‘Late Migrations’ Shows Us How Human Experience Mirrors the Natural World

The subtitle of Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss may undersell these clear-eyed revelations about the cycle of life and death. Rather than a catalog of the natural world as observed from the woods behind Renkl’s Nashville home, this book is a lovely and honest collage of memories, observations, and stories celebrating generations of Renkl’s family as well as the flora and fauna that have made up her world. Accompanying Renkl’s lyrical prose are full-color prints of her brother Billy Renkl’s artwork. Not only are the images enchanting, but the collaboration underscores the richness and the beauty of living that this book celebrates, as well as the author’s close ties to family.

Renkl sets her “natural history” apart from the likes of Diane Ackerman’s The Moon by Whale Light or, more recently, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, by opening with the voice of her grandmother in a piece entitled, “In Which My Grandmother Tells the Story of My Mother’s Birth.” The effect is surprising, until it becomes clear that such vignettes, which appear to be transcribed rather than composed by the author, punctuate the book. They appear with frequency among Renkl’s anxiety about the rat snake who will eat the bluebird’s eggs; the cardinals, whose hatchlings don’t survive; and the vulture, who sits ominously on her front lawn. It’s clear that our human experience mirrors the natural world, and to exclude her family lifecycle while musing on nature is to diminish what the author illuminates when she writes of the plants and animals. Our births and deaths, our struggle to survive, are as elemental as the creatures nestling in the honeysuckle canes.

Her prose style is accessible and also astonishing. In “Prairie Lights,” Renkl describes an Eastern Colorado night sky: “And, oh, the stars were like the stars in a fairy tale, a profligate pouring of stars that reached across the sky from the edge of the world to the edge of the world to the edge of the world.” Her description is as wonderfully dizzying as her girlhood experience of tilting back her head to feel “the whole planet spinning.” Equally gorgeous is Renkl’s ear for what may delight. When trail-walking with family in “Seeing,” she recounts that her niece finds a ladybug and says, “When I was hiking in Colorado, I saw a whole bunch of ladybugs, so I checked on Google to see if there’s a name for a group that gathers in one place. . . [it’s] called a loveliness.”

Implicitly, Renkl illustrates what it means to live a balanced life. She is a mother, wife, daughter, sister, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter, but she is also a lover of words, of animals, of plants and trees. She looks outward to nature in order to be able to look inward at her joys and sadness. As the world continues in the face of loss, so does she.

Late Migrations’ short essays create a kind of devotional. You can start reading any essay in any order, and there will be something to steady your mind or confirm your experience. We have all been haunted by a near miss. Recounting her toddler son’s near drowning in an essay entitled “In Bruegel’s Icarus, for Instance,” Renkl writes, “No tragedy had touched us, no catastrophe but the near loss I still carry — the shadow that, even now, I cannot set down.” We have all experienced loss and heartache. Reflecting on grief in the essay “After the Fall,” she notes, sagely, “What I mean is, time offers your old self a new shape. What I mean is, you are the old, grieving you, and you are also the new, ruined you.” Amen.

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
By Margaret Renkl
Milkweed Editions
Published July 9, 2019
Paperback Release March 30, 2021