A Conversation with Margaret Renkl
Rural Assembly Everywhere kicked off April 20 with Whitney Kimball Coe in conversation with Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. Renkl is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, where her essays appear each Monday. Her work has also appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, Oxford American, River Teeth, and The Sewanee Review, among others. A graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Carolina, she lives in Nashville.
Whitney: Let’s get started. Margaret, would you join me on the Zoom stage?
Margaret: Hi, Whitney.
Whitney: Hi. I’m so glad you’re here.
Margaret: I’m so happy to be here.
Whitney: For the audience, I’m sure people have read your bio, many of them read your column … read your opinion column weekly, in the New York Times, and maybe people have picked up your book Late Migrations, but just so everyone knows, Margaret Renkl is a longtime writer and op–ed, an opinion writer for the New York Times, and has been for several years. We’re so glad to have her here so we can talk a bit about her 2019 book, Late Migrations, and I know you have another book coming out too, so we can talk a little bit about that. But I was telling you in the green room beforehand, I woke up this morning and I thought, “I get to talk to Margaret Renkl, my life is bliss, is made right now. So thank you for saying yes.
Margaret: That’s so funny. I’m happy.
Whitney: I said to your sister from Tennessee, you live right outside of Nashville, I believe, and so much of your writing is … It centers, I think, on your backyard, and the critters and birds and flora and fauna that live back there with you. I wonder if writing about nature and what’s in your backyard has always been what you’ve felt called to do, or if you found your voice over time, in those subjects?
Margaret: When I was a little girl, I wanted to be two things. The first two things I wanted to be was … Well, I wanted to be a large animal veterinarian, like my hero, Dixie Klein, DVM. There was a little bio … You know those little biographies in children’s school libraries. That dream was not realistic because I’m not very good at dissection, it turns out. But really, I found out that there was such a thing as being a naturalist. I don’t know where I found that out, but I thought, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be somebody that got to be outside and then I wanted to … Then I was writing stories, so I thought that’s what I would write stories about. And that is what I wrote about, really right up through college, really even graduate school. But when my children, came along, that was a lot more absorbing for me.
They were kind of little wild creatures and, so I wrote about them for a long time, until they could read and didn’t want me to write about them anymore. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself returning to the original love I had, writing about the natural world. The natural world for me is bluejays and mockingbirds and chipmunks, it’s not grizzly bears.
Whitney: For your columns in the New York Times … I’ve been following you since 2018, and maybe you’ve been available in the Times before then, but for a long time I’ve been reading what you’ve put out there and I was trying to think of some way to describe the scope of topics you tend to cover, in a way that might be different than the way Ann Patchett has talked about you, or Richard Powers, or even Oprah. I’ve seen all these rave reviews about you, from them, but I was thinking about one of the first columns I ever read of yours. It was about Graceland, and you eventually got to go visit Elvis Presley’s home in Graceland, and then you also write about birds and the bird feeder in your backyard. Then you also write about the Christmas Day disaster that occurred this last year in Nashville, with the bomb going off downtown, and how that affected the whole region.
The scope of your writing is more than the natural world, but with Migrations, in particular, you seem to have found a way to weave together your sense of the moment in the place that we live in, in the history that we live in, and also the natural world. So tell me about the joining of those two things, or those many things, with natural world.
Margaret: One of the things that’s kind of great advantage to being an essayist is that, the investment of time in any one topic isn’t really that great. I think of myself as a generalist. I don’t have a mind that is interested in specialization, so the essay form is really comfortable for me because I get to learn something. Almost every week, I get to learn something new. My column this coming Monday will be about a wonderful sculptor who died in 1951, who was the son of enslaved people, and also the first Black artist to have a solo show at MoMA. That’s something that I get to learn about this week, and then write about it. Then maybe next week it will be something completely different, but it doesn’t have to be really coherent. I’m not writing a 400 page novel, I’m just writing about what presents itself before me.
People ask all the time, “Are you worried about running out of something to write about for the times?” And I’m not, because the world is so fascinating and always changing. As far as the book goes though, it’s … I didn’t really think I was writing one book. I thought I was writing one set of essays about my childhood and my family, and another set of essays about the natural world, because after my mom died very suddenly, I found myself really taking so much comfortable from following the natural cycles of life and death. It really was a couple of writer friends who said, “You know you’re writing a book,” and when they pointed it out, I could see that these were different facets of the same kind of thinking; the human realm of love and loss, and the natural cycles of life and death, really do kind of go together.
Whitney: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about your growing up. Many of the essays, as you mentioned in Life Migrations, are about your childhood in lower Alabama. What can you tell us about your childhood?
Margaret: I was born in Andalusia, Alabama, which is in Covington County, and my grandparents lived in Clopton, Alabama, which is in Dale County. Andalusia was and still is a small town. Clopton is strictly a farming community. One little general store, one little Methodist church with a graveyard, and what was once upon a time a two room schoolhouse where my grandmother was the school teacher and is now a community house for family reunions and church bazaars and stuff. We went back and forth between those two holes of my childhood, the little house in town and the rambling often added on to country house, where my grandparents lived in the house where my grandfather grew up, and my mother grew up, with my great grandmother in the house, so it was a multi–generational thing.
My mother struggled with depression when I was a little girl, and there were times when she couldn’t really take care of us, and we spent really big chunks of time with grandparents, on the farm. My grandfather was a peanut and a cattle farmer, and as I said, my grandmother was a school teacher. Then even after we moved to Birmingham, when I was in first grade, we still spent weeks and weeks, every summer, in Clopton. And at least one weekend a month during the school year, so I thought of both of those places as my hometown.
Whitney: Part of your story too is leaving the South and moving North to go to school. I think it’s maybe where you meet your … Is that where you met your husband?
Margaret: No, thank goodness.
Whitney: No? Okay.
Margaret: I was very long … My mother was terrified that I was going to go to Philadelphia and, as she put it, “You’re just going to marry a Yankee and never come home.” And that’s not what happened. I didn’t last very long in Philadelphia. I only lived there four months, and then I transferred to the University of South Carolina, which was still not home but, familiar territory in that –
Whitney: It was the South.
Margaret: … Yeah. And that’s where I met my husband.
Whitney: Okay. Well, that story feels kind of familiar to me too.
Whitney: Leaving home to go to school and discovering while I was gone, how important the culture of the place, the history I said in the South, the … How my comfort was there, so returning home became very important to me too. So then we call ourselves home comers, I think.
Margaret: How long did it take?
Whitney: I was away for almost a decade –
Margaret: Oh wow.
Whitney: Before I could make it back. So coming home was a … It felt like homecoming, for sure. Now I’m back in Athens, Tennessee. I wondered if you would read for us, just a little bit from an essay in Migrations. It’s where you describe a bit of your home, it’s an essay called, “Jaybird Home,” actually. The last two paragraphs or so of this essay, I think people would really resonate.
Margaret: This essay is really about how the landscape of your earliest years … I think so many people, I know have … I’ve heard from so many people who’ve had the same experience, but with a different landscape, that the trees and the birds, and the quality of the soil, and whether it’s flat or hilly, it … You imprint on that and it becomes a part of you. That’s what this essay is really about. It’s called, “Jaybird Home, Lower Alabama, 1968.”
It would take all the words in remembrance of things past, to catalog what I remember about the place where I was born, but there are three things that can bring it all back to me in startlingly detail. The sight of a red dirt road, the smell of pine needles, and the sound of a bluejay’s call. And of those three, by far the most powerful is the call of the jaybird. I love the bluejay’s warning call, the “Jeer, jeer. Jeer, jeer,” it makes when a hawk is near. I love the softer, “Wheedle, wheedle, wheedle,” and “please, please,” song for its mate. Bluejays have an immense range of vocalizations, whirring and clicking and churring and whistling and whining, and something you would swear was a whisper. But the sound they make that takes me right back to 1968, is a call that mimics a squeaky screen door hinge.
I hear that sound coming from the top of a pine tree, and instantly I am in the wire grass region of lower Alabama, where the soil is red sand and pine needles make a scented bower, fit for all my imagined homes.
Whitney: Thank you for that. It’s so descriptive and pulls on all the senses, to call us back to a place. I’m wondering about … You had said you wanted to be, perhaps a veterinarian growing up, or work with animals, but then you discovered, maybe you wanted to be a poet. As I read your words, I can see the poetry in them, and I also wonder about your family and were they supportive of your desire to pursue poetry, writing, and reading. In the acknowledgments, you say they were your safety net and your trampoline, your family.
Margaret: My father was convinced I was going to be a lawyer because I have a strongly argumentative streak that was directed toward him quite a lot, during my adolescence. I had a teacher, a beloved high school English teacher, who died the summer after I graduated from high school, after a long illness, and I instantly decided I wasn’t going to go in that direction. I had planned to major in journalism and then go to law school, instead I majored in English and started writing poetry. And my … Well, I wasn’t really starting, I’d been writing. Don’t all adolescents write poetry? I think everybody does, especially if they fall in love. But I got serious about it in college, and my dad was so wonderful. It was such a lesson for me, later in life as a parent, that the second I said, “Nope, it’s not going to be law, it’s going to be poetry,” which is not something you imagine a father would really welcome hearing. And he just switched, instantly, and started sending me clippings from the newspaper about poets and poetry books that were being reviewed in the Birmingham News.
So they were kind of insufferably supportive. I think … When the internet was invented, Dad finally had a modem. He would … I was writing a weekly column for a newspaper here in town, The Nashville Scene, he would just be refreshing it, every Wednesday morning, waiting for it to come up. Yes, very, very supportive.
Whitney: Oh, wow. That’s wonderful. Switching gears just a little bit. Something else I read about. I think it was an interview with you, where somebody suggested that you are the voice for the South, and you take issue with that characterization of your writing, that there are many voices for the South. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to the Southern voice. One other thing I have to share with everyone out there is, there’s a wonderful column you’ve written for the New York Times, about this very topic. I think that maybe I’ll read a little bit from in just a little bit but, if you could speak a little bit to this idea of being a voice from the South.
Margaret: I think I am a voice from the South. It’s customary, especially for people living in rural areas and small towns, to believe … And I think this is true, that the newspaper and media in general, covers our region primarily by sending somebody, they call it parachuting in. Sending somebody either from New York, the center of American publishing, or those publications based in television news. So shows based in New York, sending somebody to be based in Atlanta, or to be based in Nashville, and then sending them out, where they don’t really have the nuances of life here. I think being from the South does help me a lot in how I think about the complexities of this region, and the writing I do about it. But when people say, “You’re the voice for the South,” that is … Or, “The voice of the South,” that’s just not true. I think people who say that just don’t know how many writers we have down here, or how many …
It’s kind of amazing how many novelists and poets and journalists, and spoken word artists and playwrights … It’s crazy how fertile the literary life of the South is, and the idea that I would be something … I just have a really huge platform, is all. But there are plenty of other people who write about the South. That thing that really kind of bugs me about that question more than anything is the implication that the South is this monolithic entity, that it’s just this one thing that any old White woman in Nashville could possibly represent. That’s not who we are. There’s a lot of Souths. Anybody who is inclined to lump Appalachia with the Gulf Coast, or the Mississippi Delta or the Piedmont of Alabama, much less middle Tennessee, it’s just not possible. There’s so many, and that all those Souths have their own identity, and their own voices. And those voices are old and young, and Black and White and Brown, and Native Americans and Southern born Americans, and immigrants to the South. It’s just complex, you can’t … Nobody could ever do that. Nobody could ever be the voice of that.
Whitney: Mm–hmm (affirmative). Then what do you feel is yours to bring to this platform that you have, from the South? What is the message you … That maybe consciously or unconsciously perhaps, you’re weaving into everything that you put out there?
Margaret: I try to use this platform as much as I can to do two things; to amplify other voices that people who read the Times might not have heard of, but also to muddy expectations as much as I can. I want people who think they know us, because they’ve watched every episode of Andy Griffith, or the Dukes of Hazzard, or even Nashville, the nighttime soap opera that was set here for six or seven years … You don’t know us. I want you to be surprised about what you find out about this region.
Whitney: I love that. I think I will, if folks don’t mind, read just a tiny bit from one of the columns that you wrote. It talks about … Let’s see, what is a Southern writer anyway, is the question that you wrote under. You said, people can hardly help loving the hands that rocks their cradles, or the landscapes that shape their souls, but I doubt there’s a single writer in the South, for whom life here isn’t the source of deep ambivalence, and yet all the writers I’ve mentioned in the column … You mentioned in the column, had opportunities to leave. Many actually did leave for a time, before returning to stay. And all this has made me wonder, what if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural troupes or lyrical pros, or a lush landscape, or a human heat so thick it’s hard to breathe. What if being a Southern writer is almost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place, and yet, finding it somehow impossible to leave? I’ve seen clearly the failings of home, and nevertheless, refusing to flee.
Part of what I love about this piece too is the acknowledgment that the South is not perfect, but we’re staying, or we’re naming and claiming it in all of its glory and all of its imperfections. That’s something you tend to do over and over again, and you’re able to walk that line. Is that hard? It’s a hard thing to do.
Margaret: For me, it’s just the nature of love. That is what love is. Isn’t it? I’ve been married for almost 33 years. I know my spouse, warts and all, and he knows me. I think about how many people are just so forgiving of their beloved dog that barks unceasingly, or jumps on people or digs holes in the treasured flowerbeds. This is what love is. It’s knowing the flaws and loving, in spite of them. Because there’s still so much to love, even when you acknowledge that there is so much that is troubled, and that is painful, and that should be changed.
Whitney: There has been a lot of pain in the last year, and a lot of … I don’t know if revelation’s the right word, a lot of the issues we’ve been dealing with in the South and beyond have been ongoing, for many generations. But maybe the pandemic, in some ways, and the call for racial justice seems to have placed a more intense spotlight on those issues that we struggle with here. So I wonder how the pandemic and all of its intending factors have informed your writing and what you’re thinking about. How has it influenced you in this last year?
Margaret: I think one of the things that’s happened in the last year with the racial justice issues, is that people are finally beginning to acknowledge that we don’t have a patent on racism down here. If people were listening to Black people, they would have known that a long time ago. Right now we’re waiting for a verdict for the trial in Minnesota, but all through last summer, you saw what happened in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston. It’s our legacy no doubt, because of the legacy of slavery, but it’s not only ours. I don’t know about this, maybe the pandemic, because we were all at home and because we weren’t as easily distracted, maybe it made people register that in a way that they hadn’t before. I don’t know.
I do think that the pandemic had at least one … I don’t want to say that the pandemic was a good thing in any way, there’s nothing about that, that was good. But what people did with their time when they were stuck at home … So many people I’ve heard from, hung up a bird feeder or just … There’s only so much time you can spend in front of a screen, so they were standing at the window and that didn’t matter, whether they were in a suburban neighborhood or small town, or a farm, or a cabin in the woods, or a city skyscraper. There’s always something to see in the natural world. So I hope that, that will translate. I’ve had this belief for a long time that the reason most people aren’t attentive to what the natural world needs for human beings, is because they were so busy with their own, more urgent needs and responsibilities. Maybe this pandemic has made more people fall in love with the creatures who share our world. That would be the first step to preserving, or to taking steps to help.
Whitney: I will just say that Late Migrations came into my hands during this time, and I know you didn’t write it for the pandemic or during the pandemic, but somehow it speaks directly to … Even more closely to me, during this period. The grief and the loss, that is one of them throughout, as your mother moved on, and also the nod to the natural world all throughout, and then also this homecoming and sense of rudeness, I feel like a lot of those things were swirling around for many of us during the pandemic too. We do have a question from the audience that I wanted to drop in here, if you don’t mind. I’m going to read it, and if I need to read it again or clarify, let me know.
Whitney: It says, you wrote in the New York Times after the election, it is a great gift to see a future full of possibility again, but the fact that 71 (million) people that are for Donald Trump should be, for everyone that voted for Mr. Biden, a cause for profound and pervasive grief concern. I don’t know if this country could ever be healed, but I do know that people’s whose hearts are full of grief have no room left for hatred, and that might be a place to start. Do you have any thoughts on how we begin this healing? I guess that could also speak to the … The theme is about repair. Healing and repair, where do we start?
Margaret: To me, the thing that is undeniable, without those 71 million … When I wrote that, it was 71 million, I think it ultimately ended up being 74 million, or somewhere closer to that number. Is that, I think a lot of people, and I include myself, believed that the truth about Donald Trump would become clear over the years. He came in … He was a public figure but he was not a leader, and so it would take some time for people to realize what this philosophy and education was going to do to the country and do for them. I was really pretty shocked that, that didn’t happen. I fully expected that many of the people I knew who, and people that I love, who voted for him, would be changed by 2020. Some of them were, quite a few people I know were troubled, not really so much about the philosophical positions of taxation, and regulation and those issues, but were just very upset about the division that he inspired among people, and either sat out the election or voted for President Biden, but so many didn’t.
Trying to find a way to talk to each other is very, very hard because those battle lines have now been drawn for a long time, and our sources of information are so divergent now. What I say is reality, and what somebody, plenty of people I know, is reality. Those realities have no overlap at all, and that’s the great challenge is, how do we reach each other across a divide like that. One of the things that I think is hopeful is that the social media companies seem to be becoming a little more alarmed about how this works now. I feel, at least, that there’s a lot less fury flying around Facebook and Twitter, than their used to be. If the fury can die down, then we can see what we do have in common, which is almost everything. We are all human beings. We love the people we love, and we want the best for them, and we are trying to do right by our kids and our communities, and we don’t always agree what that is. How did you write? What that looks like? But we do agree that, that’s important.
That’s a huge starting point for me, is recognizing what we have in common. Even if it’s just, “Can you give me that mac and cheese recipe you brought to the potluck?” That’s a starting point.
Whitney: Thank you. We have another question from, I think a journalist, in the field. Margaret, you mentioned journalists parachuting in to rural areas to cover stories, resulting in a lack of proper context in resulting coverage. Do you think we see the same issue with academics who study rural America, from suburban or metropolitan higher ed institutions?
Margaret: I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer that question, because I don’t know a lot about how scholars work, but the scholars I know, what they are drawn to write about, is what has mattered to them personally. So I have … One of my dearest friends is a … Teaches Ethics and a philosophy professor. Another is … My brother is an Art professor, another good friend is an English professor. They don’t just randomly pick things to write about, or to focus on. You don’t accidentally become an expert, and I have a dear childhood friend who died a few years ago, whose specialty was how the South stopped being Democratic and became Republican. That was his area of study for years. It’s because of where he came from and who his grandparents were. My guess would just be, even though I’m totally just guessing, is that people write about the rural South because that is, in some fundamental way, who they are.
Which would be different from a journalist going, “Okay, I want to cover this shooting in Nashville,” or, “I’m going to go find out about this INS raid on a meat packaging plant in east Tennessee,” or whatever.
Whitney: Mm–hmm (affirmative). I really appreciate that perspective. When I think about rural assembly everywhere, and rural assembly, the program, understanding that making space for all of these … For anyone who feels any kind of affinity for rural or is curious, or spent their summers with their grandparents, or has some … We all have some connection, even if we can’t completely name it to rural places and rural cultures, so in a way, I think there’s a point to be had there.
I’d like to do one more question if I could, and then I’d like to ask you to read something for us. This is from my friend, Chris. He says, I saved this morsel from your book, about your journey as a writer: “It took a lot of nerve for someone so ignorant of true wilderness, to fashion herself as a nature writer, but the flip side of ignorance is astonishment, and I am good at astonishment.” Then he goes on to say, it struck me as a perfect description of your writing, but it also made me wonder if this is advice that you would share with others. Would you coach other writers, everyone, to let themselves be astonished?
Margaret: It’s funny, I think that, that’s one of the best things about being human. It’s kind of the foundation for all humor, for example, is to be startled by something. To be caught off guard by something you expect, and then have something completely different be the way the joke ends, or whatever. I think that … I’m reluctant to give prescriptions for other writers, because I do believe that the best way to be a writer is to find what it is that you love and are curious about, and want to know more about. I think, maybe when I was younger, I believed that writers write what they know, and that’s certainly advice that people in writing programs are, “Write what you know, write what you know.”
But I’m not that interested in what I know, I’m a lot more interested in what I need to know, and what I need to learn. If it’s something like that … What I wrote about this week was how anybody can become a naturalist, you don’t have to have a degree in ornithology or entomology to be really, just delighted by this grasshopper that flies up and lands in your flower bed while you’re weeding. It’s just a matter of being open to it. So I do think the capacity for astonishment is one path toward finding your subject, as a writer, for subtext.
Whitney: Would you mind closing us out with one of your essays?
Whitney: And I’m going to name it for everyone. I got to pick it because I’m in charge here. “Be a Weed,” is what I requested. That would be a lovely closing for us.
Margaret: Be a Weed. Sometimes when I haven’t slept or the news of the world already bad, suddenly becomes much worse. The weight of belonging here is a heaviness I can’t shake, but then I think of the glister of a particular morning in springtime. I think of standing in the sunshine and watering the butterfly garden, which is mostly cultivated weeds, punctuated by the uncultivated kind that come back, despite my pinching and tugging. I think of the caterpillars on the milkweed plants, unperturbed by the over spray, and the resident red tailed hawk, gliding overhead, chased by a mockingbird and three angry crows. And the bluebird, standing on top of the nest box, protecting his mate who is inside, laying an egg. I think of that morning, not even a morning, not even an hour, and I say to myself, “Be an egg. Be a mockingbird. Be a weed.”
Whitney: Thank you so much for that, for this conversation, for sharing your gift with the world through this book, through your columns, and I want to tell everyone that your fourth coming book is called, “Graceland At Last.” And I think it’s a collection of New York Times essays, correct?
Margaret: It is.
Whitney: Yay. I’m so excited.
Margaret: Not everything I write for the Times is strictly about the South, but this one is. Every one in there, together, is trying to present a more complicated version of the South.
Whitney: That’s wonderful. These books can be purchased at Parnassus Books, in Nashville. You can go online and order them there, it’s an independent bookstore, that we would want to lift up here. Then also, following Margaret, in the New York Times, I think your column comes out on Monday’s, these days.
Margaret: Mostly. Sometimes Sunday night, depending, but mostly on Monday morning. Yes. Thank you so much for reading, Whitney, and thank you for inviting me to join this amazing event you’ve put together. It’s so important, I think, for our country to hear these voices and for everybody to hear each other as well.
Whitney: Thank you for saying that. It is so good to have you here, and to meet you, finally. I’m going to hang on here, and I want to let people know that, I hope you’ll stick around for what’s coming next. We’ve got some incredible musicians and more stories. White House Domestic Policy Council Director, Susan Rice, will address us around 3:00, and then that will be followed by a round table discussion about disinformation in rural America, which you don’t want to miss. So stay online, and thank you, Margaret.
Margaret: Thanks, Whitney. Thanks, everybody.