Book Review: Our backyards are the world, essayist Margaret Renkl reminds us

America — a raw wilderness just 200 years ago — has a strong history of literary nature writing. Thoreau, and others who could not have anticipated the dramatic habitat ruination our Anthropocene era would deliver, birthed that tradition.

In the 1900s, writers such as Rachel Carlson, Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver took up the mantle. Current lights include Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ross Gay, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Richard Powers and Ed Yong.

Of them all, Margaret Renkl may be the most popular. Her third book, “The Comfort of Crows,” is a series of 52 essays, some just a paragraph long, chronicling a year of observations in and around her messy backyard in Nashville.

You may know Renkl as a columnist for the New York Times. If you’re strong enough to read through the Times’ outraged, exhausting opinion pieces every week, you may have come to think of Renkl as an island of respite in a time when “hope is harder to come by,” as she writes.

If you don’t read the New York Times, all the better — read on.

For the best of Renkl, forgo her columns in favor of her three books. “The Comfort of Crows” is her best yet. Quietly, poetically, she writes of the natural cycle of a year in her backyard, as well as of her own passage into the final third of her life (she’s in her 60s) and of such modern-day quandaries as the exhaustion that comes with trying to reply to scores of heartfelt emails that land in her inbox every day.

She writes of her love for her modest house and yard and for her husband and three grown sons, of worry about her increasing fatigue and fading vision, and most of all, of her fascination with the bugs, butterflies, birds and beasts that inhabit her yard and neighborhood. She sees that fauna fading as modest homes and old trees give way to huge houses with golf-course-smooth lawns.

Turning only rarely to those numbing words “climate change,” Renkl describes its effects on her backyard — and on yours. Somehow, she manages to wax gently positive, as when she writes: “Even if the terrible time comes when all the songbirds are gone, lost to the fiery world, crows will remain among us, living on what we leave behind.”

One of Renkl’s charms is her ability to deliver evocative imagery in but a few words. In the essay “Praise Song for a Clothesline in Drought,” which consists of a mere five sentences, she describes the wonder she feels in seeing tiny insects quench their life-threatening thirst on a damp sheet.

It would be incomplete to write of this book without praising the collage illustrations that grace every essay. All are by Margaret’s brother, Billy.

Many a plant or creature inspires Renkl’s appreciation, and as a result, our own. It is possible that after reading this deceptively simple, charming book, you will plant a chair in your backyard and discover things you’ve never seen before.

And what could be more buoying than that?