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.”

Margaret Renkl | Yes, America, There Is (Some) Hope for the Environment – The New York Times

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

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Credit…Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

“NASHVILLE — I’ve been keeping a collection of links to good news about the environment as a hedge against despair when so much of the news from nature is devastating. Rolling pandemics. The near annihilation of birds and insects. Even the end of sharks. In short, a “ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health and climate-disruption upheavals,” according to a recent report in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

It’s so bad that I’ve begun to mutter darkly about the end of humanity. So bad that sometimes I wonder if the end of humanity would be such a bad thing. Once we’re out of the way, the earth might have a chance to recover before everything is gone.

Y’all know it is bad when pondering the death of humanity cheers up a person who is really hoping to have grandchildren someday.

In honor of the spring equinox, which falls this coming weekend and brings with it the return of longer days, I offer some news that might bring you, too, a glimmer of light in all this darkness. I share these stories with the usual caveat attached to any kind of climate optimism: Hope is not a license to relax. Hope is only a reminder not to give up. As bad as things are, it is far too early to give up.”

David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
Thank you Margaret for this important essay. By the way, Bill Gates reported in the Netflix show, Inside Bill’s Brain, episode three, that he had organized a team of nuclear scientists who have designed a nuclear plant that uses nuclear waste as fuel, and cannot blow up in an explosion. This new device will get us through to a clean sustainable energy future if it works.
But we are in the Anthropocene, causing the sixth great extinction of species, as you well know. 7.7 billion humans are the new asteroid, or the cause of the this sixth extinction. If we don’t reduce rather than increase our numbers, we are probably doomed, and will take most to the world’s wonderful species with us. As I sing in my song “Talking Climate Change Blues,” we need a Marshall plan for population control.

Margaret Renkl | Even for Bargain Hunters, Green Cars Make Sense – The New York Times

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald, via Getty Images

“NASHVILLE — In this family, we are not new-car people. My husband and I buy used vehicles, and we keep them until the cost of patching them up far exceeds their value, a time-honored practice known as driving a car into the ground. We don’t drive a lot, either: My husband works a mile and a half from our house, and I work from a home office. I kept thinking about electric cars anyway.

We didn’t actually need a new vehicle when we started shopping. My 2006 minivan was working fine, and my husband’s 2001 minivan was working fine, too. But it was 2019, and our youngest child was a junior in college. We had long since aged out of the minivan cohort.

Meanwhile, evidence of the growing climate calamity was becoming clearer and grimmer with every new study — and with every wildfire, every drought, every hurricane — even as the Trump administration kept rolling back environmental protections at a breathtaking rate. I felt a rising desperation to do everything possible to reduce my own carbon footprint, to foster as much biodiversity as I could on my own little half-acre plot of ground.

The earth cannot be saved by personal actions alone, but there are many practical ways a person can help the environment anyway: lowering the thermostat, buying organics, eating less meat, skipping the lawn-care chemicals, planting native shrubs and trees, buying carbon offsets, subscribing to a renewable energy program, eliminating single-use plastics and other disposables. All of those changes, and many others, are important because they mean treading a bit more lightly on a suffering earth.

But the single greatest change we can make is to change the way we get around. “Transportation is the largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the United States today, and the bulk of those emissions come from driving in our cities and suburbs,” as Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu noted in a feature for The Times last fall. According to their interactive map, total greenhouse emissions rose 88 percent in Nashville from 1990 to 2017, and that’s not simply because of population growth. Per-person emissions were up 9 percent in the same time frame. Never mind the environment: At this rate, Nashvillians will soon find it difficult to breathe.”

“. . . Biking and walking are the most ecologically sound ways to get around, of course, and taking public transportation is second best. But if, like my family, you live in a place with a profoundly limited public-transportation system and few pedestrian-friendly streets, driving is a necessary evil. If you have to go somewhere, an electric vehicle is the third-best way to get there.”  (They bought an electric Nissan Leaf. It drives like a sports car.)

David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
 
Thank you Margaret Renkl, and welcome to the club of extremely happy Nissan Leaf drivers. We have the 2018, with only a range of about 150 miles, but we use it for everything but long out of state trips, which are on hold under covid. We told our salesman we were too poor to use the $7500 federal tax credit, and the dealership suggested a lease, where Nissan would take over the tax credit and reduce the cost by $7500. We discovered by talking to the Green Bank, that this was legal and legitimate. Since I put 54 solar panels on the roofs of my house, we are now a 15 kW per year power plant, running the Leaf, and a used Prius Prime, also all electric for almost 25 miles. We have also added LG ductless splits to most rooms of the house, so we are also now heating and air conditioning with our solar electricity, and the natural gas furnace is relegated to pilot mode, as our emergency or extreme cold weather back up. An electric, heat pump hot water heater also replaced its gas run predecessor. Thanks to writers like you, Margaret, we have started a pollinator garden in the back, and now we are eying our gas stove. Now, if we can pass a carbon tax, . . .

Opinion | Books Are Really Easy to Wrap – by Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

“. . . .  But the greatest challenge to online book tours has not been the inevitable glitches of an unfamiliar and not entirely reliable technology. The greatest challenge has been to the survival of bookstores themselves.

A retail bookseller’s bread and butter are live events. The chance to meet a favorite author in real life is one of the crucial differences between a neighborhood bookshop and the online colossus that must not be named. When readers come out to hear an author talk, they tend to leave the store with a new book signed just for them. With any luck, they also leave with a stack of other books from the store’s beautifully curated tables and shelves — and often with a souvenir coffee mug or tote bag to boot.

None of that can happen when author tours are canceled or moved online, which explains in part why bookstores have been particularly hard hit this year, despite the fact that book sales are up over all. According to the American Booksellers Association, at least one independent bookstore has closed every single week during the coronavirus pandemic.

To add insult to mortal injury, the survivors are looking at a deeply troubled holiday shopping season. Mail orders, which have surged during the quarantines, now face significant delivery delays as shipping speeds drop with increased online orders across the retail landscape. Many stores are open to foot traffic but are operating under strict municipal or state orders that severely limit the number of customers who can be in the store at one time — not the ideal scenario in a shopping season that can make or break the entire fiscal year.

Books remain the ultimate gift: easy to wrap, available in such a multifarious array that there’s truly something for everyone and, best of all, a desperately needed break from screens in the age of TikTok and Zoom. A book does not beep at you, spy on you, sell you out to marketers, interrupt with breaking news, suck you into a doomscrolling vortex, cease to function in a nor’easter, flood your eyes with melatonin-suppressing blue light or otherwise interrupt your already troubled sleep. That’s why my best beloveds are all getting books for Christmas. Who wouldn’t want such benefits for the people they love best in all the world?

Once upon a time, at the end of a harrowing year, a way to be a storybook hero presented itself to ordinary mortals in the midst of a dangerous shopping season: Buy books.

Call your local bookshop — or check the store’s website — and order books for everyone on your list. Then pick up your order curbside and head home with a feeling of peace and accomplishment, and the knowledge that you’ve helped to make the world a better place without endangering yourself or anyone else. Because the only way for bookstores to survive is for people to find a way to shop there, even as the coronavirus continues to surge.” . . .

Opinion | All the Empty Seats at the Thanksgiving Table – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Courtesy Margaret Renkl

“NASHVILLE — In the box of old photos I found after my mother’s death, there’s a picture of me taken on Thanksgiving Day 1983, in the fall of my senior year of college. I’m lying on the sofa reading James Agee’s letters to Father Flye. I don’t know why the photo exists — we were not a family who documented ordinary moments. Our pictures centered on people gathered around birthday cakes and Christmas trees. Film wasn’t wasted on someone who has no idea a picture is being taken. Certainly not on someone who isn’t even smiling.

I remember that day, not because it was documented in a photograph but because I ran into my Shakespeare professor outside the liberal arts building on Monday morning, and he asked me how I’d spent the break. “All I did was eat and sleep and read James Agee,” I told him. “That sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving,” he said.

 
 

The author at home in 1983.

Maybe I remember that conversation because it startled me. It had not felt like the perfect Thanksgiving. My great-grandmother, the quiet, steady, patient anchor of the entire extended family, was missing. She’d broken her hip the year before, at 96, and then pneumonia — “the old folks’ friend,” my great-grandfather, a country doctor, called it — had taken hold. Mother Ollie was still herself right until up until the day she fell, and I suppose that’s what my great-grandfather must have meant by “friend”: that there are fates worse than death for the very aged. But a year later, the empty place at the table still felt like a rebuke. As with every death before or since, I could not get over the shock. How can love not be enough to save someone so deeply loved?” . . .

Opinion | This Might Be the Most ‘West Wing’ Election of Our Lives – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…David Rose/NBC, via Getty Images

“NASHVILLE — My favorite coffee mug is emblazoned with words of advice: “Lead like Jed. Advise like Leo. Think like Josh. Speak like C.J. Argue like Toby. Write like Sam.” What the mug doesn’t say but implies by its very existence: “Believe in America like a fan of ‘The West Wing.’”

Set in the White House of fictional President Jed Bartlet, “The West Wing” is an hourlong serial drama that aired on NBC from 1999 to 2006. It features the moral quandaries of President Bartlet — economist, Nobel laureate and Democrat — along with those of his family and staff. The show’s cast of thousands includes assistants and interns, journalists, political consultants, pollsters, White House attorneys, military advisers, Supreme Court justices, and congressional adversaries and allies.

The fictional West Wing of two decades ago doesn’t always hold up to 21st-century standards for workplace relationships and attitudes, but my coffee mug sums up the main characters pretty well. Imperfect though they can sometimes be — making colossal errors of judgment, sabotaging promising relationships, being rude to subordinates — they work collectively as a kind of role model for unstinting service to the country we all love.

Story lines on “The West Wing” include the usual grudges, hookups, missed opportunities and hurt feelings endemic to television drama, but the show is far more than a nighttime soap opera. At its heart, “The West Wing” is a multiyear civics lesson, and every episode is a parable.”

Opinion | I Have Covid-19 Antibodies. Finally I Know How to Help. – By Margaret Renkl – TheI Have Covid-19 Antibodies New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

“NASHVILLE — I got sick in February on a trip to New York. Every time I stepped into an elevator, someone was coughing. On my last day in town, I found myself out of breath walking up a small hill, though I walk on hilly trails nearly every day. At home that night, I went straight to bed. I thought I was just tired.

The next morning, I woke to every symptom of Covid-19 I’d read about, plus some that hadn’t been reported yet: fever, headache, chills, cough, sore throat, body aches, nausea. At the walk-in clinic, my flu test was negative.

I was sick in bed for two weeks. Even after the fever finally broke, I was too weak to do much of anything. I’d take a shower and break out in a sweat as soon as I tried to step out of the tub. I coughed and coughed, and still it felt like an SUV was parked in my lungs. My primary care doctor ordered a chest X-ray, which showed pneumonia — a mild case, luckily. It was so early in the pandemic that Covid-19 tests were administered sparingly, and I didn’t meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for testing. “I think it’s reasonable to assume this is Covid-19,” my doctor said. “We just can’t prove it.”

During the next few months, proving it became something of an obsession for me. At a time when so much was frightening and unpredictable, I just wanted to know one thing for sure. In April I volunteered for a study by the National Institutes of Health to determine the scope of the epidemic by testing for antibodies in people, like me, who believed they’d had an unconfirmed case of Covid-19. More than 400,000 people volunteered for 10,000 spots. I wasn’t accepted.”

Opinion | I Am Watching My Planet, My Home, Die – By Margaret Renkl – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

“NASHVILLE — I was writing a love letter to autumn and its perfect miracle of timing — the way berries ripen just as songbirds migrate through berry-filled forests — when the songbirds suddenly began to die. With no warning at all, thousands and thousands of birds, possibly millions of birds, were simply falling out of the sky.

It’s not yet clear why the birds were dying — smoke from the wildfires on the West Coast? an unseasonable cold snap? the prolonged drought? — but whatever its immediate reason, the die-off was almost certainly related to climate change or some other human-wrought hazard. Every possible explanation for the birds’ deaths leads back to our own choices.

We think of songbirds as indicator species — so sensitive to environmental disruptions that they serve as an early warning of trouble. But the fact that the environment has become increasingly inhospitable to songbirds — and to human beings — is only one measure of a planet under life-threatening stress.

The earth is getting measurably hotter, each year breaking records set the year before, while Arctic sea ice continues to thinWildfires are growing hotter, more frequent, more widespread and more deadly. Northeastern forests are sick. Our oceans are full of plastic. The world’s largest wetland is on fire, and the Amazon rainforest is on its way to becoming a savanna. The pandemic that has paralyzed global life is itself the manifestation of a disordered relationship between human beings and the natural world.

None of this is new. We’ve seen it all happening, worsening with every passing year, for decades now. Any chance of reversing climate change is long since gone, and the climate will inevitably continue to warm. The question now is only how much it will warm, how terrible we will let it become.

There are days when I lose all hope, when it feels as if the only thing left to do is to sit quietly and bear witness to all that will soon be gone: the rain forests and the tidal estuaries, the redwood forests and the Arctic sea ice, the grasslands and the coral reefs. Every wild place and every living thing that wild places harbor, all gone. I held my father’s hand as he died, and I held my mother’s hand as she died, and now it feels as though I am watching my planet die, too.

But that isn’t how I feel most days. On most days I am still fighting as hard as I can possibly fight, living as lightly on the earth as I can manage. The only other option is surrender.

But personal responsibility isn’t going to save the planet by itself. Saving the earth at this late date will also require us to reform the entire global economy. It will require government regulation. It will require industry innovation. It will require companies to invest in the very planet they have been profiting from.

None of that can happen in a country governed by “leaders” in thrall to the fossil fuel industry. Instead of getting serious about climate change, Republicans have run headfirst into the fire, repealing or weakening nearly 100 existing environmental protections. Those changes alone, if left to stand, will add 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2035.

We cannot let them stand, and I’m heartened by signs that we won’t. Money from philanthropic organizations is finally flowing into planet-saving research. As the costs of failing to address climate change have become increasingly clear, people on both sides of the political aisle are beginning to wake up: Today, 72 percent of Americans recognize that climate change is happening, a marked departure from the position of the climate-denier in the White House. Fewer than 10 percent share his view that climate science is a hoax.

Despite the Democratic Party’s forward-thinking position on conservation and Joe Biden’s own $2 trillion plan to address climate change, Mr. Biden is not an environmentalist’s dream candidate: There is just no responsible way forward that includes fracking, which Mr. Biden would not move to end. Nevertheless, he represents our only hope at the moment, and preserving hope is our only chance to inspire change.

Every single issue that matters to me — education, social justice, women’s rights, affordable health care, criminal justice reform, gun control, immigration policy etc. — won’t mean a single thing if the planet becomes uninhabitable. The same is true for my brothers and sisters across the political aisle: If they care about the right to life, as they say they do, if they care about the economy, about freedom, about national security, as they say they do, then they have no choice in this election but to vote for candidates who are committed to halting the rate at which the planet is heating up.

For now and for the foreseeable future, there is only one issue, and in this election there is only one choice. Because there is only one planet we can call home.”  -30-

Opinion | A 150,000-Bird Orchestra in the Sky – The New York Times

By 

Contributing Opinion Writer

“NASHVILLE — At first they circle high in the evening sky. But as night descends, they, too, begin to descend, bird by bird, one at a time, and then all in a rush: 150,000 purple martins swirling together, each bird calling to the others in the failing light as they sweep past the tops of buildings in the heart of downtown Nashville. To anyone watching from the ground, they look like one great airborne beast, one unmistakable, singular mind.

Their music grows louder and louder as the circles tighten and the birds swing lower and lower, settling in the branches of sidewalk trees, or swerving to take off again as new waves of birds dip down. They circle the building and return. They lift off, circle, reverse, settle, lift off again. Again and again and again, until finally it is dark. Their chittering voices fall silent. Their rustling wings fall still.

It is not like Hitchcock: Watching these birds is nothing at all like watching crows and sea gulls and sparrows attack the characters in “The Birds,” Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film. The purple martins that have been gathering here the past few weeks are merely doing what purple martins always do this time of year: flocking together to fatten up on insects before making the long flight to South America, where they will spend the winter.”