoping that “The Comfort of Crows” will awaken readers’ love, passion and excitement about what she calls our “wild neighbors.”
“Everybody is just trying to get through the day. You know, they’re trying to get the lunchboxes packed, they’re trying to get the bills paid. They’re trying to call their mother back. It’s just a full life for everybody,” she said. “And the idea that you need to look outside and see what’s going on in your yard and just add it to that to-do list will never work.”
Being close to the natural world isn’t something to do because you “should” but because it can make you feel so much better, Renkl said. And she doesn’t think we have time for despair about climate change or biodiversity loss.
“I don’t want anybody to feel despair,” she said. “Despair is paralyzing, and we still have time to act.”
Writing about a mild week in March in “The Comfort of Crows,” she implores:
“The world is burning, and there is no time to put down the water buckets. For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway. Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future but who build the future nevertheless, leaf by leaf and straw by straw, shaping them into the roundness of the world.
“Turn your face up to the sky. Listen. The world is trembling into possibility. The world is reminding us that this is what the world does best. New life. Rebirth. The greenness that rises out of ashes.”