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18 December 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 1:21pm

Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: a family history and the record of a lost way of life

Renkl mostly writes about what she saw rather than how she felt, a trait inherited from stoic relatives.

By Alison Hibberd

Margaret Renkl writes a weekly column in the New York Times on the “flora, fauna, politics and culture of the American South” and Late Migrations, an interconnecting series of personal and nature essays, is her first book.

Renkl lives in suburban Nashville but grew up in southern Alabama. She writes about the experiences of her great-grandparents and more immediate family, interspersed with observations on the struggles endured by the wildlife surrounding her home and of the nature she saw while growing up.

Late Migrations can be read as a family history and the record of a lost way of life, an appreciation of ancestors and the sacrifices they made. It is about the tight bonds of love that held her family together and the pain suffered through loss. It is also a meditation on the cruelty of nature: one creature devouring another to feed and survive. Renkl mostly writes about what she saw rather than how she felt, a trait inherited from stoic relatives who set feelings aside to carry on with daily living. “Nights I cried myself to sleep,” she records one saying, “days I went to work like always”.

Renkl decided to become a writer as early as the eighth grade and went on to study English literature at Auburn University and poetry at the University of South Carolina. Poetry was her first love and it shows: she can draw wonder from the commonplace.

The book is illustrated by her brother, Billy Renkl, and his work here is reminiscent of the illustrated frames in Victorian photograph albums and even of tombstones, visually reflecting the American love of scrap-booking, découpage and collage. These strangely sombre images cast a gloom over the writing, reminding the reader of the ever-present spectre of death to which Renkl frequently alludes.

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William Blake told us, “Joy and woe are woven fine/A clothing for the soul divine/Under every grief and pine/runs a joy with silken twine”. That grief is the price we pay for love or, as Renkl writes, “the shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love’s own twin”.

The book’s title alludes to the late migration of monarch butterflies. On their long journey south for the winter, a 3,000-mile trip from Canada and the north-eastern United States to the mountains of central Mexico, a flutter of them had stopped to feast on the nectar-bearing flowers in Renkl’s own backyard. She had sown them especially for this purpose, along with the wild plant known as milkweed (Asclepias). 

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In America too many gardens, patches of waste ground and road verges have been tidied to oblivion, ridding the environment of the once ubiquitous milkweed wild flower favoured by monarch butterflies – indeed it is the only food source their caterpillars can eat. This and the shifting of seasons brought about by climate change have led to a 90 per cent decline in the monarch population.

Late Migrations is published by Milkweed Editions, an independent non-profit publisher committed to ecological stewardship. There is a pleasing synchronicity between their name and the food source the monarch butterfly larvae depend on.

The book is also a kind of augury. Soon we may be facing unprecedented human migrations as weather patterns alter and lands become uninhabitable. We must endeavour to make our fellow beings as welcome to us as those late migrating butterflies are to the author of this fine book. “Man was made for Joy and Woe,” wrote Blake, and so it seems for Margaret Renkl too. 

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
Margaret Renkl
Milkweed Editions, 248pp, £17.99