Essays on Bearing Witness

May 22, 2024

A review by Emily Simon

The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year, by Margaret Renkl

Spiegel and Grau, 2023

288 pages, hardcover

Readers familiar with Margaret Renkl’s writing will face a dilemma with her latest publication, The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year. Should one read the book as a weekly nature devotional over the course of a year or, unable to resist the riches that surely await, curl up in a corner and devour it in one sitting?

A weekly op-ed writer for the New York Times, Renkl has published two books of short essays: Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, and Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South, which have gained her a following among readers who love her heartfelt reflections on family and nature.

In Late Migrations, Renkl provides a portrait of her family’s life over several generations amid times of joy and grief through life’s transitions. A devoted lover of the natural world, she integrates her personal stories and reminiscences with observations—not always Disneyesque—of the wildlife in her suburban Nashville backyard. The Comfort of Crows follows suit, but can be seen as the inverse of Late Migrations, with the bulk of the text highlighting her local flora and fauna, with some personal stories woven in.

The book’s 52 numbered, titled essays begin at the week of the winter solstice and move through the seasons of the year. Many of the essays include an epigraph, placing Renkl in the tradition of nature writers such as Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry, who explored nearby, well-studied tracts of land. As is found in Late Migrations, each essay is enhanced by a beautiful, color collage created by the author’s brother, Billy Renkl. In fact, all the volume’s physical features—its cover, typeface, layout, and paper—are of high quality and simply lovely.

Renkl is a keen and knowledgeable observer of the wildlife on her half-acre property, and she writes passionately about the surprisingly large variety of creatures she encounters. Native plant gardeners will be inspired by all the native habitat she and her husband have developed on their land. Renkl showcases with exquisite flair the dozens of species of animals they have noticed over the years using their brush pile, stock tank pond, pollinator gardens, and numerous bird feeders (suet, peanut tray, safflower, mealworms), several bird baths (one heated), and nest boxes, as well as the effort the couple put in to make their yard as welcoming to wildlife as possible. Birdlife abounds throughout the book: nearly three dozen species are mentioned, including several she is able to observe nesting right outside her windows.

Renkl tracks the seasons in her yard, from the increasing fragility of winter, to the riotous rebirth of spring, to the abundance of summer, and the departures and shadows of autumn. She deftly places many changes in her own life—her aging body, the realization that the time she has left no longer seems unlimited, the need to rearrange the house after becoming an empty nester, and her resigned sadness as homes of 40-year neighbors are sold to new residents who tear them down (along with any wild habitat on the lot) to rebuild and re-landscape—in the context of the natural cycles in force around her.

Interspersed among the essays are 25 one-page “Praise Songs,” which Renkl described in a Family Action Network YouTube video interview (Nov. 14, 2023) as “little bitty love letters” to counterbalance the “hard truths” in the book. “Praise Song for the Baby Chickadees,” “Praise Song for the Red Fox, Screaming in the Driveway,” “Praise Song for the Carpenter Bees Eating Our Fence to Ruin,” and “Praise Song for the Holes in Pawpaw Leaves” are just a few of the offerings in joyous celebration of her Tennessee homestead’s inhabitants.

But Renkl never backs away from her grief over the alarming levels of wildlife decline or the devastatingly real prospect of the loss of the natural world to development, pollution, climate change, and our mindless love affair with turf grass. Throughout the book, Renkl regularly switches to an emotional, imperative narrative voice that simultaneously invites, pleads, and demands that we slow down and pay attention to what is at stake, as she does in the essay “Wild Joy”: “Come to the woods and stand with me in the sunshine beneath the trees. Watch the bluebirds diving for insects. Watch them peeking into the nest holes the woodpeckers carved out years ago. Listen to the cry of the woodpeckers in the echoing woods. Let it lift your heart. Let it still your busy hands and feet.”

Perhaps no current nature writer more skillfully portrays, with such economy and poignancy, nature’s beauty and brutality, its grandeur and vulnerability, and most of all, hope in its resilience. “Even now,” she writes in “The Knothole,” “with the natural world in so much trouble—even now, with the patterns of my daily life changing in ways I don’t always welcome or understand—radiant things are bursting forth in the darkest places, in the smallest nooks and deepest cracks of the hidden world. I mean to keep looking every single day until I find them.”

Years from now, The Comfort of Crows may be most remembered as the quintessential portrait of a suburban home with a lovingly cultivated native landscape—what must certainly make up only a minuscule but hopefully growing proportion of homes across the United States in the early 21st century. Maybe the best way to enjoy The Comfort of Crows would be to go ahead and tear straight through it, and then immediately start over again, taking time to savor a new essay each week. Either way, you may need to keep a box of tissues handy.

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Emily Simon is a retired reference book editor. She volunteers with Detroit Bird Alliance and contributes book reviews for its quarterly magazine, The Flyway, which she also helps edit. An avid birder for over 25 years, she enjoys connecting others to great books about birds, nature, conservation, and the environment.