I’m spending some time this month visiting family out of state, the first time I’ve seen them since Thanksgiving, 2019. Grandchildren are involved.
They live, part time, in a rural area outside New York City. It is a heavily wooded landscape with steep and twisty narrow roads over which people hurtle at thunderous speeds approaching 45 mph, tops. Thirty seems fast.
Sometimes a van or truck comes toward me on a curve, dragging a trailer that veers into my lane. Nowhere for me to go except up the sheer cliff to my right. Hair-raising is too tame a word.
This is a household of busy people. Both parents work at intense jobs involving hours of pressured Zoom calls and desk work that doesn’t stop at five p.m. Nobody reads books, anymore. I can’t see that they read anything other than material related to their jobs, except a story to the children at bedtime, perhaps.
You might imagine how strange this seems to me.
I hadn’t fully appreciated the degree to which my life is entwined with books until I arrived here. The member of the family I knew best when he was young had been a voracious reader. He read Lonesome Dove when he was ten. (Yes, I allowed it.) Since then he has read widely and deeply in literature, until the advent of children.
I wonder if that isn’t a factor for many people. Time for thought and reflection about who you are and why you are alive is replaced by family needs. And, of course, electronic screens with their myriad surprises.
The house where this family lives is surrounded by a forest of tall trees, mixed hardwoods and conifer, with a ferny understory (and no doubt legions of lovely ticks). The ticks appear to have significantly limited outdoor roaming in such places as a way for kids to learn and test themselves as individuals. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees this as a loss worth mourning.
Which brings me to the book I’m reading, Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl, who lives in Tennessee and writes about Southern matters—nature and people—for the New York Times.
In this book, she has interwoven short essays about her family with observations of the natural creatures who live around her, in her backyard, basically.
She grew up in Alabama, barefoot and free to explore her natural surroundings with her brother. Intense, compressed memories of these places and the creatures, situations and close calls she encountered, form what I think of as the leaves and branches of this book. The trunk would be memories of her great grandmother, grandmother and mother. And some of her own life’s journey.
Most of all she renders “place” as something of prime importance in a person’s life. Often, we tend to forget that. Urban dwellers in particular disregard it. They do not have roots where they live for the most part, and the longing for roots somewhere steals into them gradually as the years fly along.
Those of us who have planted ourselves in Fayette and surrounding counties will resonate deeply to the substance in Late Migrations. Those of us who have lived here always, or who began here, will find a lot of home and memory in these words.
Fellow feeling is more accessible, I think, through the written word than through any other medium of expression. And I find it is one of the best ways we have to diminish loneliness.
One warning. When you encounter the essay titled “Howl,” about an old dog, prepare to cry.