Born and raised in rural Alabama, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee for nearly 35 years, Margaret Renkl loves the South. She revels in its glorious art and music, rich ecology and stunning natural beauty.
More than anything, perhaps, she appreciates Southerners working for cultural change, because alongside all the positives there is the “brutal story” of southern white supremacy and its terrible legacies of discrimination still alive. today. Renkl’s joyful sense of belonging to the South, a region too often dismissed on both coasts in crude stereotypes and bad jokes, coexists with his intense desire for Southerners facing prejudice or poverty to finally be embraced and supported.
In Graceland, finally: notes on the hope and sorrow of the American South, the chronicles written by Renkl between 2016 and 2020 are grouped into six categories which reflect these various perspectives: flora and fauna; politics and religion; social justice; environment; family and community; and arts and culture. The result is Renkl in its tenderest and fiercest form.
Despite his use of a unifying geographical term, Renkl hastens in the introduction to take up the pluralities of the South: “The Deep South is as different from the Mid-South and the High-South as the of each of them.” Unsurprisingly, Tennessee – and Nashville in particular – is over-represented in this collection, and that’s one of its highlights. Renkl’s Gift, as in his first book Late migrations, is to make fascinating for others what is most important to him.
Animals and Plants start the book, including the Mole in Renkl’s Yard, welcomed as a friend of his backyard ecology, and the endangered Tennessee Echinacea is now making a comeback. The place called by biologist EO Wilson as “arguably the most biologically rich place” in the country, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama, fed by nine rivers, is here, as are the sheep deployed around Nashville which just eat invasive plants like kudzu and English ivy, and fertilize the soil as you go.
From this early nature-focused lull, it’s mildly shocking to think of opioid addiction, voting rights, gun rights, and Southern Republicans’ failures. Oh, make no mistake, these politics and religion-centric plays only endeared the book to me, but that answer won’t be universal.
Most of the book’s previously published essays were written during Trump’s presidency, and Renkl, who describes herself as a Christian, denounces this administration’s persecution of immigrants and others – “Watching Christians put it in the White House completely broke my heart. ”Again, she is most effective when she stays local. State where the Republican majorities act in a regressive manner. She adds, of a bill which favors the arming of the teachers: Tennessee General Assembly “.
Any initial feeling of emotional whiplash faded as I went through the six sections and realized that the book was largely organized around one concept – that of fair and loving treatment for all, without distinction of race, class, sex, sex or species.
In the Social Justice section, Renkl describes what happened in Nashville in July 2019 when ICE officials confronted a man and his 12-year-old son, sitting inside their van in the driveway. their house. ICE does not have the authority to enter his house or his vehicle; neighbors protected the vulnerable couple by bringing food, water and fuel to run the vehicle’s air conditioning. When – four long hours later – ICE left, the neighbors, to be sure, formed a human chain around the man and boy as they made their way home.
Here, the right angle and love is obvious. But let’s look at examples in the remaining three sections. Under the heading Environment is an essay on the effect of explosive growth in Nashville and the associated reduction in tree cover. Trees help fight global warming because they remove carbon from the air while cooling the air; they also reinforce the feeling of well-being. But the poorest areas are disproportionately short of trees. Renkl describes the Nashville Tree Foundation’s young tree donation, which focuses on “the intersection of low canopy and low income” to correct this imbalance.
Among the topics covered in the Family and Community Essay Group is the shaving of beautiful, moderate family homes in Nashville to erect “monstrous new homes” that make the city unliveable for many of its own workers. . “No matter how much you love your neighbors, something important is lost when a community becomes a place where only the rich can afford to live.”
Finally, grouped under Arts and Culture, we find one of the Graceland, finallymost powerful pieces in, devoted to music, war trauma and healing. A nonprofit called Songwriting With: Soldiers matches accomplished songwriters with people “who have returned from war physically, emotionally or spiritually wounded.” Singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier co-composed a song with veteran Marine Jennifer Marino that tells how soldiers in combat tend to swallow it up and “shut it up.” saves you in battle / Can kill you at home / A soldier, going on. “
Renkl describes in an essay how she interviewed great civil rights leader John Lewis at the Nashville Public Library, tears streaming down her face. What comes up in me after reading his essays is Lewis’ famous incitement to get in good trouble to make the world fairer and better. A lot of people in the South are doing just that – and through his beautiful handwriting, Renkl is among them.
Barbara J. King is a Distinguished Biological Anthropologist at William & Mary. His seventh book, Best Animal Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, was released in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape