Ruminations on Kinship

In Review: The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year

When we think of graveyards, we think of silent places filled with row after row of the dead. But graveyards can be teeming with life, from the moss and lichens growing on the gravestones to the animals who have found a home in these places of decay.

Margaret Renkl encapsulates the dichotomy of life and death, human and non-human, when she writes, “This place belongs not to the bones lying underneath but to everything that death feeds — the soil, the beetles, the baby crows teetering on the edge of the high nest… Within their rusted gates, life is protected in ways that the built world fails to provide almost everywhere else.”

This meditation on cemeteries and life is one of 52 essays (and countless “praise songs”) in The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year, each with corresponding illustrations by Renkl’s brother Billy Renkl. Starting in the first week of January and continuing with every subsequent week of the year, each essay ruminates about humans’ relationships with other animals and the natural world while tracking the changing seasons in Renkl’s Nashville, Tennessee, backyard and nearby open spaces.

a raccoon

Each essay in Margaret Renkl’s book reflects on our relationships with the other-than-human world while tracking the changing seasons in Renkl’s Nashville, Tennessee, backyard and nearby open spaces. Photo by Tjflex2/Flickr.

The title for the first essay in the collection embodies her point of view: “Wherever You Are, Stop What You’re Doing.” Renkl implores the reader to “stop and look at the tangled rootlets of the poison ivy vine… Stop and listen to the ragged-edge beech leaves… Stop and think for a time about kinship.”

Kinship is a key theme of this book. As she observes life in her backyard, as well as in local forests and wilderness, Renkl struggles with being in better relationship with nature, whether creating a garden conducive to local animals or not getting involved when a rat snake slithers into a chickadee nest. It often feels that Renkl is fighting a one-woman war against humanity’s carelessness and shortsightedness, and success is elusive.

In one essay, for instance, Renkl describes the challenge of helping a fox with mange. The solution seems straightforward: trap it and give it medication. But she must check the trap frequently through the day. She must free other animals caught in it. And when, eventually, she encounters a fox in the trap, it’s a different, healthier fox. Releasing the healthy animal, Renkl does not absolve herself of responsibility for the sick one, noting, “I will catch the fox, or I won’t, but never again will I be free to walk away forever.” Another week, Renkl explores her own culpability in intervening with a bluebird chick, stalked by a cat, that resulted in the bird’s death.

Other essays in the collection explore Renkl’s successes as she works to become nature’s ally. For instance, she writes about her efforts to create a vegetable garden, initially fighting against the insects who ate her crop. Ultimately, she decided to stop fighting and instead “started planting enough vegetables for all of us.”

But that idea that we can’t walk away from our duty of caring for our increasingly fragile natural word haunts Renkl throughout the book. In a late essay, she notes how old houses in her neighborhood are being torn down and replaced with newer models. In the process, plants and trees that had supported an ecosystem for decades or more are being ripped out as well. When she and her husband contemplate their own future and whether it makes sense to stay in their home — their children have moved out, their parents have passed — Renkl is brought to tears by the thought of leaving the place where they raised their kids.

book cover thumbnail

It’s not just that though. “I think, too, of my wild neighbors. What would happen to the butterflies and the red wasps and the patient skink who suns herself on our stoop?” Renkl has spent a lifetime cultivating this backyard, trying to figure out how to live with her nonhuman neighbors. Leaving their house, she believes, will mean the destruction of that world because she imagines that her home and garden will be torn down by the next owners.

Despite the seemingly whimsical premise — 52 essays for 52 weeks observing nature — and lyrical language, Renkl pulls no punches about the current state of things and the toll of human-created climate change. She cautions people thinking “that flowers blooming in springtime and birds singing at dawn are a sign that all’s right with the natural world. In truth, very little is right with the natural world, even on my half-acre lot in Tennessee.” It’s a sobering conclusion, but a necessary one. She exhorts the reader to “Rejoice and grieve. Do your best to help. Bear witness when you can’t.”

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