We seem to be wallowing in a great deal of ignorance these days.
In Margaret Renkl’s wonderful debut book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, she makes the comment that “It takes a lot of nerve” for someone like herself, who is “so ignorant of true wilderness” to put herself forward as a nature writer.
But then she adds, “the flip side of ignorance is astonishment, and I am good at astonishment.”
So many today seem content to settle in the midst of their ignorance and not face life with astonishment, awe, and a sense of wonder. As Renkl shows, that approach is their loss, but also, in many ways, ours as well. We are all connected, humans and non-human. Those who choose to abandon a sense of astonishment and wonder and settle in their ignorance continue to make decisions—often with very harmful consequences—that affect every other thing on this planet.
“Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” Renkl writes in another passage in this beautiful collection of short essays about nature, family, community, love, and loss. Late Migrations opens the reader up to Renkl’s experiences growing up in Lower Alabama and the inevitable imperfections of life. We are all drifting towards death, as Renkl explains so lovingly to her three-year-old in the essay “All Birds?” (As in “All birds die? All dogs die? All teachers die? All mommies die? I will die?”) Yet we are missing why we’re here if we don’t inhabit this imperfect world fully, with astonishment and awe.
Renkl’s story is like so many others. She lives with generations of strong women; grapples with how the men and women in her family deal with poverty, grief, and loss; and moves from her cherished countryside to cities that have much to offer, but require work to maintain her connection with the natural world. Where Renkl differs from those sleepwalking through life is in her powers of observation and the willingness to examine, re-examine, and re-examine again her own story. In doing so, she unfolds that inclination to be astonished in bits and pieces which come together for the reader as a coherent and very engaging whole.
I was reading Renkl’s book while many in our country were wallowing in their ignorance, refusing to re-examine decisions and “knowledge” that is clearly hurting them and their fellow travelers in the world. A capacity for astonishment has been replaced, too often, with a capacity for self-delusion, a focus on fear, and a need to “own” those who are different. Hate—the emotion that so often results from these decisions—is based on ignorance and a refusal to learn from the world that is around us about how to live in the world. It seems easier to live within our tribes and follow authoritarian leaders who will do our thinking for us. And simply because someone has a formal education, it doesn’t mean that they have stepped out of their ignorance.
Renkl now lives in Nashville, writes regular opinion columns for the New York Times, and was the founding editor of the wonderful Chapter 16, an online community celebrating Tennessee literature. Her self-taught naturalist tendencies remind me of how our powers of observation can open up worlds that we too often think of as reserved for the experts. Renkl’s love and care for the natural world reminded me of the writings of another Tennessee-based writer, biologist and poet David George Haskell, in The Forest Unseen. Haskell’s work over his year in the forest outside Sewanee was an attempt to “put down scientific tools and to listen: to come to nature without a hypothesis, without a scheme for data extraction, without a lesson plan to convey answers to students, without machines and probes.” Listening—as both Renkl and Haskell demonstrate—moves us beyond what we know and into the deeper knowledge to be found when we tap into the roots of nature and humanity.
“My favorite season is spring—until fall arrives,” Renkl writes in this highly recommended debut, “and then my favorite season is fall: the seasons of change, the seasons that tell me to wake up, to remember that every passing moment of every careening day is always the last moment….”
Wake up. Be astonished. Have a good week.
More to come…