Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl

This subtle, searing essay collection examines the griefs of family and of the natural world as one.

Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss is a quiet but stunning collection of essays merging the natural landscapes of Alabama and Tennessee with generations of family history, grief and renewal. Renkl’s voice sounds very close to the reader’s ear: intimate, confiding, candid and alert.

Renkl grew up in “lower Alabama,” the adored child of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents: in an old picture, “my people are looking at me as if I were the sun.” Her childhood was lived close to the red dirt, pine needles and blue jays of that space. As an adult, she lives in Nashville with a husband and three sons, and carefully cultivates a backyard garden with bird nests, baths and feeders. These are the backdrops to her observations of nature. “The cycle of life might as well be called the cycle of death: everything that lives will die, and everything that dies will be eaten.”

Sections are headed with simple, natural-world titles (Tomato, River, Thunderstorm) and adorned with illustrations by the author’s brother, Billy Renkl. Within these sections, the essays are brief–often just two or three pages–and can stand alone, but accrue to form a truly lovely larger picture. “Safe, Trapped” handles the duality of protective spaces: that shelter is also captivity. An echo, several chapters later: the realization that her childhood was never the sanctuary she thought it was at the time. Alongside the concern of how to keep loved ones safe, she writes about the natural cruelty of rat snakes, crows and snow.

Late Migrations studies family and loss: the deaths of great-grandparents, grandparents and parents; Renkl becoming a parent herself and worrying over her children. Spending a night in a prewar infirmary on the grounds of an orphanage, dreaming of babies in cages, Renkl goes to the window to view cardinals at a feeder and “watched until I knew I could keep them with me, until I believed I would dream that night of wings.” At about the midpoint of her book, this feels like a point of synthesis. Dreaming of babies in cages and trading them for wings, to “keep them with me,” represents a neat joining of her themes, which are of course not nearly so separate as they initially appear.

This is a book about the labors of bluebirds, red-tailed hawks and cottontails, and about grief: the loss of loved ones, the risks to her own children and the everyday struggles of backyard nests. A book of subtlety and sadness, yes, but also a tough, persistent joy in the present and the future. “Human beings are creatures made for joy,” Renkl writes. “Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies…. In the fairy tale we tell ourselves, darkness holds nothing resembling a gift.” Part of her work in this book is to find and recognize the gift in the darkness, “to reveal it in its deepest hiding place.” Late Migrations is itself that gorgeous, thought-provoking gift.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bluebirds.

I sat reading, in Renkl’s chapter “Bluebird” at a state park in North Carolina, about bluebirds nesting in bluebird boxes. And I looked up to see a male bluebird, brightly feathered, ducking into a bluebird box, his anxious, drabber mate sitting on top and watching me and my little dog with concern. I couldn’t believe it: I looked down at the page, up at the bluebirds. We were a dozen feet apart. I kept reading and watching as the couple kept up their cycling through the box – she got a little more comfortable with me over time, but stayed watchful. A rare experience.

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