"Loss is the shadow side of love, and grief is its own twin" – so writes Margaret Renkl in her human and moving memoir of place, plants, life and people entitled "Late Migrations – A Natural History of Love and Loss" (Milkweed Editions, 2019). Margaret is a gardener, an observer, a contributing writer at the New York Times, and she joins us this week from her home in Tennessee.
Last week we spoke to Dean Kuipers about his memoir of place, people and the the human-nature relationship in a story about restoring a piece of land and restoring his own family at the same time. This week we’re joined by another Cultivator-of-Place whose nature-based memoir "Late Migrations, a Natural History of Love and Loss" reminds us all of the timelessness of life cycles and that while our gardens and gardening impulses may not be enough to repair everything, they are a very powerful and meaningful something in the right direction.
Margaret lives in Nashville, TN and joins us to share more about her work and her relationship to the natural world, often seen through the lens of her own “ordinary” back yard.
"I like to emphasize the kinship of life because when people feel connected they don’t feel powerless, they feel empowered to do what they can. Often it’s just a matter of saying here’s something you can do:
Plant more trees, plant more coneflowers, plant more zinnias.
It’s not hard, it’s not enough, but it’s also not nothing."
Very much an ode to life and its sometimes hard won lessons and its redemptive connections, Late Migrations interweaves stories of life in her human family as her elders neared and reached their end of life phases, and life - sometimes beautiful and often brutal - in her backyard garden. Begun as two very separate series of meditations and observations, at some point Margaret sees that she is writing about the same thing in both - the preciousness, precariousness, and ephemeral nature of life and its enduring cycles.
In our conversation, Margaret shares her own life and gardening background. She shares how after her undergraduate work at Auburn University in Alabama, she accepts a graduate school position at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It is a disaster, she is very unhappy – she has never lived in a city, let alone one with an unrelenting winter, and she feels like she is choking on city fumes, like she has lost sight of who she is and her "very outlines are fading." She returns home after just one semester, she then share how she found her way forward. She shares parallel stories and lessons from each of life's (and the gardens) lessons to her and how they all come back to kinship and connection - and the "comforting" cycle of life to death to life - each generation passing on in the form of food for the next generation in some way.
Follow Margaret's work online at margaretrenkl.com/ or at Instagram: www.instagram.com/margaret.renkl
Join us again next week when we move to a different seat and consider our spaces who we see them, how we use them, how we value them – from the inside and the out – through the eyes and persepectives of award-winning New York-based architect David Abelow.
Thinking out Loud this week...
It’s Jennifer – so this week, I’m thinking out loud about the positive feedback loop that is our lives – especially as shown to us so brilliantly and perfectly every day we pay attention in our gardens.
How as Margaret says in our conversation: "It’s not just that everything dies and is eaten, but that everything that’s eaten goes to feeding the next generation."
My plant-and-nature loving people – this is an open ended question we ask ourselves everyday: how are we contributing positively to the feeding of the next generation – in the soil for the trees and flowers and plants next year, in our communities so that the places we live and people and lives we live among are fed for their next round of healthy growth and for our own literal next generation of people, plants and places?
What are feeding them?
What do we want to be nurturing and supporting and cultivating that will feed them well?
Are the decisions we make everyday making us the ancestors we want to be?
Margaret Renkl ends in her book at the very end of the last page, in the Acknowledgements, with this: “If there’s anything that living in a family has taught me, it’s that we belong to one another. Outward and outward and outward, in ripples that extend in either direction, we belong to one another. And also to this green and gorgeous world.”
A few pages before this, she cites a favorite quote from the poet Derek Walcott: “So much to do still, and ALL of it Praise.”
ALL OF IT PRAISE......indeed.
Here was another theme that I loved hearing Margaret describe in its garden form – the generosity of plants and the generosity of plants people – made manifest in the passalong plants filling out her mother’s garden and indeed all of the gardens of her mother’s and grandmother’s communities, how easy it is to root a cutting of a rambling rose and share it forward in time and space – horizontally through our communities and vertically down into our next generations.
As we close in on the end of September and the close of the third quarter of the year, I want to thank all of you who have contributed financially to the success of Cultivating Place.
We started the online donation platform to help support the production of the program just one year ago. And each and every dollar contributed has been a passalong plant and rooted cutting of its own kind, generously making this work possible, making the work of North State Public Radio possible, making the elevation of how we talk about, think about, and value gardening and gardeners possible.
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To know that these expansive conversations on what it means to be a gardener, on the responsibility and honor of cultivating our places, on what we as gardeners LOOK LIKE and CARE ABOUT fills an appetite in you – well this fills me. Donations directly support the people and resources needed to record, edit, engineer produce and air a quality program on a weekly and annual basis and so THANK YOU!
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