Margaret Renkl: I don’t want to spend the rest of my days grieving

I remind myself focus as much on the exquisite beauties of this earth as on its staggering loses.

A poster showing country music legend Johnny Cash wearing a mask is attached to a storefront Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. The wearing of face coverings is required in most public indoor and outdoor situations in Nashville due to an increase of COVID-19 cases. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Nashville • Sometimes I remember how I tried to comfort my children when they encountered a setback or were disappointed that a dream they were nurturing had not yet come true.

“Life’s a long process,” I would say, echoing my own father’s reassurances. “There’s still time.”

But that was long ago, when I was still young enough myself to believe those words of comfort. Now my father is gone, and my mother too, and I know that life is not at all a long process. Life is the glint of light on rushing water, a flash of lightning. Life is a single wink from a single lightning bug.

How brief is the season of “splendour in the grass,” as the poet William Wordsworth put it, and surely summer is the time that brings such lessons closest home. The dog days of August crisp the spring-green underbrush to crackling tinder. The children trudge back to school under a blistering sun. We wonder: What has become of the languorous summer we longed for back in the sadness of winter? Where did the endless, grass-fragrant days go?

In one important sense, summer has gone nowhere: During a single week at the end of July, the National Weather Service issued five heat advisories for Nashville, with heat indexes over 100 degrees in this fertile place traditionally known as the Garden of Tennessee. There’s a difference between weather and climate, of course, but increasingly the connection between them — and between them and us — becomes clearer. Human behavior has plunged the earth into an everlasting summer.

This isn’t the lovely kind of summer that has us lingering on the porch and watching the lightning bugs, if only because insects are among the most deeply imperiled lives in the Anthropocene. And these days a person sitting on his porch in Kentucky can smell the smoke from wildfires in Oregon.

I do what I can to lower my carbon footprint, to encourage biodiversity in my own small yard. I vote for environmentally aware political candidates. I give all the money I can spare to nonprofits fighting for the earth on a far larger scale.

But I also remind myself sternly to attend to what is not dying, to focus as much on the exquisite beauties of this earth as on its staggering losses. Life is not at all a long process, and it would be wrong to spend my own remaining days in ceaseless grief.

The heat may be monstrous, the air may be filled with smoke from distant wildfires and suburban Americans may be drenching their yards with poison, but in this wildlife-friendly little patch of Nashville, nature carries on in its lovely, halting way. Katydids sing in the trees at night and crickets sing in the grass. Bats wheel in the darkening sky above the roosting box we installed in our prettiest sugar maple tree.

Most of the perennials in the butterfly garden have faded now, but the passionflower vines are bearing green fruit, and I have not given up hope that the gulf fritillary butterflies will be arriving any day to lay their eggs on their leaves. The Joe Pye weed is in full, glorious bloom; bumblebees embrace it with the urgency of love. All day long, goldfinches pick seeds from the black-eyed Susans, flitting from blossom to blossom, yellow on yellow, gold on gold. Watching from a distance, it looks as though the flowers have lifted into flight.

Last week, four tiny bald bluebirds hatched in the nest box I had set out for them. These are not the same birds who nested there earlier this summer, and I worried when I saw a new pair moving in. These parents are young, and experience matters when there’s a territorial house wren darting through the brush piles. But the bluebird eggs survived both the wren with egg-murder on his mind and this year’s stifling heat. The gaping nestlings lifted their heads in concert when I opened the box to check on them.

A new-fledged red-tail hawk has taken shelter in my neighbor’s hemlock tree. It calls out, forlorn, as the mockingbirds and crows harass it endlessly, diving into the hemlock again and again, until the baby hawk lifts clumsily into the sky to circle a bit before settling in the tree again. Whenever its regal mother appears, the crows and the mockingbirds are the ones taking wing.

What are the antonyms for speed? What is the opposite of hurry? There’s ambling, perhaps, or apathy. There is quiet. Waiting. Calmness. It’s not true that the living is easy — for no creature on earth is the living easy, not even in summertime — but these days it slows. The songbirds rest in the hot trees, their wings held out to let the still air cool them. The resident rat snake curls slowly through the shady ground cover, too hot to bask in the sun. The black crow, panting, keeps to the shade.

And then it comes to me. Here is the word I want: rest. I think of Mary Oliver’s lovely poem “The Summer Day”:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.I do know how to pay attention, how to fall downinto the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,how to be idle and blessed. …

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” she asks. Yes, I say. Too, too soon.

The air is so thick I can hardly breathe, but I can feel the breath of the earth on my ankles. Heat rises from the sun-warmed soil. Dampness pours out of the dew-drenched tangle of white clover and wood sorrel and mock strawberries that pass in this yard for a lawn. The earth is breathing. I can breathe, too, because it is still breathing.

(Courtesy of Heidi Ross) Margaret Renkl

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”