Margaret Renkl | This ‘Shazam’ for Birds Could Help Save Them – The New York Times

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

“NASHVILLE — I spent my entire childhood playing in the woods and meadows of rural Alabama. The world back then was lush and green: cooled by creeks, carpeted by pine needles, attended by birdsong. In those days there were nearly three billion more birds in North America than there are today, and my young days played out beneath the sound of their music.

The staggering loss of birds — nearly a third of them since 1970 — is due to human behavior: to climate change, to deforestation and ecosystem fragmentation, to insecticides and free-roaming pets, to light pollution in our skies and microplastics in our waterways, to glass-encased skyscrapers protruding into migratory flyways, among other choices that favor our own convenience over the lives of our wild neighbors.

I can’t help but wonder how much of the blame lies, too, in indifference, our failure even to notice what we’ve lost. Birds can be secretive creatures, staying high in the treetops or deep in the underbrush. Even those in plain sight often move startlingly quickly, appearing as hardly more than a flash of color, a blur of wings. Except for the background sound of birdsong, many people are never aware of how many birds — or how few — they share the world with.

Apps like iNaturalist from National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences help to close that gap, functioning as both electronic field guides and vast data-collection devices. They learn as we learn, improving with every photo and map pin we upload, helping experts understand a planet undergoing profound change. But what of the vast number of birds we never see, those we only hear? To offer that feature — one that accurately and consistently recognizes birds by sound alone — would be the birding equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.”

She describes just such an app. “Last month, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released an updated version of its Merlin Bird ID app, which allows users to identify birds by song.”

Margaret Renkle | Dolly Parton Tried to Get Tennessee Vaccinated. But It’s Not Enough. – The New York Times

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Margaret Renkle takes off her soft linen gloves.
“Dolly Parton Tried. But Tennessee Is Squandering a Miracle.
July 19, 2021, 793 comments, By Margaret Renkl, NYT:
” . . . The anticipation of happiness seemed truly ecumenical. Liberals, conservatives, politically indifferent people — everyone I knew was watching for their vaccine priority number to come up. We were signing up for leftover doses that might be available at the end of the day. We were heading out of town to get vaccinated in rural counties where health officials were moving more quickly through the vaccine priority rankings. The empty vaccine lines should have told us something was happening in those counties, something besides the fact that fewer people lived there.
Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, understood what was going on. Mr. Lee is vaccinated, but he refused to be photographed getting the shot — the Covid shot, that is: He did post a photo of himself getting a flu shot last November. “Getting a flu shot is more important than ever this year,” his Twitter post read. “I got mine to help protect my granddaughters as we prepare to celebrate their first birthday.” Not a word about protecting children from the deadliest pandemic in a hundred years.
None of this was surprising. Mr. Lee is not a leader who actually leads so much as a politician who reads the room. From the beginning, white people in rural Tennessee have been so skeptical of this vaccine that last month state officials returned an allotment of three million doses to the federal stockpile. “We’re sort of grinding to a halt,” the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, told News Channel 5 in Nashville. “The people who want it have gotten it.” “
“. . . The planet is growing more crowded, bringing people into closer contact with diverse animal and human populations. At the same time, the health risks associated with climate change are ratcheting upward. But just as protection against communicable diseases becomes increasingly urgent, conservative media outlets are sowing doubt and delusion in the Republican base, and feckless elected officials are following suit. Like Mr. Lee, his licked finger held aloft in the wind of rural white discontent, other Republican leaders in the South take their lifesaving vaccines in private and give lip service to perverse notions of “freedom” in their public statements.” . . .
Campaign funding from the national oligarchs is what sets legislative agendas across the red states, so I can understand why these penny-ante politicians are working so hard to limit tax-funded safety nets. I can even understand why they’re so hell bent on killing public education. It clearly benefits the wealthy for taxes to be low or nonexistent and for poor people to be incurious and compliant. But how can it possibly benefit the oligarchs to risk the lives of the very people who keep electing their toadies to statehouses in the first place? I just don’t get it.” . . .

Margaraet Renkle | You Can’t Take It With You, but You Can Put It in Storage – The New York Times

“NASHVILLE — Back when my children were small, I felt like I was drowning in an ocean of things. Diapers. Pacifiers. Booster seats. Storybooks. Action figures. Legos, hobbling anyone foolish enough to go barefoot in the dark. It dawned on me once that the whole house could burn to the ground and I would feel no great regret. As long as my family was safe, I could stand on the curb and watch the flames leaping into the night sky.

My childhood home was worse. My mother blamed us kids and our endless projects, but she was the one who couldn’t part with anything. Dad did his best to keep the clutter to manageable levels, but after he died, nothing ever seemed to leave that house. The attic got so full that Mom would climb to the top of the steps and heave anything she wanted to save as far back as she could throw it.

When she left Alabama and moved to the rental house across the street from us, she brought along everything she deemed necessary for her new life, including 37 coffee mugs, an entire bookcase swollen with fabric remnants, and countless back issues of Southern Living. She fought to keep them all, and she won every fight.”

Margaret Renkl | For the Butterflies — and the Rest of Us – The New York Times

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

“NASHVILLE — For Christmas last year, my husband ordered a sign for my butterfly garden from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit that works to protect insects and other invertebrates around the world. “Pollinator Habitat,” the sign reads. “This area has been planted with pollinator-friendly flowers and is protected from pesticides to provide valuable habitat for bees and other pollinators.” A note about where to find out more information includes a QR code that takes a smartphone straight to the Xerces Society’s “Bring Back the Pollinators” initiative.

National Pollinator Week begins on June 21, which is also the first full day of summer, a season we associate with bees and butterflies. What better time to launch an awareness campaign for the insects that are directly responsible for food and flowers? And what awareness campaign could be more necessary in an age when insect populations are crashing? Most of us know a butterfly when we see one, but their habits and habitat needs — and the perils they face — are another matter altogether.”

David Lindsay Jr.

David Lindsay Jr.Hamden, CT | NYT comment:

Wonderful essay, thank you. I’ve joined No Mow May, and put up a Pollinator Way sign. To my pleasant surprise, the Republicans on both side of my yard also this spring did not mow their lawns till May was almost over. Bonding with Republicans over lawn care, who would have thought. There are still dozens of neighbors not yet onboard. The best solution would be a town or state ban on pesticides for home owners. We are enjoying fireflies in our back yard, but there are just a few, when there used to be hundreds.

By Margaret Renkl | Feeding the Hungry, One Wholesome Meal at a Time – The New York Times

Ms. Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

“NASHVILLE — When Tallu Schuyler Quinn started handing out sandwiches in Nashville’s homeless camps, she was responding to a need that seemed both obvious and intractable. People were hungry, and she fed them. In a few hours, they would be hungry again.

That was 2007, the year she established a Nashville branch of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. In 2009, Ms. Quinn planted an organic vegetable garden because hungry people need more than calories; they need nutritious calories. In 2010, when a devastating flood hit Middle Tennessee, she was ready — her team delivered 19,000 meals in just three weeks. Ms. Quinn was 30 years old.

As these efforts grew, the question of how to feed hungry people became Ms. Quinn’s life’s work. In 2011, she founded the Nashville Food Project, an organization whose mission is “Bringing people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food, with the goals of cultivating community and alleviating hunger in our city.” ” . . .

Margaret Renkl | We Were Called to Sacrifice as a Nation. We Didn’t Answer. – The New York Times

“. . .  In 1906, the American philosopher William James delivered an address at Stanford University that was later published as “Proposing the Moral Equivalent of War.” In it, he made the case for a form of compulsory national service that would instill the same virtues as those so often ascribed to military service. Without the fear and brutality of war, national service would be a morally uncomplicated way for young people “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

Some of James’s own sober ideas have not survived the test of time. He thought, for instance, that waging “immemorial human warfare against nature” was an apt use of young people conscripted into national service, though the human war against nature has never needed reinforcements. We have been waging unceasing war against nature for the entire history of humanity.

Nevertheless, the need for some nonmartial way to nurture communitarian qualities is more urgent now than ever. We have lately been reminded of the absolute necessity for Americans to be motivated by warm fellow feeling across divides of region, race, class, politics, religion, age, gender or ability; to cultivate a sense of common purpose; to make sacrifices for the sake of others. And that reminder came in the form of watching what happens when such qualities are absent, even anathema, in whole regions of the country.  . . .”

“. . . In short, the coronavirus pandemic became a perfect illustration of James’s “moral equivalent of war.” We weren’t fighting a human enemy, but we were fighting for our lives even so. This national calamity, this invasion by a destructive and unstoppable force, was our chance to come together across every possible division. We could finally remember how to sacrifice on behalf of our fellow Americans, how to mourn together the unfathomable losses — not just of life but of security, camaraderie, the capacity for hope.

Plenty of Americans — essential workers, first responders, hospital staff, teachers and many others — lost their lives because they made such sacrifices. Millions more complied unhesitatingly with measures designed to keep the most vulnerable among us safe. But too, too many of us did not. Too many were hostile to the very idea that they should alter their behavior even in the smallest way for the sake of strangers. . . . “

Margaret Renkl | Mother’s Day Can Be Painful. It Can Also Reconnect Us to the World. – The New York Times

“A contributing Opinion writer based in Nashville who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

Mother’s Day is still nearly a week away, but there are buds on the antique rambling rose that my mother rooted for me from her grandmother’s rose, and it will be in full bloom by Sunday, as it always is on Mother’s Day. My husband will make brunch. Our adult children will come over, and we’ll bring my husband’s 92-year-old father over, too, because he lives for family gatherings and has felt the loss of them more acutely than any of us. We’re all vaccinated now, but we won’t soon forget how it feels to be kept apart.

Mother’s Day has always cast a shadow of sadness for me, even before the pandemic turned every day into a memento mori. My paternal grandmother died before I was born, when Dad was only 24. He always threw himself into making Mother’s Day brunch a special event for Mom — and for her mother and grandmother — but he never stopped mourning his own mother, the one for whom I am named.

So I learned early on what a loaded holiday this can be. It’s terrible for those who mourn a mother now gone, and also for those whose mothers were just not equipped to nurture a child. It’s terrible for women who desperately wanted to be mothers but couldn’t be, and also for women who didn’t want to be mothers but are too often vilified for that perfectly reasonable choice. It’s beyond terrible for women who have lost a child.

I have family and friends who struggle on Mother’s Day for all these reasons. I think of them when I think, as I inevitably do on this day in May, of how much I miss my mother. The world has enough suffering in it without inventing a holiday that causes so much pain, and I would gladly eradicate it from the calendar if I could.

But painful as it can be, Mother’s Day also reminds me of how wondrously motherhood unites me with so much of the animal kingdom. My youngest child outgrew being a hip baby 20 years ago, but I have to stop myself from reaching out for a crying infant in the checkout line, and I swear I feel the urge to protect the hatchlings in my nest box as deeply as their mother does. We are partners in this enterprise of bringing baby bluebirds into the world, she and I, no matter that she doesn’t know it.

The need to protect and nurture young is a biological imperative shared by a surprising array of creatures. Ambivalence about the holiday notwithstanding, I will gladly play every cute-animal video and click through every cute-animal slide show that crops up on the internet at this time of year. Who could resist the lioness purring as she licks her cub’s belly, or a fox carrying her kit to safety by the scruff of its neck, or a giant-taloned hawk carefully nudging her curious eyas back beneath the safety of her breast?

I’m especially fond of the nurturing animals that we don’t associate with nurturing at all: the wolf spider carrying her tiny spiderlings on her back, the alligator tenderly carrying her baby in her mouth, the timber rattlesnake protectively encircling her hatchlings, the broad-headed skink silently guarding her eggs in the dark.

And as difficult as it is to stand witness to another’s grieving, it comforts me to be reminded of the universality of grief, to remember that we are not alone in our suffering, or in where we look for solace. I think of Rosamund Young’s delightful memoir, “The Secret Life of Cows,” and her story of the grieving young mother who sought her own mother for comfort, from three fields away, after the stillbirth of her calf. I think of the orca carrying her dead calf for 17 days, across a thousand miles of ocean, because she could not bear to let the baby go. (Last fall she gave birth again, this time to an apparently healthy calf.)  . . . . “

DL:  Thank you Margaret Renkl.   There are also  189 comments, many of which are extraordinary.

Margaret Renkl | We Were Born to Be Wild – The New York Times

” . . . . During my childhood in the 1960s, it was common to see people casually throwing trash out of their car windows, but these days human indifference to the natural world tends to be better hidden, even from ourselves.

Market forces have worked hard to make sure we don’t notice the depredations we’re complicit in: the microplastics that pollute our waterways every time we wash a fleece jacket or a polyester blouse, the toilet tissue that’s destroying the boreal forest, the poisons we spray on our yards — up to 10 times as much, per acre, as farmers use — because they are marketed to us as benign “applications.”

As I waited in line at a garden center last week, I listened to the store owner telling another customer about a “treatment” she could spray on every bush and tree in her yard to “take care of” any kind of bug that might be feeding on them. He didn’t tell her it would also kill butterflies and bees and obscure bird grasshoppers. He didn’t tell her she would also be poisoning the songbirds that would feed on the poisoned insects or the predators that would feed on the weakened songbirds.

Perhaps she’ll remember making a “lantern” from a Mason jar when she was a child, and then maybe she’ll wonder why there are no lightning bugs for her own children to catch. But I wouldn’t bet on it.   . . . “

Margaret Renkl | It’s Thanksgiving. Come On Home. – The New York Times

Credit…Ellen Surrey

“NASHVILLE — I thought I had escaped the beautiful, benighted South for good when I left Alabama for graduate school in Philadelphia in 1984, though now I can’t imagine how that delusion ever took root. At the age of 22, I had never set foot any farther north than Chattanooga, Tenn. I was so poorly traveled — and so geographically illiterate — I could not pick out the state of Pennsylvania on an unlabeled weather map on the evening news.

When I tell people, if it ever comes up, that I once spent a semester in Philadelphia, a knot instantly forms in the back of my throat, an echo of the panic and despair I felt with every step I took on those unfamiliar sidewalks, with every breath of that heavy, exhaust-burdened air. In August I moved into a walk-up on a main artery of West Philly, and I lay awake that first sweltering night with the windows open to catch what passed for a breeze, waiting for the unfamiliar sounds of traffic to die down. They never did. All night long, the gears of delivery trucks ground at the traffic light on the corner; four floors down, strangers muttered and swore in the darkness.

All around me were metaphors for my own dislocation: a homeless woman squatting in the grocery-store parking lot, indifferent to the puddle spreading below her; the sparrows and pigeons, all sepia and brown, that replaced the scolding blue jays and scarlet cardinals I’d left behind; even the first deep snow, which all my life I had longed to see, was flecked with soot when it finally arrived. I was so homesick for the natural world that I tamed a mouse who lived in my wall, placing stale Cheetos on the floor beyond me, just to feel the creature’s delicate feet skittering across my own bare toes.

Winter break came so early in December that it made no sense to go home for Thanksgiving, no matter how homesick I was. But as the dark nights grew longer and the cold winds blew colder, I wavered. Was it too late? Could I still change my mind?

It was definitely too late. Of course. It was far, far too late. And I had papers to write. I had papers to grade. Also, I had no car, and forget booking a plane ticket so close to the holiday, even if I’d had money to spare for it, which on my graduate student’s stipend I most certainly did not. Amtrak was sold out, and the long, long bus ride seemed too daunting. I would be spending Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, a thousand miles from home.

“I don’t think I can stand it here,” I said during the weekly call to my parents that Sunday. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Just come home,” my father said. I was crying by then. “It’s too late,” I said. “It’s way too late.”

“You can always come home, Sweet,” he said. “Even if you marry a bastard, you can always come on home.”

Margaret Renkl | What You May Not Know About Those April Flowers – The New York Times

A Contributing Opinion Writer based in Nashville who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

“NASHVILLE — My favorite spring flower blooms along the leafless branches of the lowly serviceberry, a small tree with varieties native to every state except Hawaii. In the old days, the serviceberry’s simple, five-petaled blossoms heralded springtime itself.

Appalachian tradition holds that the tree got its name because it bloomed just as snow melted on winding roads, just as mountain passes cleared. Serviceberry flowers meant that circuit-riding preachers would be along soon to perform the weddings and funeral services winter had long delayed.

As with all beloved wild plants, these harbingers of spring have many common names. What we call a serviceberry here in Tennessee is what people in other regions call by names like shadbush, sarvis, juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum and chuckley pear, just to name a few. By whatever name they are locally called, the flowers were a welcome sight for the generations who came before us. Winter was over at last. Bright new life could begin.

Serviceberries are not much of a welcome sight anymore. So thoroughly have they been displaced from our cultivated landscapes, and for so many generations, that most Americans are unlikely to recognize this very American tree. For us, springtime means flowers that evolved for ecosystems in Europe and Asia, not for American yards.”

“. . .  Wild creatures need wild plants to survive, but drive down any lane in any suburban neighborhood — or any landscaped city street — and what you are apt to see is a gorgeous, blooming wasteland where the flowers feed nobody at all.

Worse, such plants often go hand-in-garden-glove with an entire ethos of yard maintenance that relies on poison. Between the herbicides designed to kill weeds (including early-blooming wildflowers) and the insecticides designed to kill anything that crawls (including native pollinators), the typical suburban yard is actually worse than a wasteland. It’s a death trap.

And not just for native plants and animals. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disrupters that some researchers say can have a devastating effect on human health, and may be linked to A.D.H.D., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, infertility, cancers, just for starters.

As if that’s not enough, some of the exotic plants we’ve introduced into our formerly functioning ecosystems actually do more than thrive in our built landscapes. Some of them are so well adapted to their unnatural homes that they crowd out the plants that belong. In the American South, where our climate is so perfectly suited to plants from Asia, there is an easy way to know whether many plants are native or exotic: Drive past a forest or wooded city park in the very earliest days of springtime. Any tree or shrub that is greening up or blooming then almost certainly doesn’t belong. In March, the woods here are filled with blooming — and highly invasive — Bradford pear trees, while the buds on the serviceberries are still tightly furled.”