Margaret Renkl | Graduates, My Generation Wrecked So Much That’s Precious. How Can I Offer You Advice? – The New York Times

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

“SEWANEE, Tenn. — Thirty-nine years ago, my college commencement was held in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium on the hottest day Alabama could serve up. I tried to talk my family into letting me skip the ceremony, but my grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, put her foot down. “We’re going,” she said. So we went. All I remember of the whole day is trying not to perish in the hallucinogenic heat.

My grandmother began her career in a two-room country schoolhouse. She was still teaching 40 years later when Alabama public schools were finally integrated. What my grandmother knew, and I did not, is that it’s right to celebrate a hard-won achievement. It’s right to drink in the pride of family and friends. It’s always right to give yourself over to joy every single time joy is on offer.

It is also right in this liminal moment, this time of looking both before and beyond, to ponder what it all means. What did the years of study and camaraderie really add up to? What new challenges will you be obliged to face in the years to come?

I can’t tell you what it all meant, but I think I understand some of the difficulties that lie ahead.”

Margaret Renkl | Long Live the Fireflies (and the Wildflowers and Mosquitoes, Too) – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — The day we moved into this house, 28 years ago next month, a thunderstorm knocked out the power late in the day. My husband was returning the rental van. Our 3-year-old was safely tucked into his old bed in his new room. As night began to fall in the silent house, I sat down on the sofa to cry.

At a routine appointment earlier in the day, I’d learned that the baby I was carrying had no heartbeat. There had been a heartbeat once, but there was no heartbeat now. All I could do was wait for my body — still puffy and tender, still so sensitive to the smell of any kind of food — to catch up. For 10 weeks I had been growing a new life. Suddenly I wasn’t growing anything at all. My body just didn’t know it yet.

Surrendering to tears after a day like that feels like a gift, but the real gift is what happened while I wept. As darkness gathered under the maple trees in our new yard, tiny lights began to wink on and off just above the ground. I got up from the sofa to look. Just beyond the picture window, there were hundreds of lights, thousands of lights, lifting up from the damp grass and rising into the black branches. Lightning bugs!”

Margaret Renkl | An Open Letter to Governor Lee on the Slaughter of Our Children – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — Dear Gov. Bill Lee,

“For more than 24 hours, I waited for you to speak to the people of Tennessee about the massacre of Nashville schoolchildren and the adults who gave their lives trying to keep them safe. These were your citizens. These children were your children. This shattered faith community is exactly the kind of community that gives you solace in your own moments of fear and despair. What would you say to them? To us?

What promises of reform would you offer? What vows before God that nothing like this would ever happen to another family on your watch? To another innocent child?

I waited to hear.

I have never had any reason to believe that you would represent my own views and my own values in the governance of this state, but I still had hope that the murder of children would have the power, however temporarily, to carry us to common ground. God help me, I still had enough faith in your humanity to hope that you might be moved by the obliterated bodies of these tiny Tennesseans to do something. To lead us somewhere better. At the very least to promise that you would try.

For more than 24 hours, you did not speak.

I live in a quiet neighborhood. In that quiet, it is possible to hear sirens from miles away. When the sirens started Monday, I was standing in my front yard talking to a friend. At first I didn’t even register the keening, but almost immediately it became an uncountable number of sirens. Police sirens and fire engine sirens and the heart-chilling sound of ambulance sirens.

For two hours, Governor Lee, it was nothing but sirens. Sirens going and sirens coming. Sirens loud enough to be heard indoors, and from every room in the house. Sirens in the background of every phone call that morning, as people kept checking in to compare notes. What have you heard?

That many sirens can mean only one thing, I knew, but I prayed with every cell in my body to be wrong about that. Please, God, not a school. There are so many schools in the first-ring suburbs — public and private schools, preschools and elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Please, God, let it be none of them. Please, not one of them.

Do you know what people do after a sudden loss like this, Governor? They question every single choice they have ever made. They lie in the dark and wonder how one little shift in the trajectory of time might have led to some other outcome. Would a different school have been safer? What if I’d believed that story about a stomach ache? Should I have kept them home with me, never let them leave my side? Should I have quit my job and home-schooled them?

This is the heartbreak after the heartbreak — the way we all think it might have been our own fault somehow. Whatever terrible thing has happened, we find a way to make it our own fault. Everyone who has lived through a sudden loss knows that. I thought for sure you knew it, too.”  . . . . .

Margaret Renkl | The Beautiful and Terrifying Arrival of an Early Spring – The New York Times

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

NASHVILLE — At first I thought this winter’s strange weather was merely part of the boomerang pattern we contend with more and more frequently in these climate-troubled days — warm spells that might rightly be called hot spells, hard freezes that descend so quickly the plants don’t have time to adjust. On one January day, the temperature fell so far so fast here that many nonnative evergreen trees and shrubs froze to death. On one February day the high hit 85 degrees, destroying records and causing my woolly-haired dog to stretch out on the hardwood floor, panting. I hadn’t thought to schedule the groomer so early in the year.

But the uncommonly warm days of winter turned out not to be a warm spell, or even a hot spell. The uncommonly warm days of winter turned out to be spring.

Margaret Renkl | The Fate of the Okefenokee Swamp Is in Your Hands – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — I have a dim memory of being taken on a boat ride in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge when I was 4 or 5. I remember tea-dark water lapping at the boat, a white bird on stilt legs and a drifting log that startled me by turning into an alligator. That’s it. Years later, I had to consult my brother to be sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing up out of nothing but a word-besotted child’s delight in the swamp’s name.

Last fall, in a moving essay for The Bitter Southerner, the writer Janisse Ray called the Okefenokee “a gigantic, ethereal, god-touched swamp in southeast Georgia that’s like no other place on earth.” This is the kind of ecstatic language the refuge inevitably inspires. Some 700,000 people visit it each year, and I have always intended to return. Now I’m worried I won’t ever have the chance.

Twin Pines Minerals, an Alabama-based mining company, has applied to build a strip mine less than three miles from the wildlife refuge. The mining operation would target a geological formation called Trail Ridge, a raised area of land on the eastern border of the swamp. During prehistoric times, Trail Ridge was a barrier island. Today the ocean is some 45 miles away, and Trail Ridge functions as a low earthen dam that holds the Okefenokee in place. “Trail Ridge is not only ecologically important in and of itself,” notes the Georgia Conservancy, “but also serves as scaffolding for the health of the Okefenokee.”

But Trail Ridge contains titanium dioxide. Twin Pines proposes to extract the mineral by peeling off the topsoil, digging out the sand pits, separating the sand containing titanium and then returning the mineral-free sand to its approximate original location.”

Margaret Renkl | I Love You, Too, but Let’s Skip the Roses – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — If you haven’t yet ordered flowers for tomorrow, you’ve likely waited too long. Valentine’s Day accounts for some 30 percent of annual cut-flower sales — more than the holiday season does, more than even Mother’s Day — so it’s very likely that all the florists in town are already booked. You’ll have better luck at your local grocery or big-box store, but you’re kidding yourself if you think this gesture won’t be recognized for what it is. Nothing says “I forgot Valentine’s Day” quite like a plastic-wrapped bouquet from a bucket by the checkout line at Target.

Just as well. The massive cut-flower industry — valued at $34 billion in 2019 — isn’t the most environmentally criminal of all commercial enterprises, but it’s far from benign.

As the Sustainable Floristry Network points out, cultivating unblemished flowers requires liberal applications of insecticides and herbicides, and many of those poisons enter the water system (not to mention the skin and lungs of agricultural workers). Imported flowers must be treated with fungicides, as well, to prevent foreign microbes from wreaking havoc on domestic agriculture. The floral foam commonly used in cut-flower arrangements is yet another contaminant, leaching toxic chemicals into the water supply and creating a significant source of microplastic pollution in waterways.”

Margaret Renkl | You’re Pointing Your Camera the Wrong Way – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — Not quite halfway through the new season of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” a young woman, Portia, breaks into tears at breakfast. She is staying at a luxury resort in Sicily as the personal assistant of one of the wealthy guests. While her tablemate, a true vacationer, takes smiling selfies with the shining Ionian Sea in the background, Portia glances across the terrace at her despairing employer. “Is everything boring?” she asks, her voice quivering.

Portia’s problem is only partly the obscene wealth to which she exists in permanent adjacency. As her breakfast companion’s cheerful self-portraits suggest, she is at also odds with her era: “I just feel like there must’ve been a time when the world had more, you know? Like mystery or something,” she says. “And now you come somewhere like this, and it’s beautiful, and you take a picture, and then you realize that everybody’s taking that exact same picture from that exact same spot and you’ve just made some redundant content for stupid Instagram.”

This is the cry of anyone in Portia’s generation who is paying attention. It should be the cry of everybody else, too. With the advent of the self-facing camera, the human world turned in fundamental ways.

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera,” the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange often said. That was surely true of Ms. Lange, whose iconic photographs of Depression-era migrants and urban bread lines captured the beauty as well as the profound anguish of the period.”

Margaret Renkl | The Unexpected Gift of Dead Plants – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — The winter storm that swept in just before Christmas, moving from the West Coast to the East, was a slow-motion devastation. For a week, it was all meteorologists could talk about — temperatures dropping tens of degrees in a matter of minutes, motorists stranded, flights canceled, power disrupted across the land.

It was 52 degrees here the day the front was due, but the birds were already making their cold-weather plans. The dominant bluebird down at our end of the neighborhood spent much of it sitting on top of the sunny nest box in our front yard. He wasn’t laying claim to the box for nesting season, which is still months away, but for shelter. On bitter nights, whole families of bluebirds will crowd in to escape a storm.”

Margaret Renkl | How to Give Thanks in a Screwed-Up World – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — My father always had a ready answer to the question that greases the gears of human discourse. Whenever anyone he didn’t know particularly well — a neighbor or a sales clerk or someone at church — would ask, “How are you, Mr. Renkl?” my father didn’t say, “Just fine, thank you.” His answer was always “Fantastic!” Later, when he was dying, it was the answer he gave even to family members checking in. Right up to his death, he was always faaaantastic.

Even before he got sick, this answer was an inexplicable exaggeration. Money was always short in our house, and Mom struggled intermittently with depression, but you would not have known any of that from the way my father greeted others, always with an unexpectedly cheery answer to the throwaway question people asked out of nothing but common courtesy.

I think about my father every day, but I’ve been thinking about him more than usual lately. Not only because Thanksgiving is coming on, that time when the ache of my missing elders is especially acute, but because I am trying to remind myself how to see the world as my father saw it.”

” . . . . .  I can’t force polluting nations to work together to hold climate change to planet-surviving levels. I can’t force Congress to work together for solutions to the economic inequities and information silos that separate us. But I can pull out my mother’s recipe box and make a Thanksgiving feast. I can remember the loved ones who once shared this table and fill their seats with people whose loved ones are distant or otherwise missing. And I can be grateful for every single fantastic moment we have together.

A hard frost finally came to my garden last week, and the zinnias are gone now, along with all the butterflies. I am sorry to see them go, and I am trying not to interrogate my own gratitude for the days they had here. I tell myself it is not wrong to exult in the beauties that remain. I remind myself of the testimony of my father’s whole life, of the truth he taught me — that loss and love will always belong to each other, that sorrow has always been joy’s quiet twin.” -30-

Margaret Renkl | What Has Happened to My Country? – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — There I was, snug in my own bed in the middle of the night, turning to sleep on my side, when wham! the room slid sideways. Then it took off, spinning and spinning as though a sadistic carnival barker had flipped a switch and pushed the speed to max.

Reader, I will spare you the details except to say that I have lately learned how delicate an instrument is the human ear, how many ways there are to disrupt its functions. As when, say, a lump of wax detaches itself from the ear canal through an exactly wrong combination of angles and gravity, lodges itself in the eardrum, and transforms the human vestibular system into a Tilt-a-Whirl. For days I lay in bed, trying not to move my head and reciting to myself lines from “The Second Coming,” a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

At the otolaryngologist’s office, the source of my torture finally emerged after half an hour of patient manipulations by a doctor wielding tiny power tools. In the newly stationary room, I looked at it, amazed. How fragile the human body is that it can be thrown into chaos by something so small!

The same can be said for the body politic. Right-wing politicians and media outlets have turned American democracy upside down through nothing more than a lie. They put forth Supreme Court candidates who assure Congress that they respect legal precedent but who vote to overturn Roe v. Wade the instant they have a majority on the court. They endorse political candidates who openly state that they will accept only poll results leading to their own election.”