Wall Street Journal Lauds Margaret Renkl’s Latest Book
‘The Comfort of Crows’ Review: Margaret Renkl’s Menagerie
The rhythms of nature—and life—as seen from a Nashville backyard.
By Heller McAlpin
Oct. 27, 2023
“We were never cast out of Eden,” Margaret Renkl writes. “We merely turned from it and shut our eyes.” Her book “The Comfort of Crows” is a week-by-week record of the ever-changing show put on by nature during the span of a year in her half-acre Nashville backyard. It is a paean not just to the natural world, but to paying attention and doing one’s bit to nurture it. Ms. Renkl repeatedly exhorts us to stop, look and listen.
Despite expressing deep, familiar concerns about the state of our planet, Ms. Renkl is a determinedly positive guide who thrills to the sight of a mole’s six-fingered hand and the sound of a song sparrow in winter. The death of her beloved father-in-law and the emptying of the nest where she and her husband, a schoolteacher, raised three sons, bring home for Ms. Renkl a sense of the inexorable passage of time and lend a more wistful note to this book than to her previous volumes, “Late Migrations” (2019) and “Graceland, At Last” (2021). But she finds comfort in focusing closely on nature and its rhythms.
That attention brings us a gallery of memorable images: chipmunks preparing for winter by “scooping up seeds like warm-blooded Roombas” as well as bees “working the remaining pollen with all the focus of a lonely soul at a dive bar’s last call.” She shares her appreciation for “castanets of fallen leaves,” and her delight in the ease of winter birdwatching as mockingbirds and blue jays take advantage of the heated birdbath in her garden. In spring, the sight of a male redbird presenting his mate with an edible demonstration of “his fitness as her partner” leads to a charming observation: “In the avian world, a grub is an engagement ring.”
Ms. Renkl sings the praises of some surprising things in this devotional, including often unloved creatures like opposums, vultures, mice, mosquitoes and the crows featured in the book’s title. In fact, she is delighted when “a sharp-eyed crow” is the first bird she sees on the first day of the year, setting the tone for her next 12 months—according to birding tradition, anyway. Although in many cultures crows are associated with death, Ms. Renkl prefers to celebrate them for their intelligence, tenderness, playfulness and adaptability—and perhaps a promise of transformation and renewal, too.
But her purview goes well beyond the borders of her yard. Stories about her free-roaming childhood among the peanut farms and graveyards of southern Alabama add perspective. The chapter “My Life in Mice” chronicles just that, through the decades, including a bloody incident between a hamster and a gerbil that led her to vow never to put another animal in a cage. (Many of her tales involve her chagrin over the inadvertent damage she has caused to creatures she was trying to help.)
Ms. Renkl strives, not always successfully, to resist anthropomorphizing creatures, “partly because thinking of them in human terms only makes the constant tragedies feel more tragic.” But many of her most arresting images are drawn from the human realm: A fallen redbird is like a “Shakespearean hero come to a terrible end.” She is more successful at resisting the temptation to view various critters’ struggles for survival as metaphors for the challenges that people, too, face in life.
“The Comfort of Crows” is beautifully enhanced by 52 lavish, full-color illustrations by Billy Renkl, the author’s brother. His lush, multilayered drawings of spiders, hummingbirds and pileated woodpeckers shown in both natural and unnatural habitats evoke Asian scrolls, collages and intriguing exercises in perspective.
Ms. Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, does not hide her dismay at what she sees as Americans’ love affair with tidy, manicured lawns and the poisons required to maintain them. She likens leaf blowers to obnoxious “giant whining insects that have moved into your skull.” But those noises are nothing compared to the demolition of her former longtime neighbors’ “plain, working-class homes . . . to make room for fine, fancy houses,” and worse, the wholesale destruction of giant shade trees and jumbles of wildflowers along with them.
Unsurprisingly and perhaps understandably, some of Ms. Renkl’s new neighbors do not appreciate her policy of “benign neglect” when it comes to weeding, pruning and cleaning up fall leaves. She argues that what others view as an unkempt weed patch is an environmentalist’s delight, “an unexpected pocket of biodiversity”—providing food for birds, shelter for bees and protection for other creatures.
Above all, “The Comfort of Crows” is a full-throated ode to the hopefulness of regeneration: “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.”
She reminds herself—and readers—that “this is what the world does best. New life. Rebirth. The greenness that rises out of the ashes.” She adds, “I refuse to quell this joy.”