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Margaret Renkl writes about the environment from her 'blue dot' hometown in red state


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: On this Earth Day, we turn to a writer looking at nature at risk, rhythms of southern life and much more through the art of the essay.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from Nashville for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Margaret Renkl, Author, "Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South": These little blue flowers?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Margaret Renkl: That is called bird-eye speedwell. It is just a little four-petaled flowed with a yellow center.

Jeffrey Brown: For Margaret Renkl, loving nature doesn't require trips to exotic locales. A walk in her local park outside Nashville will do very well. She calls herself a backyard naturalist.

What does that mean?

Margaret Renkl: It just means paying attention to the world that you live in. Nature will -- at the risk of sounding like "Jurassic Park," it does find a way...


Margaret Renkl: ... if we give it half-a-chance.

Jeffrey Brown: Paying attention and writing it down in the form of one short essay at a time. Many are collected in the recent book "Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South."

It was honored with the 2022 PEN America Award for the art of the essay.

Margaret Renkl: I want to make other people fall in love with what I love. We don't work to preserve what we don't care about. We work to preserve what we're in love with.

Jeffrey Brown: Her first book, "Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss," is a love letter to her family and to the natural world that has always captivated her, from early childhood in rural Alabama, grade school years in Birmingham, college at Auburn and grad school at the University of South Carolina, where she met her husband, to their life together in Nashville today.

She always wanted to write, first poetry. But a life writing essays? That seemed impossible.

Margaret Renkl: When I was a younger writer, I wrote an essay about my then 2-year-old and how boring it was to have to play the same games over and over again. And it was called "Zen and the Art of Motherhood," and it was just sort of making peace with the moment and not the to-do list or the plans.

And I got this call from an agent. And she said: "Have you ever thought about writing a book?"

And I said: "A book of essays?"

And she said: "Oh, no, nobody reads essays."


Margaret Renkl: And so I was just like -- I had to wait for the world to turn a little bit.

Jeffrey Brown: Now people do read essays. And hers have gained a large weekly following in The New York Times, her subjects described as flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.

"Dolly Parton just did the most punk rock thing you could imagine." "I just turned 60, but I still feel 22." "The boring bill in Tennessee that everyone should be watching."

She refers to Nashville as a blue dot in a red state.

Margaret Renkl: People say to me, don't you ever worry about running out of ideas?

And it's like, how could I ever run out of ideas?

Jeffrey Brown: One regular subject, stereotypes of the South.

Margaret Renkl: I wanted to focus on my home, my homeland. It isn't this beleaguered place that enlightened people flee.

Jeffrey Brown: What are the stereotypes that constantly drive you crazy?

Margaret Renkl: There are so many.


Margaret Renkl: The belief that racism is exclusive to the South is probably chief among them. It's like, have you been in any place besides the South? More to the point, have you been here? You know, there's racism everywhere.

This is an incredibly diverse region. But all you ever hear about is what's happening in the red state legislatures. It is really quite enraging.

Jeffrey Brown: But her biggest subject, her constant concern now, climate change and its consequences near and far. Most of us, she says, don't notice the impact of environmental change, including our reliance on chemicals to create our perfect lawns.

Margaret Renkl: Even within the world of backyard nature, we are losing so much so quickly. I can't imagine that people don't notice it, because...

Jeffrey Brown: These are the things you write about, the bees, the -- yes.

Margaret Renkl: The bees, the butterflies, the songbirds, the skinks, the tree frogs, the bats, we are losing them all. We're watching an apocalypse unfold in our own backyards. And it's alarming, and it's tragic, and it's heartbreaking.

Everything that I care about is going to be made worse in a heating climate. If climate change continues, we are going to lose the breadbasket. What does that mean? It means more hungry people. If what you're worried about is racial justice, you look at where the changing climate most affects people or where the pollution is most often dumped, it's in communities of color.

Writing a book is an exercise in loneliness.

Jeffrey Brown: She spoke of her passions and the role of fellow writers in accepting the PEN America essay award.

Margaret Renkl: For preserving and enriching our shared culture, for holding back the barbarians, for standing always for truth.

Jeffrey Brown: Many of these are personal essays, right? You're at the center of it.

It strikes me as a strange occupation to write about yourself, almost with an assumption that the rest of us care.

Margaret Renkl: And plenty of people, Jeff, do not.


Margaret Renkl: And they want to let me know, for sure, that they don't care.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Margaret Renkl: But I think that this is part of human nature. We want to see ourselves in others. We are an empathetic species.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Margaret Renkl: We are convinced when we are moved much more often than we are convinced when we are informed. That's my hope anyway.

Jeffrey Brown: Margaret Renkl is now working on a new book of essays that will take her and us through the natural cycles of a backyard year.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Nashville.

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