MY, HOW TIMES have changed. That’s what I keep thinking, looking around my own garden in recent years. I’ve been struck by the same thought over and over as I read “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” the latest book by Margaret Renkl (illustrated with gorgeous collages by her brother, Billy Renkl, like the one above), which takes us through a year in her garden 1,000 miles to the south of mine in Nashville.
The “what happens when” of nature is all shifting in the face of environmental change and how we each garden has shifted, too, for Margaret Renkl and for me, and maybe for you as well—toward more native plants and messier fall cleanup and other contributions we can make to our beloved birds and the rest of the natural world that’s increasingly under pressure.
Like many readers, I got to know Margaret Renkl in 2019 upon the publication of her much-praised book “Late Migrations.” Since 2017, she has been contributing a popular weekly “Opinion” column to “The New York Times” each Monday, which the newspaper describes as covering “flora, fauna, politics, and culture in the American South.”
join us for a nov. 7 webinar
MARGARET RENKL and I will be doing a webinar together about her new book and about our gardens on the evening of Nov. 7, 2023. Details on the event, in collaboration with Parnassus Books in Nashville, and how to get a ticket and order signed copies of her book, are at this link. A portion of the proceeds will go to support Homegrown National Park, the nonprofit effort founded by Doug Tallamy to promote habitat-style gardening emphasizing native plants. A replay will be available to all who register if you prefer to watch at another time.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “The Comfort of Crows” (affiliate link), her latest, by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Oct. 9, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
‘the comfort of crows,’ with margaret renkl
Margaret Roach: Welcome back to the podcast, other Margaret, Southern Margaret. How are you?
Margaret Renkl: It’s amazing how often we’re confused for each other, and I’m not entirely sure why. Just the name Margaret, I guess, is such an old-timey name.
Margaret Roach: I know. Well, did you have a grandmother named Margaret? I did.
Margaret Renkl: I did have a grandmother. Did you?
Margaret Roach: Yes. I never knew her. She was deceased by the time I was born, but my father’s mother was Margaret. Yes.
Margaret Renkl: And that was the exact same situation in our family. My father’s mother died when he was only 24 years old, and he always knew if he had a daughter, he would want to name her Margaret.
Margaret Roach: Interesting. So the same thing. Okay. Great minds think alike, I guess [laughter]. And we have five letters in our last name that start with R, so there you go.
Margaret Renkl: We both write for “The New York Times” every week.
Margaret Roach: And there’s that. So we could just make a list. Oh my goodness. It’s good. It’s good. But I’m glad that the forces brought us together, because we have a lot of other things in common, too, like some of the plants in our gardens and our approach to the garden and our love of birds and so forth.
The last time you visited the program, it was in 2019. It was to talk about “Late Migrations.” And it’s like you haven’t stopped a minute since. More books and the weekly column and so forth. But with this new one, “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year,” maybe explain the title. How did the crow get to be the bird in the title?
Margaret Renkl: I think that’s an interesting question, because there are actually more bluebirds and more goldfinches, I think, in the book than there are crows. But I was trying to think about… The longer I worked on this book, the more it became clear to me that what I was really writing about was kinship. I was writing about the ways in which we belong to one another not just in our families or in our communities or in our country, but also to the creatures who share our habitats.
And that, I think, is one of the problems with the planet, is that it’s so easy to lose that feeling of kinship with each other and also with our wild neighbors.
And crows are the bird, really the wild animal, most convenient to American readers, readers in English, the most like us. We don’t live in a habitat with other primates, but we do live… Almost all of us, it’s hard to imagine a place where a crow isn’t at home, hasn’t made itself at home.
Margaret Roach: They do [laughter].
Margaret Renkl: And the other thing, I mean they are just incredibly adaptable creatures and they are also really smart, incredibly smart, dumbfoundingly smart.
And in fact, their brain-to-body ratio, except for the great apes, is closer to ours than any other wild animal. And they solve problems as we solve problems. They quarrel as we quarrel. They stand up for one another. They hold grudges. They invent tools to do what they need them to do, and they play, even as adults. Most higher-order animals play as youngsters, but crows continue to play even into adulthood as we do. So I think of them as kind of our avian analog, I guess. And so in a book about kinship, they seemed to be the natural focus.
Margaret Roach: Yeah. They’re a favorite here, too. And I love their cousins, the ravens. I love the corvids in general. They’re just interesting birds.
So this backyard of yours—the subtitle is “A Backyard Year”—this backyard of yours, or maybe it’s a backyard and a front yard, I don’t know. How big is it? How long have you been there? Describe it.
Because you and I have spoken together about our “gardens” (I’m putting gardens in quote because they’re different). Just like any two people, they’re different. We take a different approach. So describe yours and, again, how long you’ve been there. [Below, a monarch on milkweed in the Renkl garden.]
Margaret Renkl: We’ve been in this house 28 years. The house is… It’s a small ranch house built in 1950. All the houses in this neighborhood were built on one of two floor plans. And they were starter homes for GI’s returning from World War II. And so the house is… Well, we’ve added onto it a little bit. We’ve added a bedroom and a family room, but it sits cattywampus on the lot.
So I’m using the term “backyard” really to mean the whole half-acre lot. When the house sits facing the corner, it’s not really clear what’s the front and what’s the back and what’s the side [laughter], and there’s not a lot of it. So half an acre, it must have seemed like a grand estate to these working-class people coming home from World War II and starting families. But it’s not, in terms of gardening, a very big space.
I have to say temperamentally, I’ve never been particularly interested in gardening. My mother was a passionate gardener, so was her mother, so was her grandmother. My brother kind of inherited that passion. For me, most of my childhood, the garden just represented labor, because I was pressed into service as a weeder or as a transplanter [laughter]. I had the stronger back.
But what I was interested in were the woodland flowers, the wildflowers in the fields and in the woods. And it took me a long time to bring those two forces in my life together—to realize that it was possible to garden not the way my mother did, but to bring those wildflowers from the fields and the creek sides. Not literally digging them up from public spaces, that’s illegal and I would never do that, but to cultivate that same kind of messy wildness with an aim toward beauty, of course—because it’s impossible not to be delighted by flowers of any kind—but really, as a way to feed my wild neighbors.
So I plant the flowers whose seeds feed the birds and the small mammals and whose flowers feed the insects.
Margaret Roach: You say in the book you describe it as a place that emphasizes drought tolerance, drought-tolerant plants, and that hardly a blade of grass remains. And so you’ve either done a lot of planting, or nature has planted itself. But does it look like other places on the… I don’t know whether to say block or not, but you said there’s similar houses nearby. If I walk down the street, does it look different from others?
Margaret Renkl: Completely different.
Margaret Roach: Uh-oh [laughter].
Margaret Renkl: But I should say of course, too, that this is happening all over Nashville. It’s happening in, I think, most growing cities, and it’s happened much more quickly since the pandemic. But most of those original houses are gone now. We still live in ours and there are maybe seven or eight others, but the rest of them have all been torn down and replaced with much larger houses. This is just a reality of real estate right now.
In mid-sized cities, great hedge funds and development companies have figured out which mid-sized cities are undervalued in their property, and they have been buying them up and developing them. And now that the pandemic has taught many people that they can work anywhere, if my neighbors aren’t native to the South, they come from all over to live in these houses from bigger cities where they could sell a smaller house and get a much larger one.
And what happens when a developer buys a piece of property and takes down the structure to put a different structure in its place… I should hasten to say that there’s nothing historic about this neighborhood. It did not need to be preserved. It’s just that the easiest thing to do as a builder is to scrape the lot, take the trees, take everything right down to the very lot line, put up a privacy fence, and then lay down sod all the way to the edge.
So when we first moved here and the original neighbors were still here, although they were getting much older, people did their own yard work. So the areas in the back would be kind of messy, and nobody used really any chemicals. It was just cut the grass and maybe trim the Euonymus [laughter]. But that was it. So now if you were to walk around my street, what you would see is a lot of turf grass, a lot of crape myrtles, and some boxwoods. And that’s pretty much it. [Below, a rabbit enjoying Margaret Renkl’s garden.]
Margaret Roach: Right, right. So every gardener I talked to in recent years in every area of the country is sort of in semi-shock as each year unfolds. You’ve been there a long time. I’ve been in my place a long time. And what we all say to one another is, “Yikes, it doesn’t feel like my place. It doesn’t feel the same. The seasons aren’t the same. The bloom times aren’t the same. The plants aren’t the same size.” You name it, right, the list of difference. It’s different.
Now, you’ve had a lot of heat this year. Is that what you’re… We’ve had not a lot of heat. We had a month of drought in May, and then we’ve had deluges since. Crazy amounts of rain. And so it’s been very odd and kind of swampy. You’ve been very hot. Have you this year? Has that been the difference this year or what’s been…
Margaret Renkl: I don’t even know that I would call it different anymore. It’s just become the new norm. We had a pretty temperate spring, but it has been, in spells, brutally hot. And right now, our temperatures are running 10… It was 92 degrees yesterday in Nashville. So the temperatures are running about 10 degrees higher than normal. We haven’t had a drop of rain in this yard in seven weeks. And you walk across the grass and little puffs of soil turned into dust-
Margaret Roach: Right, exactly.
Margaret Renkl: … bloom with every step. But the things that bloom in fall are still blooming. It’s funny to me. The goldenrod is having a great year, and so are the asters and so is the ironweed, so is the snakeroot. So the heat and the drought don’t seem to be bothering the wildflowers.
Margaret Roach: I think it was on your Instagram recently. You put a picture of goldenrod and you said, I think… Well, you posted the picture, and I think a commenter said something like, “Goldenrod throughout the land are thanking you for your service by publicizing them.” And you wrote back; you replied: “Just doing my tiny part for the goldenrod PR campaign.”
And I think that’s what you and I are doing with our choices of plants and our publicizing them, sharing them in various ways in our writing and our columns and in our social media and whatever, is a PR campaign, right, for this other type of gardening. So not the gardening of, like you said, your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother, or mine, which is more formal, more horticultural, more ornamental-focused.
Margaret Renkl: Sure.
Margaret Roach: And we’re instead trying to enliven, trying to increase the biodiversity, offer up goodies to our “wild neighbors,” as you call them, all the creatures. And you have a lot of creatures, not just the crows. You have a lot of creatures. You have… Is it a skink? Is that what the funny little guy is called?
Margaret Renkl: Yep.
Margaret Roach: Your friend the skink [below]. So I don’t have that here.
Margaret Renkl: Yeah, well, it’s a little lizard. We have two different kinds of skinks. Well, we really have three different kinds in this yard, but I can’t tell two of them apart. It requires a level of intimacy that the skink does not wish me to have.
Margaret Roach: I see.
Margaret Renkl: But we have five-lined skinks, we have blue-tail skinks, and we have broadhead skinks. And the broadhead skinks are the ones I see most commonly. They are arboreal lizards, and they are the largest lizard in the Southeast. And they can be very startling if you don’t know that you’re seeing them, because they move like a snake.
But they are wonderful companions. Before my father-in-law died two years ago, my husband built a little ramp to help him get his walker over the one step between the walkway and our front door. And he covered that little ramp with old roofing shingles, and the lizards love the roofing shingles because they absorb the heat.
Margaret Roach: Right.
Margaret Renkl: And so they come and they sit right outside my front door with their little legs and their little arms back behind them, just like a teenager on a pool float and take in the sun. And they know I’m there. They see me through the storm door. And they just look at me and I look at them, and I do feel this kind of friendship with them.
Margaret Roach: Yeah. I have a thing for frogs, so I get it. I totally get it. Yeah, yeah.
The book goes… There are 52 primary essays in it, and each one covers a year in… I mean, excuse me, a week in the year of your life and your yard and a range of feelings and emotions and so forth and goings-on and creatures. But I think it’s in a February essay in “The Comfort of Crows,” you described a flowerbed that, in your words, is “a jumble of dried stems and matted clumps, a collection of dead vegetation.” And of course, that’s what I see, too, as winter is receding and before spring is coming.
So that means that at this time of year, we’re both making some care decisions about what not to do, right? We’re leaving behind a lot of stuff. So can you describe what you’re doing as fall evolves, what kinds of things, and are they different from what you did 10 or 20 years ago as a homeowner there?
Margaret Renkl: Completely different. Really.
Margaret Roach: Yeah.
Margaret Renkl: The growing season here will last even after the first frost if it’s not a hard freeze. We don’t get those hard freezes anymore often until December, well into December. We used to get a hard freeze sometimes in early October. I remember bringing my porch plants in always by the end of September to be safe. But now, the weeds are going to keep growing in that flower bed even when the leaves cover them up.
So it’s important to stay on top of the creeping Charlie because it really wants to get all over the pollinator garden. I have several different kinds of pollinator gardens that I am keeping the weeds out, and that’s different from the parts of the yard that I’ve more or less let the wild ways take over. But I try to keep the creeping Charlie out of there, before the leaves fall, because otherwise, what I’m doing is letting the leaves fall onto the creeping Charlie and giving them a nice little layer of protection through whatever cold weather we might still get.
Keeping the weeds out is a little harder in the fall because I’m fighting the falling leaves from the trees. But I’m going to pull out the annuals after the first freeze, but I’m going to leave the perennial stems all through the winter. Some of those seedheads that I think are completely picked clean aren’t actually picked clean, and they’re going to drop seeds.
And they’re going to also… The goldfinches are going to come back and double-check and take everything that remains. And also, there are ground bees and other kinds of native bees that are going to use the hollow stems of perennials as a safe place to overwinter.
And there are some butterflies, like the black swallowtail butterfly, that will have a chrysalis late in the fall that can actually overwinter if I don’t tear down the flowers that the… the stems that the chrysalises are attached to. Those chrysalises are so well-disguised, I would not know that that’s what I was doing. So it’s safest to leave the hollow-stemmed perennials even after they’ve all bloomed out and died, until… Here, it would be probably late February most years before the plant start… after the bees have just started emerging again and before the plants have started putting on new growth from the bottom. And even then, I’m not going to cut them very far. I’m going to cut them to about 2 to 3 feet tall.
Margaret Roach: Mm-hmm. I love one essay late in the book. The fall is the last part of the book; the book, I guess, starts in winter. I love one essay that… It’s sort of an ode to the rake, the tool, this old-fashioned tool, the rake. You’re dissing leaf blowers and you say, “Leaf blowers are like giant whining insects that have moved into your skull” [laughter]. And you encourage us to resist them. They really are. It’s just that sound in our heads. Oh my goodness.
And you even talk about bringing a leaf inside, like not just finding room for the leaves as mulch and habitat for the winter, the “leave the leaves” campaign that we’ve all been hearing about, in your gardens. But you also talk about maybe bringing a leaf in almost like a… I don’t know. I don’t know what you’d call that, a talisman? I don’t know what you’d call it, but a memory, right? Bring a leaf in and having it maybe on your desk or something. Just tell us a little bit about leaves [laughter] because they’re pretty-
Margaret Renkl: Well, I think in that essay, I’m thinking about the way we leave the leaves in more and more and more places. At first, I was leaving them only in the flower beds, where they fell, and then raking up the others. But in recent years, we just leave them everywhere. And it’s true that they don’t all stay there. Sometimes, we’ll get a really high wind and off they go. But since I started leaving the leaves, I’ve started seeing even more lightning bugs. So there’s almost no lightning bugs anywhere in this neighborhood but in our yard.
And so bringing a leaf in, in the fall is, I guess, a way of reminding myself that it’s all connected. It all matters, even the smallest thing, and I’m not alone.
Margaret Roach: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there’s so much power in even a fallen, dead… A part that’s no longer serving its original purpose is still serving a purpose. Do you know what I mean? That infinite cycle of life, and it’s going to… I think of it as the fallen are going to feed the future generations. The fallen heroes kind of, you know. It’s like it’s this recycling and so forth, this eternal recycling.
Margaret Renkl: And that’s true for so much in the natural world. It’s not just leaves. It’s also-
Margaret Roach: Yes.
Margaret Renkl: Because you’ve written it yourself. A good brush pile is just a wonderful benefit to everybody. The wild creatures find shelter there on inclement days and they hide from predators there, and the wood begins to break down because of insect life. And then the insects feed the birds and the other creatures.
When you start paying attention, it’s a very reassuring cycle to observe. There is a comfort in crows. There’s… I’m sorry, it’s garbage day here. But-
Margaret Roach: Oh. Is there a noise? I don’t hear it. That’s O.K.
Margaret Renkl: Oh, you don’t hear it. Good.
Margaret Roach: Good. Yeah.
Margaret Renkl: So the idea that if we just pay attention, we can see those connections, the way these cycles overlap in the world and in our own lives. And I think there’s just something very comforting and reassuring about knowing that this is just how it works, and it’s nothing to fear.
Margaret Roach: I just wanted to shout out a couple of other “gardeners” who are gardening in your… who are planting, or farmers, maybe, who are planting in your yard, who I read about it, I think, on Instagram as well [laughter from Margaret Renkl]. The squirrels, you note…
See? She starts laughing before I even finish. You have a whole pumpkin patch happening because of the squirrels, right?
Margaret Renkl: Because of the squirrels. Not exclusively because of the squirrels, because there’s some nocturnal creatures out there doing some of this gardening, too, I think. But the squirrels have taken the seeds from my neighbor’s porch-scape pumpkins and buried them all over my yard.
And this year, some of them came up in a place where it was convenient to let them grow. We do have mowed parts of the yard because we mow the parts of the yard we actually use to get around the flower beds or so that delivery drivers can get to the front door. But the pumpkins that grew up in the wild part of the yard or that grew up in… There was this one flower bed right next to our little free library [above, the pumpkin-covered book kiosk at the edge of their yard], where the shrubs all died in a freeze last year, so there was room for the pumpkins. And now, the pumpkins are being eaten by the squirrels again [laughter], and the seed are being planted all around the yard again. So it’s-
Margaret Roach: It’ll perpetuate. It’ll perpetuate.
Margaret Renkl: It’s a squirrel perpetuating system. Yeah, I’m delighted by it.
Margaret Roach: Thanks for making time today, Margaret Renkl, to talk, and to talk about “The Comfort Of Crows.” And as I said, we’ll be doing a webinar together about the new book and about our gardens on the evening of Nov. 7.
Margaret Renkl: I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much, Margaret.
(Photos from Margaret Renkl; used with permission. Collages by Billy Renkl.)
more from margaret renkl
- our Nov. 7, 2023 webinar: details and tickets
- our 2019 interview about “Late Migrations”
- her Instagram feed
- her “New York Times” column (every Monday)
- her website
enter to win ‘the comfort of crows’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year” by Margaret Renkl for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
Is there a visitor to your garden, like Margaret Renkl’s crows and skinks or those pumpkin-planting squirrels, who particularly delighted you this year with their presence? Do tell.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 17, 2023. Good luck to all.
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prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 9, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).