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.”

Margaret Renkl | Why We Should All Be Chasing Acorns – The New York Times

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

“Here is the sound in our family room on a windy day in October: BAM-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. All the windy day long, it’s BAM-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam. When the barrage began a couple of weeks ago, our dog thought we were under attack. He ran between the storm door and the window, back and forth, back and forth, looking for intruders and barking his head off.

What he’s hearing are acorns dropping from the white oak tree on the other side of our house. The acorns hit the roof, bounce down the slope, crash into the metal gutter and then drop to the deck. I race outside as soon as I hear one hit, trying to beat the squirrels and the chipmunks to the oak tree’s bounty. It’s unseemly for a grown woman to be racing chipmunks for chipmunk food, but I’m collecting acorns for a good reason.

As Douglas W. Tallamy explains in his splendid 2021 book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees,” oaks are keystone plants, the central life form upon which so many other species in the ecosystem depend. Hundreds of insects and caterpillars feed on oak leaves, and those insects in turn feed birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and even other insects. In fall and winter, acorns feed many of them all over again. Because so many predators eat the creatures that eat the acorns, a good year for oaks is a good year for everybody. “No other tree genus supports so much life,” Dr. Tallamy notes.”

Margaret Renkl | How I Fell In Love With Loretta Lynn – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — I didn’t learn to love Loretta Lynn the way most children who grew up in Alabama in the 1960s and ’70s did. My parents never listened to Grand Ole Opry broadcasts on Saturday nights. They’d courted to big band music in their youth, so they kept the radio tuned to the oldies station.

It’s not like I didn’t know who Loretta Lynn was. I’d heard her songs on other people’s radios all my life but paid them no mind.

Then I went off to faraway Philadelphia for graduate school and started tuning the radio in my apartment to the country station, just to hear the sound of my own people. My roommate would walk in, hear country music and ask, “Why are you punishing me?” I wasn’t punishing her. I was falling in love. Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, The Judds — they all made me feel as if home wasn’t really a thousand miles away.”

Margaret Renkl | At Summer’s End, a Moment of Wild Surprise – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — Then, just like that, the light changed, taking on the autumnal slant that turns dust motes into flecks of fire and deepens the color of songbirds’ feathers, so bright and new now after the August molt. Suddenly it is fall, whatever the temperature might suggest.

There are two ways of marking the change of seasons. Meteorological fall begins on the first day of September. Astronomical fall begins with the autumnal equinox, which this year occurs on Thursday. The disparity between the dates is owing to the specialties involved: Astronomers account for the changing seasons by observing the earth’s tilt, while meteorologists, it probably goes without saying, divide the seasons according to the weather. For meteorologists, summer is comprised of June, July and August, the three hottest months of the year.”

Margaret Renkl | Monarch Butterflies Are In Decline. I Wanted to Help. – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — After all my blue false indigo was killed by a late frost, I went down to the garden center at the farmer’s market looking for more. Blue false indigo is a host plant of the clouded sulphur butterfly, and clouded sulphurs are the most reliable guests in my pollinator patch. I would hate to be caught short-handed when they returned in all their yellow glory. There have been so few butterflies lately.

Naturally I had to walk around the rest of the garden center, too, looking for other perennials that feed native pollinators, but the only ones on offer that day were flowers I already have in abundance. When I came upon a few pots of swamp milkweed tucked into a corner, I turned to leave. Milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly, but I have plenty of milkweed.

As I was turning, something striped caught my eye. I looked closer. Monarch caterpillars were munching away on the leaves.

Reader, I screamed.”

Margaret Renkl | We Need to Stay Heartbroken About School Shootings – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — I wish I could report that shock was my first reaction to the news from Uvalde, but it was not shock. My first reaction to the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers was grief — terrible, garment-rending grief — followed by something dangerously close to resignation. Here we go again. And again and again. When you know something unbearable will happen, and then it happens, grief and resignation sit together in the same pew.

My own children are long past school age, but I am the wife of a teacher, the mother of a teacher, the sister of two teachers. Many of my dearest friends are teachers. The ever-present threat of this carnage is terrifying, and it is personal.

So it is for all of us, even if we aren’t the ones making lesson plans or packing school lunchboxes. We were all once vulnerable children, entirely dependent on adults to protect us. Keeping children safe is the most fundamental obligation we have as a culture.

But too many of our leaders no longer accept the responsibility of protecting innocents. The elected Republicans who bitterly fight all sensible gun laws also fight access to affordable health care, including treatment for mental illness. And they keep getting away with their inaction because they are so adept at preying on our most primitive fears, using them to divide us from one another.”

Margaret Renkl | In the Culture Wars, Teachers Are Under Attack – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — My grandmother was still a teenager when she started her teaching career. She went to college for a year and then taught for a year to save money for tuition. After another year of college and another year of teaching, she married my grandfather. The wedding, everyone assumed, marked the end of her career. She was 21 years old.

Down here we call someone like my grandmother a natural-born teacher. She loved her job. The family desperately needed her income, too, but the country was in a Great Depression by then, and there weren’t enough jobs to go around. Women in her Lower Alabama school district — as in many others around the country — weren’t allowed to work for pay once they married.

As discriminatory policies so often do, this one backfired. There weren’t enough licensed teachers to staff the schools, especially in deeply rural areas. From time to time, the superintendent would beg my grandmother to come back and finish out the school year for a teacher who was leaving, and my grandmother always did. When her youngest child was old enough for school, she was offered a permanent job teaching in the two-room schoolhouse in her tiny farming community. Years later, she went back to college to finish her four-year degree. She finally retired from teaching in 1970, more than 40 years after she taught her first class.”

Margaret Renkl | Wondering How to Help Stop Climate Change? Do Less. – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — When I mention the new meadow I am cultivating where our front yard used to be, my adult children roll their eyes. The word “meadow” conjures the mental image of a sunny field of blooming wildflowers, but this one is a work in progress. A dream more than an actuality.

The new meadow where our front yard used to be is mainly white clover, chickweed and grass gone to seed, though there are also patches of low-growing violets, which I love, and creeping Charlie, which I do not. (An invasive species, creeping Charlie is the bane of the natural yard.) But already there are also some lovely clumps of fleabane — small daisylike flowers on knee-high stems — that look very much like the romantic fields brought to mind by the word “meadow.” Soon there will be other flowers, too. Perhaps not this year but certainly the next, and there will be even more the year after that.

This is not a statement of faith but of fact. Every year we let more patches of our yard go wild, and every year more flowers appear in the uncut areas. First came pokeweed and butterweed in the backyard, then white snakeroot and Carolina elephant’s foot in the side yard. Last year we had frost asters for the first time.

May is Garden for Wildlife Month, according to the National Wildlife Federation, but gardening doesn’t necessarily mean planting. It can also mean giving the volunteer flowers a permanent home. Because where there are wildflowers, there will be insects. And where there are insects, there will be birds and bats and tree frogs and many other creatures who rely on the protein insects provide.”

“. . . For years, we mowed it all into a conventional yard after spring’s first wild profusion of flowers was over. Then I read Douglas W. Tallamy’s 2007 book “Bringing Nature Home” and learned how much more we could be doing beyond tolerating moles and keeping the yard poison-free. We started planting native trees, flowers and shrubs, too, understanding that native wildlife needs native plants to eat. We started letting leaves and deadwood lie to feed and shelter insects. And we let the unused parts of the yard grow up.”

Margaret Renkl | On an Endangered River, Another Toxic Disaster Is Waiting to Happen – The New York Times

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

“NASHVILLE — Almost four years ago, spurred by my decades-long fascination with Homer’s story of the lotus-eaters, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama to see American lotuses in full bloom. Jimbo Meador, our guide, was happy to take us on his boat to see the extravagant flowers.

A certified master naturalist, he was also happy to take birders to see the more than 300 species of birds that have been identified in that magnificent delta and to talk with history buffs about the original peoples who lived in the area or the fort where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought or the spot in the river where a ghost fleet of World War II Liberty ships was once anchored. Mr. Meador has spent his whole life talking about the crucial role the Mobile-Tensaw Delta plays in the human and ecological life of the region.

The biologist E.O. Wilson called this delta “arguably the biologically richest place” Americans have.”