Orion Blog, page 2

Rewilding your Lawn in the Anthropocene: An Interview with Author Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer, award-winning author of Borne and the Southern Reach Trilogy, is also an avid environmentalist. As part of his desire to make outdoor spaces more habitable for birds and insects, he’s embarked on a yard rewilding project that involves letting native grasses and plants (many of them deemed “weeds” by some less-than-pleased neighbors) take over his lawn.

If you follow the author on Twitter, you may have read his amusing—and educational—anecdotes about the project. Here, we discuss the yard project in more depth, including the benefits a wild yard provides for local wildlife and what others can do to improve their own neighborhood ecosystems.

AB: What inspired you to re-wild your yard?

JV: I was the writer-in-residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York in 2016 and lived in a house with a very lively bird population. I started putting out feeders. Then Trump was elected president and my stress level went through the roof. We returned to our home in Florida and, to distract myself from the news, I put up a lot of bird feeders and tried to emulate the things that we’d loved about upstate New York.

We got several more birds than in the past, although I’d always been an avid birdwatcher. The feeders made me feel like I could help semi-urban wildlife and migrating birds in the moment, which was important at a time when I felt useless and worn down by the news.

I then began investigating how to make the yard more bird and bee and butterfly friendly. Given that our attempts at a “normal” lawn had always led to bare dirt, I figured nothing would grow. But as soon as we gave the yard over to whatever would naturally grow there, we had a great burgeoning of plant, insect, and animal life. We even have, ironically enough, a fair amount of grass in the yard now.

AB: What do you hope to achieve by doing this? Do you anticipate an environmental impact?

JV: I already know we’re creating a safe haven for migratory birds. We’re also helping to cement a corner of an unacknowledged greenway for raccoons and possums and other nocturnal animals, none of which have been a bother. They also eat insects and are beneficial in other ways. I’ve also seen more toads and frogs and in general a healthy little ecosystem quietly building up. Contrary to the generalizations people make about non-traditional yards, we’ve not seen any ticks. Either the possum eats those or they just aren’t present.

In addition, we’ve had some exciting finds, like Florida lupine growing in one part of the yard. Florida lupine is rare these days and should be encouraged.

Does all this mean much in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know. But it acknowledges that in addition to dealing with things on the macro level, you can support the environment in your own backyard by not using pesticides and, while not letting things look totally unkempt, support life rather than a mono-lawn that nothing else can thrive on.

AB: You’ve said on Twitter that your neighbors are less than thrilled. How would you sum up their response to your yard?

JV: I think it’s accurate to say that the “neighbor complaint” has become in my mind an existential threat from The Neighbor. By that I mean I feel like I need to anticipate the possible objections to what I’m doing, and thus The Neighbor is always on my mind. This is probably very unfair to the actual neighbor in question, which is why I keep everything very anonymous [on Twitter] and try to acknowledge that it’s the system and our assumptions at the neighborhood association and city government level that are flawed.

We also have lots of lovely neighbors, and even the neighbor who complained is not automatically not-lovely. But the system is crap. The fact that I can grow weeds only so long as they’re in a straight line and look like a garden—or put up a white fence around a part of the mayhem to ritualistically create a “lawn”—is hilarious and also a bit depressing to me. A traditional “lawn” is really about signs and symbols and status. What we’re really talking about is whether you admit life onto your property or decide to kill it off.

AB: What kinds of wildlife have entered your yard since starting this project?

JV: In addition to a regular polite possum and raccoon, we have many more bats out at night. We also have a wealth of birds that we didn’t have before. For example, the thrashers are out in force and very comfortable. We’ve had migrating grosbeaks, a first, and we have almost all of the Florida woodpeckers in our yard: downy, hairy, red bellied, flickers, and pileated. They used to be much rarer sightings. We also have a resurgence of snakes and tree frogs and toads of all kinds. We used to have a few skinks, pretty big ones, and now we have a lot more. And more bees. And tons of different kinds of plants—too many for me really to go into. Except, of course, the famous one, Fred the Weed, a giant wild lettuce.

Fred blew down in a storm, but is currently convalescing and plotting his return. I’m only just learning more about the plants in our yard, and some are likely invasive, but I must admit that paying attention to what’s growing in the yard has made landscapes so different for me in general. I used to think of plants as the backdrop for animals, but now I see acutely the plant life and how it’s growing. I feel like when we visit other people’s houses I can tell a lot about them just from the yard. I’m grateful to Jenn Benner, an Orlando friend, who helped me identify a lot of these plants.

AB: Have any of these lifeforms inspired new characters or settings in your writing?  

JV: This sense of plants being in the foreground will definitely seep into my fiction. The fact that I know individual cardinals and individual downy woodpeckers—that I can see them interacting with other individual birds—is also something that will influence my work. Somehow the whole world is now more alive than before, which is, to be honest, also painful, because suddenly I’m aware that even yards that seem green and healthy are actually sterile spaces.

That’s hard to take. It’s also quite frankly hard to take when I find a vole dead in the yard, a victim of some passing cat. Luckily, we don’t get cats much—I chase them away and sometimes squirt them with orange juice, which they hate. In a sense, I feel very connected to this little piece of land and I feel it in my body when something goes wrong.

AB: Do you have any tips for readers who’d like to do something similar with their yards?

JV: I’d say let the space speak to you and really observe what’s going on. Go with the flow of what seems to grow well—don’t try too hard to push back against what nature tells you needs to happen. And before uprooting a plant, make sure you know what you’re doing. Early on I wound up taking out some beneficial plants and leaving some that weren’t from pure ignorance. And be aware that herbicides aren’t really any better than pesticides in many cases.

Bring in a local specialist for a consult, even if you don’t want them to do any actual landscaping. Finally, where possible, do leave some dead leaves around, especially in places in shade, where they’ll help form good habitats for toads and worms. These are really beneficial creatures that will only add to the richness of the place.

AB: Do you have any suggestions for people living in urban and suburban areas who want to have a positive environmental impact but who can’t, for whatever reasons, let their yards grow wild?

JV: You can always do something. Even a few potted plants that your local nursery says are good for butterflies or birds can be of use. Even a small bird feeder can be of use, too. In that case, I’d learn what migratory birds pass through your area, what they tend to eat, and when they tend to appear. Keep in mind that birds might take as long as a month to find a new feeder and deem it safe. Finally, and this is controversial in some areas, keep in mind that outdoor cats do kill lots of birds. There’s no two ways about it. So keep your cat inside if at all possible. If your cat seems too energetic for that, all apologies, but you may need to increase your efforts in engaging and playing with your cat inside.

AB: What has been the most rewarding thing about this project?

JV: Rewilding the yard has largely saved me from situational depression, which means I can be more effective in my other, wider environmental efforts. Also rewarding has been the daily connection, in some form, to our environment. It is so important to our health in general to understand what it is we’re losing and what we need to save and why.


Amy Brady is the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Dallas Morning News, The Awl, Literary Hub, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

Under the Cover: An Interview with Photographer Bjorn Olesen

Magazine covers often have stories of their own. For our Spring 2018 issue, we came across a photo that stopped us in our tracks, one of a spectacled spiderhunter in Borneo. The image had originally been featured in A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife. Editor-in-Chief Chip Blake reached out to its photographer, Bjorn Olesen, for a little background on the capture.

CB: Can you tell us more about the image that appears on the cover of this issue of Orion?

BO: I was in the Penrissen Mountain Range, which sits on a plateau more than 1,000 meters above sea level between the states of Sarawak and Kalimantan in Borneo. I had spent the whole morning trying to capture photos of the Spectacled Spiderhunter. It was a delight to watch these spiderhunters slurping nectar from wild banana flowers, but photographing them was unsuccessful because of bad light.

Just before I was packing up, I heard a chi-chit call from a shady collection of fern and pine trees. I went over to investigate, and there I saw a newly fledged Spectacled Spiderhunter trying to attract the attention of its parents above by calling and flapping its wings. It was one of those moments where everything fell into place for a perfect photographic opportunity.

CB: What are some particular challenges when taking photographs in a place like Borneo?

BO: Taking photographs in the tropical rainforest is always a challenge. Light conditions are rarely good, and on top of this, visibility is often poor. As in many other Asian countries, hunting pressure is often high outside protected areas, resulting in wildlife that is difficult to approach.

CB: What first drew you to work in Borneo in the first place?

BO: One of the first travel books I remember reading was The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, an inspiring publication about Asia’s most spellbinding region. My addiction to Borneo started much later in 1998 when I moved to Southeast Asia. After having climbed Mount Kinabalu, I visited the Kinabatangan River to see the real thing.

CB: Compared to other places you’ve traveled, what’s unique about Borneo? How is it different?

BO: Borneo’s humid rainforests and climate deliver near-perfect conditions for a variety of species to thrive, many of which are endemic to the island. It is this diversity that makes Borneo special. To mention a few: Borneo Pygmy Elephant, the Bornean Orangutan, and 15 other species of primates (not counting humans). Birds are, without a doubt, the most conspicuous elements of Borneo’s fauna, with more than 600 species, 40-60 species of which are endemic.

CB: Looking through your book, I am reminded of 19th-century collecting expeditions that took place in the tropics. It seems that photography has become the new way in which things are collected.

OB: Digital cameras have taken photography to a whole new level, and it is now possible for the general public to take photos of such excellent quality under difficult conditions. In practical terms, this means that we have a much better chance to record rare animals and rare animal behavior, and this can be done without damaging the environment.


About the Photographer: Bjorn Olesen is a retired corporate executive, award-winning wildlife photographer, author, and engaged conservationist. A Singapore resident, he lived for 16 years in Malaysia and Indonesia. His images and articles have appeared in various overseas and local publications, and all of his photos are available free of charge to non-profit NGOs.

About the Book: From the publisher: “Illustrated with more than 350 images, taken by Bjorn Olesen and other wildlife photographers, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is a photographic tribute to the most spectacular wildlife species on the second-largest tropical island on Earth. Based on the latest research, it is filled with captivating little-known facts about the wildlife that modern-day travelers may come across when visiting this enchanting island. It also describes the top 16 wildlife locations in Borneo, with a comprehensive list of recommended reading, websites and blogs provided.”

All royalties from the sale of A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife will be donated to Fauna and Flora International for their nature conservation work in Southeast Asia.

Five Questions for the Author: Brooke Williams, Open Midnight

Brooke Williams’s book Open Midnight (Trinity University Press) is an important meditation on ancestry and the spaces where inner and outer wilderness meet. Williams’s career in conservation spans over thirty years, and Open Midnight is a dedication to better understanding his place in the world through such advocacy, and through the lens of another: the ghost of a great-great grandfather.

I caught up with Williams to ask some questions about Open Midnight, about writing a narrative that braids memoir and fiction, and about some of the book’s prevailing themes.

NT: Open Midnight is a nonfiction book and yet you portray one of its main characters, your great-great grandfather William Williams, as a ghost who joins you along the way. Some of his experiences—meeting Charles Darwin, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean—were some of the book’s most compelling sections. Tell us about the process of rendering him in this book.

BW: I discovered William Williams while looking for my “homeland”—where my ancestors had come from. It turns out he and Charles Darwin were born within a five-minute walk of each other, and a year apart. I found no evidence that they ever met. However, since Darwin has always been a hero of mine, I wanted them to have been friends, so I began drawing two timelines on paper. One line marked the dates of Williams’s life events that I’d researched. The other line marked corresponding dates for Darwin. At the left and right ends of both lines, for example, I marked their births and deaths respectively. I noted when William left for America, when Darwin left on the Beagle, etc. Whenever these two men were in the same place at the same time, I wrote a story about them meeting. As I say in the preface, I don’t know that these meetings actually took place, but I don’t know that they didn’t.

NT: Along a similar thread, Open Midnight explores various thresholds of reality: fiction and nonfiction, inner and outer life, conscious and unconscious, dreaming and waking. What’s the main takeaway here between edge zones, liminality, and wilderness?

BW: My belief is that beneath our civilized lives there exists a wild core, and this applies to each of us as individuals, but also to the landscapes themselves. Immersing oneself in wild places is a way to tap into that wild part, and this, to me, is important because contained in that part of ourselves is an entire evolutionary history, including everything we’ve ever needed to save ourselves.

NT: Evolutionary history references a primary thread I found in Open Midnight, where you follow Charles Darwin, evolution, and human progress. Are modern humans, based on how we’re currently treating the planet, an evolved iteration of our species, or is the reverse the true?

BW: At its simplest, evolution is adaptation to changing conditions. Modern humans—especially white, male, and modern—act as if we are now responsible to guide our troubled species into the future. This is dangerous on many levels. The assumption that we have the capacity to understand, let alone replace, a biological phenomenon that’s been at work for over three billion years is the height of absurdity, arrogance, and danger, and it’s leading us quickly into extinction.

NT: Much of this book is you traveling through wild spaces alone. Actually, it’s often you, your dog, and a ghost. Tell me more about why solitary witnessing of wild places is so important.

BW: That wild core, say that it does exist. And say that it might have the evolutionary answers we need. But say those answers are antithetical to the corporate, for-profit forces now loose upon the world, a paradigm that is doing everything it can to keep us from knowing that wild core. Solitude, then, is a powerful and effective way to quiet the distracting noise that constantly tries to sell us things, to sell us a fake self. Solitude helps us listen better, to listen for how the planet can best make use of us.

NT: It appears you’ve come to the conclusion that wild spaces might actually save us in the end. Why is wilderness necessary? 

BW: Wilderness saves us because of the access it provides to our evolutionary selves living in our core. It is something worth being exposed to, immersed in, and surrounded by. It’s the life force, intact, at work in wilderness, all around all the time, whether or not we’re aware of it. I try to be aware of it, and this awareness must have evolutionary implications.

Brooke Williams has spent the last thirty years advocating for wilderness. He is the author of four books, including Open Midnight, Halflives: Reconciling Work and Wildness, and The Story of My Heart, by Richard Jeffries, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams. His journalistic pieces have appeared in Outside, Huffington Post, Orion, and Saltfront. He and his wife, Terry Tempest Williams, divide their time between Utah and Wyoming.

The Carolina Parakeets of Instagram

Drew Lanham’s article, “Forever Gone,” found in the Spring 2018 issue of Orion, is illustrated with images of Carolina parakeets that Orion’s editors found on Instagram. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at those twelve images, in the words of the artists themselves.


Jenny Pope (Ithaca, New York)

I am a woodcut artist and I often portray extinct or invasive species (the two extremes). To make art about animals that once lived alongside us is a way to pay homage to our past and a warning for the future. This piece is titled “Carolina Parakeet 1918,” because the last bird died in the Cincinnati Zoo that year. Jenny’s Instagram


Emily Dahl (Bowie, Maryland)

My drawing was part of an art book project I did focused around extinct parrots. Whenever I create art to indulge myself, my interest tends towards a celebration of birds combined with a hint of the educational. As a lifelong bird lover with an interest in history, I’ve always felt an affinity for the Carolina Parakeet, always been captivated by the tragedy of its extinction. Over the years, selling prints of my work, I’ve met a number of others who share this with me. We want to keep the memory of this bird alive even though none of us were alive in its time—as a reminder of what we’ve lost, and of what more we could lose. Emily’s Instagram


Jada Fitch (Addison, Maine)

I’m a Maine native naturalist and avid birdwatcher. In 2014, I painted a series of portraits of all the recently extinct bird species in North America for an exhibit at Maine Audubon. This painting is the watercolor sketch I did for the Carolina parakeet portrait. Jada’s Instagram



Erin Partridge (Lafayette, California)

As someone who shares her life and home with two parrots (an African gray and a yellow-sided conure), I am constantly amazed by the things they do and the way they interact with my family and clients. Though I love reading about and seeing the naturalized flocks in California and Brooklyn, I am heartbroken to know that we used to have a native parrot in this country, and that humans are responsible for its extinction. I think the Carolina parakeet has a message for us—both for the necessity to protect other species as well as a message for us to look at our priorities. Who else might we be forcing out to protect our short-sighted goals? How can we make space for each other to thrive and flourish? As an art therapist, I often use drawing, painting, or other art responses to process the world around me. This image is a message to remind people that we had a parrot here, we did not protect it, and we no longer get to see it in our world today. Erin’s Instagram


Cy Gavin (New York, New York)

I was imagining the context of Nat Turner’s life in Virginia and thinking about the credibility of his “confession,” which was allegedly given to an attorney by the name of Thomas Ruffin Gray. After falling into gambling debt, Gray went on to publish The Confessions of Nat Turner (Gray was not Nat Turner’s attorney) and there is much reasonable speculation that the book is largely a fabrication. When I made this painting, I had just read that book and was thinking about the business of making myths and the power those myths end up wielding in our lives. What is gained or lost in the process of making a human emblematic? Turner spent his entire life in Southampton County, Virginia, which was a plantation region (with corn crops that likely would have been harried by the Carolina parakeet). Opposing popular views of Nat Turner as either a delusional zealot or as a barbarous agent of resistance, I fabricated a more ambiguous and quotidian scene, so he’s there in a private moment with a Carolina parakeet he may well have kept as a pet. Cy’s Instagram

Cy Gavin’s work is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in “Between The Waters” and at MASSMoCA in its exhibition, “Lure of The Dark.”


Susan Humphrey (Baltimore, Maryland)

Every piece of Rockcrest Glass Studio stained glass is an original; inspired by wildlife and natural phenomena, then designed and handmade by me. I work in the copper foil method pioneered by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the late 19th century, with each piece of glass being carefully selected for its specific color and textural qualities. The glass is hand cut and then ground to shape and remove sharp edges; then copper foil is wrapped and burnished by hand around each piece. All pieces are assembled and soldered together to create the final panel or sun catcher.

My work can be found, commissioned, and purchased on the Rockcrest Glass Studio website. Susan’s Instagram

The Deadly Sins of the Carolina Parakeet is a two-panel stained glass piece specifically created for and exhibited at the Peale Center’s (Baltimore, MD) “Birdland and the Anthropocene” gallery show, curated and presented by Lynne Parks in October 2017. Both panels are available for purchase.


Maude White (Hudson, New York)

I am a paper-cutting artist living in New York’s Hudson Valley. I cut the Carolina parakeet for my book Brave Birds (Abrams, 2018). The parakeet was one of three extinct birds that I included in the book, alongside the ivory-billed woodpecker and the laughing owl. While cutting the Carolina parakeet, I read that one of the reasons for the bird’s extinction was the use of the colorful feathers in decoration and clothing. This made me think about our urge to possess things that are beautiful, and how difficult it can be for us to understand that beauty sometimes can’t be possessed. It’s such a hard lesson to learn—and we have to relearn it again and again. Maude’s Instagram


Iker Paz (Bilbao, Spain)

Chickasaw kid running alongside a flock of Carolina parakeets” is a depiction of a long-gone world. The extinct birds shown in this painting, which is currently in progress, are used as a metaphor for a Golden Age that once was, a time when life was simpler and mankind lived in balance with nature. Iker’s Instagram

Joven Chickasaw corriendo junto a bandada de cotorras de Carolina“, actualmente en proceso, busca representar un mundo perdido en el tiempo. La hoy extinta cotorra de Carolina, la única especie de loro autóctono de América de Norte al este del Misisipi, es utilizada a modo de metáfora de una Edad de Oro ya desaparecida, un tiempo en el que la vida era más sencilla y el Ser Humano aún vivía en equilibrio con la Naturaleza.

Note: Iker’s image found in the print edition of Orion is a detail of a larger painting that was in progress at time he posted it on Instagram; the full-size (and nearly complete) painting is shown here. 


Sara Golish (Windsor, Ontario)

My painting representing the Carolina parakeet is part of a body of work entitled “Birds of Paradise.” The work questions the symbolism of conventional oil portraiture through a lens of eco-feminism by depicting traditionally oppressed figures of women with dignity and grace. Each painting features a bird as a symbolic element, representing the individual uniqueness of how women experience oppression in varying configurations and degrees of intensity while sharing a common struggle. Using the Carolina parakeet in this work was a means to bring them back to life, in a place where miraculously they returned from extinction to survive and thrive once again. Sarah’s Instagram


Dan Bythewood (Brooklyn, New York)

John James Audubon’s famous painting of Carolina parakeets has been a labor of love for me, as Audubon is one of my favorite naturalist illustrators. Although clearly modified to be tattooed as a sleeve with some changes to the branches and leaves, I have tried to keep the vibrant colors as close to the painting as possible.

My good friend Kate Hockstein is the wearer of this tattoo. As a native of Virginia, she decided on the parakeets as a dedication to her home state, and to the fleeting beauty of nature that we often overlook until it is gone. I cannot imagine a more perfect tribute, and I have worked my best to honor it as a tattoo artist. Dan’s Instagram


Katrine Claassens (Cape Town, South Africa)

On a polished glass shelf in the Redpath Museum in Montreal: a small green bird. I noticed the Carolina parakeet at first because it seemed so visually similar to an image I had painted from a rescue-bird twitter account. The label tells us: “DISPARU/EXTINCT,” that the animal was donated before the species’ extinction in 1914, and that this specimen is over one hundred years old. For Remembrance of Lost Species Day we opened its cabinet. And I held the small stuffed body in my hand. It was heavy as the world, the lines of fading feathers tracing a map of partings without end. The painting, I suppose, is a rickety memorial lost in the thicket and din of the sixth extinction. But it provided me a moment to take breath as we step deeper into the Anthropocene. Katrine’s Instagram


J. Drew Lanham (Clemson, South Carolina)

There’s a certain presence that goes along with the parrot-kind. In their eyes and being there’s a knowing we can’t ever fully know. Even in stretched-out, taxidermied death, this Carolina parakeet on display at the Georgia Museum of Natural History a few years ago seemed poised to reanimate itself and give me a lecture on forever gone. And I was enraptured—fully prepared to listen. Drew’s Instagram


The 2018 Orion Environmental Writers’ Workshop

“When we are able to integrate into our writing a concern for place, for the natural environment and our relationship to it, our work becomes more urgent. The Orion Writing Workshop teaches us to do this, and surrounds us with other writers invested in sharing and amplifying our passions.” Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River

Interested in improving your writing craft while working alongside other creative people in a wild and peaceful setting? Introducing Orion’s 2018 Environmental Writers’ Workshop, a weeklong event taking place at the Omega Institute, located in New York’s Hudson Valley.

This intensive week of craft and conversation “gives writers the unique opportunity to connect with Orion writers and editors in order to understand more deeply Orion‘s approach to the relationship between literature and the natural world.”

This year’s faculty: Megan Mayhew Bergman, Major Jackson, Amy Irvine, Anne Haven McDonnell, Lisa Couturier, and Christopher Merrill.

Additional details:

WHO: The Orion Writers’ Workshop is designed for the following participants:

  • Writers seeking to become better advocates for the environment through their writing,
  • Poets drawn to writing about nature and culture,
  • Teachers and scholars who wish to write for a more broad audience, and
  • Environmental professionals who want to bring better writing skills to bear on their work.

WHEN: June 10 – June 15, 2018

WHERE: The Omega Institute, Rhinebeck, New York (Two hours north of New York City) 


  • Format: Small writing workshops for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
  • Readings: There will be daily faculty readings and lectures on publishing.
  • One-on-One: Participants meet regularly with his or her workshop leader.
  • Special Guests: Literary agents, publishers, writers, and editors.


  • Apply here for the 2018 Orion Environmental Writer’s Workshop.
  • Writing samples: prose submissions, 1500 words. Poetry submissions, up to 6 pages.
  • Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, until workshops are filled. Apply early to ensure the best housing options.
  • You will be notified within 2 weeks after you apply.

“As a young writer immersed in environmental and social justice movements, the Orion Writers’ Workshop was a rare opportunity for me to slow down, to reflect, to be with craft and to contemplate purpose, all alongside other writers envisioning a more just and sustainable world. The workshop clarified the intersection in which I now work, as a storyteller of movements, and it gave me the chance to connect directly with those who have walked this path before me.”
Morgan Curtis, activist and storyteller