Slowing down, removing distractions and paying attention allows us to absorb the wildlife that’s all around us, even when we otherwise feel that we are far removed from nature. Writer Margaret Renkl documents what she observed in her own suburban yard and how it made her feel in her series of 52 short essays collected in “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year.”
Margaret is an opinion writer for The New York Times. She contributed op-eds on “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.” She was born in Alabama and now resides in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was the editor of Chapter 16, a daily web publication of Humanities Tennessee that documents the literary life of Tennessee, for 10 years. Margaret’s other nonfiction books include “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.” Her writing has also appeared in Black Warrior Review, Guernica, Literary Hub, Shenandoah, The Southern Review and other publications.
She doesn’t consider herself a gardener, but Margaret says she comes from a long line of gardeners. “My brother is a passionate gardener, and my sister and I just really didn’t get that bug — that impulse to shape a landscape and convert it into continual beauty,” she says. Still, she has kept alive many “pass-along plants” that her mother brought to the home where she has lived for 28 years. Among those plants are flag iris that date back to her great-grandmother in lower Alabama, oakleaf hydrangea and rows of rambling rose that her great-grandfather bought from a catalog in 1909 and passed down through cuttings.
“I have this real strong sense in my mind of what a gardener is, and what I am is really just somebody who tries to be a good neighbor to the wildlife that surrounds me in suburban Nashville, which maybe it’s not a fair distinction to make,” she says. “I know nowadays there are many, many gardeners who are more transparently working to garden for wildlife. But when I moved to this yard 28 years ago, there was nobody doing that.”
In the 30 or so years that I’ve been in the professional gardening world, my experience has been the same: nobody was really talking about ecological gardening and regenerative gardening until the last five years. Prior to that, perhaps the closest the discussion came to these ideas was integrative pest management, known as IPM, which entails dialing back pesticide use.
Having read Margaret’s latest book, I feel that she and I are kindred spirits, connected in our love of nature and our awareness of it. She wrote “The Comfort of Crows” to provide hope in a time when things may not be considered so hopeful. Let’s face it: We are in a crazy time right now, and it’s not getting any better in the near future. But Margaret gives us reasons to think differently about our environment, our surroundings, and things that we can do differently.
Better Ideas and a Shift in Thinking
There were popular ideas in gardening decades ago that we know now were ineffective and unwise. One story in “The Comfort of Crows” is about when, in 1986, Margaret purchased mail-order praying mantises for pest control. She had ordered them from the classifieds in the back of a magazine, and they never hatched.
“We now know that a lot of those praying mantises were an invasive species, but we didn’t know that then,” she says. “So maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t work.”
In recent years, the trouble with purchasing mail-order ladybugs has also come to light, namely removing wild ladybugs from their native habitat to relocate them elsewhere, depleting their population where they belong and perhaps spreading diseases to populations elsewhere.
Margaret credits entomologist and native plants advocate Doug Tallamy — a repeat guest on the podcast — with shifting how people think.
“His work did not change my general orientation to the backyard ecosystem at my house, but it codified it in a way, and it provided a really important resource for moving forward in a much less haphazard and more focused way,” Margaret says of Doug.
She says that his book “Bringing Nature Home” — which he discussed with me in 2017 — changed how many people think about gardening. She first became attuned to the fact that changes were needed when, as a college student in the 1980s, she read “Silent Spring,” conservationist Rachel Carson’s pivotal book that spurred the popularity of the environmental movement and drew attention to the harm the insecticide DDT was having on raptors. DDT was causing birds’ eggs to be so thin that they couldn’t support the weight of the parent birds.
“We were very close to losing the bald eagles and the peregrine falcons forever in the same way that we lost the passenger pigeons,” Margaret says.
She read “Silent Spring” on her own, not for a class assignment, though it inspired her to take an environmental biology class.
What Humans and Wild Animals Have in Common
In one of her latest book’s essays, Margaret writes about the traits that humans and crows have in common, for good and for ill. She says it sets out a thesis for the book, highlighting a kinship between people and wildlife.
“I want people to realize that we do belong to the natural world in the same way that the other creatures belong to it,” she says. “We aren’t as separate as we like to believe we are.”
Crows, like human beings and many animals, have a play instinct. “Most wild animals have a period of playfulness as youngsters, but they outgrow it and they get down to business as adults,” Margaret says.
Birds have been observed sledding and even windsurfing.
Crows are known to be very loyal to their clan and also to hold a grudge against humans who have sleighted them, Margaret explains.
“When you start looking at the ways individual creatures within a species are different from one another, and in which they are similar to us, it’s much easier to feel compassion,” she says. “To see yourself in another living thing is to train your heart toward compassion.”
This book, in every little essay, is inspiring. It’s hopeful and reminds us that we need to pay attention to nature and those little fleeting moments that we usually miss because we don’t stop long enough to look. It doesn’t take long before we see it if we just open our eyes.
Why Name It ‘The Comfort of Crows’
When Margaret was kicking around ideas for the name of her book, she considered “A Comfort of Crows,” shifting away from the perspective that “a murder of crows” evokes, just like she hopes the book shifts perspective on nature overall. “Then I realized — after some people helped me understand that that was a lot of work for a title to do — that ‘The Comfort of Crows’ might be a little bit simpler and easier to remember,” she says.
There is a comfort in having nature nearby, Margaret observes, but she knows that is not how many people grow up anymore. “For those of us in the 21st century, nature is something you get in a car and drive to more often than not,” she says.
Nature may be found at a city park or trail. “In fact, nature is nearby. Nature is all around us, whatever our environment is,” she says. “I believe that there are more spiders living in people’s houses than living outside in people’s gardens. I think it’s important to acknowledge that because if we start thinking of nature as only polar bears and wolves and other megafauna that require our help in this fragile age, we let ourselves off the hook.”
She encourages thinking of our own yards and gardens as habitat. When we do, we become intimately connected to our wild neighbors, she says, and we become empowered.
“It is not helpful to feel powerless. It’s not helpful to feel despair,” she says. What is helpful is thinking of things to do to help and then being about to see crucial change for the better.
“You suddenly see monarch butterflies laying eggs on your milkweed plants, or you see a bluebird building a nest in your nest box. Or you see carpenter bees pollinating a passion flower. You did that little thing that was helpful and this marvelous, miraculous thing happened as a result,” she says. “It gives you the sense that there are other things you can do, there are other ways to be invested and to help.”
She hopes this becomes a chain reaction, bringing people to a level of engagement, empowerment and activism. She wants people to know there are things people can do that lie on the spectrum between doing nothing and personally saving the polar bears.
Margaret’s first book, “Late Migrations,” is also a collection of essays. It toggles back and forth between nature observations at her suburban Nashville home and family stories about her parents, grandmother and great-grandmother. She wrote it soon after her mother died and as her mother-in-law was entering hospice care.
“With all of that death surrounding me, I was taking a lot of solace and pleasure in the natural world,” she says. “It was comforting me. It was making me recognize the cycles of the natural world were only what I was experiencing in my own life. We like to think of ourselves as separate, but we really, we are subject to some of the exact same forces that the birds are and the bees are, and it was comforting to me to see it in those terms.”
She later realized that in that book she hadn’t paid quite enough attention to the peril that the natural world was in, she says. When she was on book tour, her readers would tell her that they were reading the book more and more slowly as it made them ponder their own childhoods and extended families as well as their own backyards.
“One person at a reading I gave said to me, ‘I’m reading it almost like a devotional.’ And I thought, what if I wrote a book that was meant to be read that way? A little bit at a time over the course of a year, pondering the beauty and also the fragility of the natural world nearby,” Margaret says. “And so that’s really how I came up with that plan and that structure.”
I love the fact that “The Comfort of Crows” contains relatively short essays that one could pick up and then put down or continue reading based on whatever their time schedule is. We’re all so busy these days that it’s difficult to find five minutes of “me” time, but Margaret has written a book that allows for that. And by the time you read through one essay that takes a few minutes, you feel hopeful and have a different perspective.
A Garden Year
“The Comfort of Crows” starts with the first day of winter instructing readers to to stop and pay attention to what’s right outside their window.
Margaret notes that she is 62 years old and says that the older she gets, the more out of step she feels with the century she lives in. It seems that everyone is so busy, she says, herself included. “Writing a weekly newspaper column is a little bit like being on a treadmill,” she says. “But I keep having this rising sense that the way we live is out of step with the way we need to live.”
She isn’t suggesting people go back to a pastoral past that never truly existed but rather that they need moments of stillness in their lives.
“We need silence. We need to calm our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, slow down, walk through the world at the speed our feet will take us and breathe in and out at the rate that our bodies evolved to move and breathe and exist,” Margaret says.
It takes being still and quiet to pay attention to and participate in the natural world, she points out.
“My friend Mary Laura Philpott, who’s a writer in my writer’s group, she says, it’s like meditation, except that you don’t call it meditation,’” Margaret says. “And that’s true. We need that stillness in order to center ourselves and be able to cope with this world that we’re in.”
When to Intervene and When to Step Back
Margaret writes about all kinds of wildlife in “The Comfort of Crows,” from tadpoles, rabbits and dogs to skinks and foxes. She was a wildlife rescue volunteer, so she would often come across animals in distress due to human interactions.
“These are all creatures that have learned to live among us with whatever little scraps of habitat we leave them,” she says. “It kind of doesn’t matter where you live anymore. You probably have coyotes. You probably have possums. You probably have raccoons. Those are the creatures that have adapted to life among us, and so I focused on those because they are so common. The really extravagantly beautiful and rare birds, I don’t spend a lot of time talking about in this book, because I’m talking about my neighbors, my wild neighbors.”
In one essay, she writes about capturing a fox with mange, which she describes as a serious disease and a brutal way to die. Mange is a skin disease caused by microscopic mites, and unhealthy animals are more vulnerable to mange than healthy ones.
In suburbia, mange is widespread due to unknowing residents putting out rat poison, according to Margaret. Poisoned rodents don’t immediately die but slow down, making it easier for foxes as well as coyotes, hawks and owls to catch and eat them — poisoning these other animals further up the food chain.
“In normal times, a healthy fox would be able to fight off the mites that cause mange,” she says. “But a fox whose immune system is compromised by having consumed poisoned prey, that fox is very vulnerable to those mites. And when you see a fox like that, it’s best to catch it because it is easily treated.”
Certified wildlife rescue volunteers can administer medication that will keep a healthy fox mite-free and will cure a fox afflicted with mange.
“The story in the book is of me trying to catch this fox, which did not wish to be caught, and in fact, I never did catch it,” she says. “But I caught another fox, and so it was just me kind of plodding along, bumbling through the world as I so often do with the best of possible intentions and really not knowing what I’m doing. There are a few essays in there where I confess to a level of ignorance that would make any other nature writer think twice before publishing a book. But I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’m claiming to be a regular person, just trying to do the best I can.”
As a nature lover, it can be a struggle to refrain from intervening when a creature is in danger. But nature lovers also know that nature should be allowed to run its course. Margaret says this can include allowing a snake to climb a tree in search of robin’s eggs, or allowing caterpillars to stay in a vulnerable spot while knowing there are red wasps around that prey on caterpillars.
Nature accommodates these scenarios, Margaret explains. Robins lay more than one clutch of eggs a year because not every egg will hatch, and not every baby bird will make it to adulthood. Butterflies and moths lay hundreds of eggs for similar reasons.
“If it’s a natural system, I don’t intervene,” she says. “… What becomes problematic is when you don’t know if it’s natural or not. There are some things that you know are not natural. Feral cats, for example, are not natural. They don’t occur in nature. They are a domesticated animal that now lives in a wild world that has not evolved to accommodate for that predator.”
Margaret writes in her book of trying to save a baby bluebird from a feral cat that was stalking it. “In my best efforts to help, I actually created an entirely different problem,” she says. “… There’s not a good thing to do in that situation. It’s not a choice between a natural system and an unnatural one. This was an unnatural system, and yet I’m, myself, part of an unnatural plan in intervening in that way. So I don’t know the answer except that I keep trying to learn. I keep trying to read and listen to people who know more than I do, and every year try to do a little better in the garden than I did the year before.”
Another experience Margaret had with infant wildlife came when her small dog found a cottontail rabbit’s nest and took an interest in the babies. Her husband, Haywood, protected the nest with chicken wire that would exclude her dog but allow the mother rabbit to get to the babies. But she wasn’t sure that the mother was, in fact, getting in. As long as she was outside watching the nest, the mother would not come. But a wildlife rescue service advised her to pick up a baby first thing in the morning and check if its belly was full of milk. She checked, and says the bunny’s belly was “tight as a tick.”
In my own dealings with wildlife and trying to do right by them, I learned never to turn around a box turtle that’s trying to cross the street — it’s likely trying to get somewhere to lay eggs — and definitely don’t relocate a turtle to a place that you assume it would like better. Box turtles, like many creatures, have limited ranges, and if you move them from their known food, water and shelter sources to a new place, they likely will starve to death.
“It’s not their fault that we built a road in the middle of one part of their habitat to another part that they use,” Margaret says.
If you do see a turtle crossing the road and want to help it, move it in the direction where it is headed.
There are few challenges that individuals can have an influence over, but in our gardens and yards we can reduce grass and convert the rest to pollinator habitat and safe corridors for box turtles and garter snakes, Margaret says. We can employ alternatives to chemicals to control mosquitoes so our yards will be safer for lightning bugs, katydids and tree frogs.
“If everybody had a little tiny patch of yard or a balcony with a nice big pot of dirt … we could instantly, overnight create a much safer place for our wild neighbors to live,” she says. “We don’t need to reduce our population by half. We just need to live more peacefully among the other creatures who share our ecosystems.”
I want to end on this passage from “The Comfort of Crows” that I felt was particularly poignant:
“People rarely welcome evidence that their property isn’t theirs at all. A snakeskin in the attic, a possum in the alley, a mole in the garden, a spider in the cupboard, a chipmunk in the crawl space. Too often such animals are met with poison or traps, yet the creatures we consider a danger or a nuisance are only trying to live their lives. And they often play beneficial roles to humans in the process. Possums eat ticks, moles aerate the soil and eat tree-damaging grubs. Spiders eat flies, snakes eat mice and skunks eat yellow jackets. Wasps eat the caterpillars that eat the tomato plants. Readers often thank me for calling attention to their ordinary miracles in my backyard. For now they are noticing the ordinary miracles around them too. I’m grateful for having any role, however small, in inspiring people to take out their earbuds and put away their screens. But I feel increasingly urgent about the need to make people understand how fragile these small miracles really are about the dangers our backyard neighbors are facing, and not just from the predators who are also sharing our yard. We are the predators who have set the planet on fire. We are the predators who have demolished the habitat. These creatures need to survive with so little time left. Every writer working in this field must at least try to inspire readers to change their lives and to press corporations and elected officials to change too. Perhaps the answer is to write with hope from a place of love.”
If you haven’t listened yet to my conversation with Margaret Renkl, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
How has wildlife brought you comfort? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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“The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year” by Margaret Renkl
“Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” by Margaret Renkl
“Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” by Margaret Renkl
“Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy
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