In August 2018, novelist Jeff VanderMeer gazed out at his new yard. He and his wife, Ann, had just bought a bright, airy home nestled in the forest canopy at the edge of a small ravine in Tallahassee, Florida. It perched like an observatory on a half acre of land that dissolved into lush, primordial jungle.
They had visited the house hours after it hit the market in mid-June and made an offer that day. Ann, an editor and anthologist, was captivated by the built-in bookshelves. For VanderMeer, the thrill wasn’t so much the house as the seeming pristine wilderness out back, a riot of foliage so otherworldly that one of the neighbors called the area “ShadowVale.” The tangle was thick enough that, in the coming days, he would get lost exploring a dry creek bed at the bottom of the property.
While much of VanderMeer’s literary output defies genre— elements of sci-fi and fantasy interlace with noir, horror, thriller, and the supernatural—it taps a common source: the infinite wonder and strangeness of nature. One fan proposed on Twitter that the author’s yard was, itself, a fiction—an “elaborate set you’ve designed because you’ve gone ‘method’ on your next novel.” That didn’t seem too far off the mark. VanderMeer could have been living out any number of scenes from his own writing; in Annihilation, his best-known novel, he described a character enraptured by “vegetation so dense, so richly green, that every spiral of fern seemed designed to make [her] feel at peace with the world.”
But his peace was fleeting. The yard, a landscaper explained, was overrun by invasive species. A rogue’s gallery of plants that long ago escaped cultivation had silently taken over. Once VanderMeer knew the truth, he couldn’t unsee it. Those elegant emerald fronds? They were tuberous sword ferns, whose voracious spread one Florida horticulturalist likened to “Invasion of the Landscape Snatchers.” That handsome evergreen shrub? ’Twas nandina, whose scarlet, cyanide-laced berries are attractive—and potentially fatal—to birds. And what about those heart-shaped leaves, borne aloft by twining vines? They belonged to the dreaded air potato, also known as the cheeky yam. An aggressive climber, it beleaguers forest canopies and starves understory plants of sunlight. The vines also grow aerial tubers that fall and sprout armies of clones.
This was no thriving ecosystem. It was occupied territory, hostile to native flora and fauna. The knowledge gnawed at VanderMeer. “He was horrified,” Ann recalls. “But not deterred.” After 20 years of marriage, the couple has a shared language around his obsessions. When he doubles, or even triples, the scope of a project until it’s large enough to blot out all else? That’s “vandering.”
He began to vander the yard. VanderMeer had never tried to restore an actual, living ecosystem before. But he’d spent decades building worlds out of words, and this was only a half acre, after all. How hard could it be?
anderMeer was about to get a crash course in rewilding, a conservation technique that restores self-sustaining, natural ecosystems after they’ve been disrupted by humans. The word was coined in 1992 by Dave Foreman, cofounder of the radical environmental group Earth First! Since then rewilding has gone mainstream; the United Nations recently embraced it as one of several strategies for meeting a 10-year global goal to restore 2.5 billion acres, an area roughly the size of China, in an effort to slow climate change and species extinctions.
The best-known rewilding projects are massive in scale: multiyear, multimillion-dollar initiatives led by government agencies and private conservation groups. Some reconnect fragmented habitats, making it easier for wildlife to migrate and adapt to ecological changes. Gondwana Link, a 600-mile bushland corridor across southern Western Australia, is one such example. Others reintroduce carnivores to places where they were extirpated, bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park and jaguars to the Iberá Wetlands of Argentina.
Inspiring as those projects may be, they’re dizzyingly out of reach for civilians. Most of us aren’t able—or eager—to release a pack of apex predators near our homes. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit around, watching slack-jawed as temperatures rise and bird and insect populations plummet around the globe.
Ordinary people do have a role to play in our collective survival. “We need to have functional ecosystems everywhere—not just in parks and preserves,” says Doug Tallamy, an entomologist and leading authority on rebuilding local food webs with native plants. “We’ve got to coexist with nature where we live.”
That means rethinking traditional landscaping. America’s estimated 40 million acres of lawn—what Tallamy calls “an ecological deadscape”—is enough to blanket the whole of New England. To push back on the trend, he runs an online campaign, Homegrown National Park. It encourages landowners to embrace native plants that nourish insects, especially caterpillars, which play a critical (and underappreciated) role in the food web. “If you want breeding birds around, you’ve gotta make that caterpillar food,” Tallamy says. Chickadees, he says, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to fledge a single clutch of offspring.
There are limits, of course, to what at-home ecological restoration can do in the face of wholesale habitat destruction. In just two decades about a quarter of the tree canopy has been lost in VanderMeer’s home state of Florida, which also has more invasive species than any other state, except for Hawaii. “The ecocide happening here is comparable for our size to the destruction of the Amazon,” VanderMeer wrote in an article for Current Affairs magazine.
Contemplating the mind-boggling pace of destruction— paired with comparable losses around the globe—it’s easy to shut down. Learning to care less is “the fatal adaptation,” suggests Silvina, an eco-crusader in VanderMeer’s latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander. VanderMeer, however, refuses to normalize the nightmare. While he has little patience for false optimism, he also doesn’t believe in giving up.
ack in Shadowvale, VanderMeer had become ensorcelled by his yard. He disappeared into the property for hours at a time to battle invasive plants, eschewing pesticides and herbicides the previous owners had used in vain, brandishing a Weedwacker instead. He yanked out more than 4,000 air potato vines by hand, a process that felt like running on a botanical treadmill because the species is terrifyingly fecund. A single vine can grow up to eight inches in a day. Sometimes VanderMeer would uproot one only to find a clone growing in its place the next morning. On Twitter he wrote a deranged lament:
Oh, air potato, thou hast been a naughty plant & caused much grief. & yet I dig you up & dig you up & so you think yourself Infinite, but you are not. “Give up, Jeff,” you writhe at me, but I stuff both ears with air potatoes and hear thee not. And use thy artifice against thee.
— Jeff VanderMeer (@jeffvandermeer) May 4, 2019
When the tubers sapped his morale, he bolstered himself with research. He devoured Climate-Wise Landscaping, a guide to sustainable gardening. He inhaled Wilding, the story of a British couple who, facing bankruptcy, gave over their 3,500-acre farm to nature. He drew inspiration from a local tour of wildlife-friendly yards organized by Apalachee Audubon Society. And he paid a call to Tallahassee’s grande dame of gardening.
Eleanor Dietrich is beloved for helping grow the Florida Department of Transportation’s network of Wildflower Areas along its 12,000 miles of roads. Left unmowed—in some cases for decades—these tracts have become prime habitat for plants and pollinators. But VanderMeer wanted to see what Dietrich had grown in her own backyard.
She’d been rewilding her property since she heard Tallamy speak at the Florida Native Plant Society in 2009. By the time VanderMeer arrived, the centuries-old live oaks framing her driveway felt like a portal to another world: a fairyland ramble of maidenhair ferns, woodland phlox, azaleas, and jack-in-the-pulpit that Dietrich called Hornbeam Hollow. (“After a while, you know, it takes care of itself,” she told me. “Plant it and let it go!”)
They wandered the grounds. Over VanderMeer’s protests, she kept uprooting specimens he admired to send home with him. When he left hours later, he was brimming with ideas and loaded up with plants, including an endangered fringed campion.
Meanwhile the air potato’s stranglehold on his yard had weakened. Long-suppressed native plants such as southern dewberry and blue mistflowers thrived in its place. He added a line of defense—fast-growing flora to stifle future interlopers— with landscape experts at Native Nurseries, a garden center dedicated to sustainable habitat. They also helped him create a butterfly garden. Now, when the air potato tried for a comeback, a leaf-eating beetle slowed its progress. The insect had been introduced years earlier for that very purpose. He just had to get the invasion under control before it could make a difference.
VanderMeer hoped that, one day, native plants and the insects they supported could sustain birds visiting his backyard. In the meantime, he laid out an avian buffet. This included at least three types of seed feeders (hopper, tube, thistle sock), along with suet cakes in squirrel-proof cages and abundant globs of bark butter. The spread attracted dozens of species. There were Pine Siskins and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Yellow-rumped Warblers, which he called “adorblers.” He learned to recognize their calls. VanderMeer noticed that the Blue Jays uttered a certain warning cry if a cat ambled into the ravine. Whenever he heard it, he ran outside to shoo the cat away. He liked to think they were fighting this predator together. “It’s the least I can do for the community,” VanderMeer deadpanned.
Even without help from his imagination, ShadowVale could be bracingly strange. One morning a raccoon rang his doorbell at 5 a.m. (The glowing buzzer was unusually low to the ground and paw prints revealed the culprit.) Another time the mailman pleaded with him not to eradicate a patch of invasive grass, calling it “Larry” and arguing “he’s been here 10 years longer than you.” (In the spirit of compromise, VanderMeer gave Larry a haircut instead.) On the east side of the house, he sometimes heard a shriek when he plunged his shovel into the dirt. (The former site of a dog run, it was mined with squeaky toys.)
Apart from such oddities, VanderMeer also had neighbors to contend with. Some doused their lawns with pesticides that could leach into the ravine. Others had solar lamps that ran from dusk till dawn, emitting a constant, low-level light pollution that might disorient nocturnal creatures. He worried about the neighbors’ attitudes toward local wildlife; one insisted, somewhat defensively, that an armadillo had “bared its fangs” at his dog. (Around that time, VanderMeer adds, one of two armadillos frequenting the ravine appeared to go missing.)
VanderMeer wanted to see nature flourish on his half-acre without sparking conflict. The last house he’d lived in, five miles west of ShadowVale, was on a tiny plot. After sod refused to take, VanderMeer instead filled it with native wildflowers, whose unkempt appearance stoked the ire of neighbors. At one point he encircled it with a doll-size, white picket fence. (“A sarcastic fence,” he clarified.) He also made a performance of pretending to Weedwack the overgrown tract’s edges as a particular neighbor arrived home from work. This time, he vowed, there would be no charades. Things were going to be different.
ne late afternoon in early April 2022, VanderMeer picked me up at Tallahassee International Airport. We drove 20 minutes to north Midtown, passing featureless brick houses with manicured lawns. The VanderMeer residence was something else entirely. We entered the property via an elevated walkway lined with plants. This felt like visiting some sort of subtropical research station, a structure made to interact with the environment rather than suppress it. (He did, however, lament that squirrels were chewing up the house’s cedar planks. A deer skull he put out for them to gnaw on seemed to help a little.) The house seemed to have more glass than walls: Massive panes looked out on a rear deck and two rows of clerestory windows lit the vaulted ceiling. Each pane was dotted with a cryptic array of shapes. They turned out to be bird strike decals.
VanderMeer had purchased dozens of them at the local Wild Birds Unlimited early in the pandemic. He’d stuck them up randomly, in a cathartic, strike-proofing frenzy. “Unfortunately they did not have enough of any one kind,” he said ruefully. Now he thought they made the place look like a cult. “A really stupid cult.”
Ann handed me a guest key on a motel-style yellow fob that read “Hep Alien Rehearsal Space.” I was warned to keep an eye out for Neo, their massive, placid, and strictly indoor cat, who lay regally on the couch, next to a pillow and blanket printed with pictures of his face. I dropped off my luggage in a detached guest studio, then rejoined VanderMeer outside.
I’d seen photos of this yard during the reign of air potatoes. Now it was transformed. He introduced me to the plants. They included endangered Chapman’s rhododendron and Florida torreya trees. He’d also planted Florida yew, rue anemone, and Ashe magnolia. A limestone garden covered part of the old dog run. There was a birdbath. On the trail cams, he’d seen baby raccoons playing there. “Sometimes owls will come sit in the sweet gum trees,” he said. “We’ll come out here and they’ll be completely perplexed to see a human.”
VanderMeer had started to connect with other people who lived on his street. One let him rescue a flowering native plant called tall elephantsfoot, which was about to meet the lawnmower. Several made standing invitations: He could eradicate their air potatoes anytime.
VanderMeer wanted to show me the lush ravine habitat that’s been a model for rewilding his yard. We drove about 50 miles to a Nature Conservancy preserve and set out along a four-mile trail called the Garden of Eden, which led to a high bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River. The view from the top was stunning, but what VanderMeer called my attention to was the nature all along the way. Even for someone who spent part of his childhood in the Fiji Islands—his parents were in the Peace Corps there— the Apalachicola River Basin seems fabulously unspoiled, a site designated as part of UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. Other parts of the Panhandle have influenced him, too. The eerie landscapes in his bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy are drawn from trekking in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 40-plus miles of Florida’s northern Gulf Coast.
On the way home we had a pleasant picnic lunch at Lake Talquin State Forest. But on the walk back to the car, we encountered something VanderMeer hadn’t noticed before. Among the trees was a post with a metal faceplate and what looked like an elevator button. I pushed it. The post blasted us with a garble of insistent, unintelligible narration, as if a McDonald’s drive-through clerk were shouting into a blown speaker underwater. Soon the voice came into focus. It sounded like Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls. “Remember me, the southern magnolia!” it said. “I am truly a southern tree.”
“Oh God,” VanderMeer replied, wincing.
The post prattled away: “I am too delicate to tolerate the cold winters of the North.”
VanderMeer backed away. “I don’t like this,” he stammered.
As the voice drawled on, I found myself at a loss for words. Before me stood the man The New Yorker called “the weird Thoreau.” A writer whose hallucinogenic tales included subterranean mushroom-people and a murderous flying bear. Yet here he was, totally weirded out by a talking tree.
The recording was part of something called an “educational forest.” This was amusing because VanderMeer had been planning an educational garden for his front yard. He hoped visitors would stroll the pathways while learning all about native plants. He also hoped the garden would be palatable to his neighbors, offering a tidied-up version of the plantapalooza (plantarchy?) out back. He assured me: There would be no talking trees.
uring four years of rewilding, VanderMeer estimated he worked thousands of hours and spent around $35,000. Some projects doubled as stormwater and erosion control. Others were therapy in turbulent times. One particularly tough week he bought wildflowers to shore up the creek bed. “Did I have to have them for a successful rewilding?” he mused. “No. It’s simply stress relief.”
He wanted to emphasize: Rewilding can happen in smaller spaces, on the slenderest of budgets. (He recently wrote a guide to rewilding city balconies for Esquire.) A first step could be letting nature take over part of a lawn by dispensing with rakes, mowers, and fertilizers, which is better than free. It saves money. Even set against the big picture of ecological destruction, he believes that small efforts add up. They make a difference to wildlife living among us now. And they may help preserve biodiversity, shepherding some species through global warming that otherwise wouldn’t make it—assuming we reach the other side.
VanderMeer wants to restore water to the ravine. Before the flow was cut off around 40 years ago, a creek ran along the bottom; one of his friends remembers seeing crayfish there as a child. So he’s staked out space in his backyard for a small pond, planning to equip it with a pump to create a tiny waterfall. Moving water, he hopes, will bring back frogs and maybe other creatures, too; a friend working on a similar ravine project was surprised when, after three years, salamanders returned.
All the outdoor vandering has leached into his writing. He’s planning a guide to backyard rewilding. And one novel in progress is set beside a ravine. But when VanderMeer talks about having a legacy, he speaks not of books but of his backyard, trying to envision it in a world after him. “I’ve planted a lot of trees that, when mature, will be 100 feet tall,” he said. “They’ll be impervious if I kick the bucket and the air potato comes back.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 issue as “Nature Is Stranger Than Fiction.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.