Orion Blog, page 4

Five Questions for the Author: Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

I first met Elizabeth Rush when we were roommates for a Metcalf fellowship that got us to a Climate Adaptation Workshop in Missouri in 2015. We quickly realized how much our histories and interests overlapped, from once living amid the big trees of Oregon right down to tromping down the same flood-ravaged streets of Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy with reporter’s notebooks in hand. It’s with great interest that I’ve followed her progress in turning the Staten Island story, and so many others across the country, into her new book RISING: Dispatches from the New American Shore. In it, she gives voice to the people in communities most vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise as they wrestle with how to respond. 

On a hike this spring through a New England forest, we picked up our ongoing conversation about journalism, storytelling, and what it means for people to remake their lives when the shores they inhabit are transforming around them.

MS: How did the book Rising come about? What were you thinking about professionally and personally, and how did that answer the question of why you should write this book now?

ER: Back in early 2012, Le Monde Diplomatique sent me to India and Bangladesh to report on the completion of the world’s longest border fence. As it turned out the fence was more of a technicality. Sea level rise and water sharing were much more pressing concerns. While my article mentioned this briefly, the work itself continued to haunt me. When I returned to the United States I felt I could see what those whose lives were not dependent upon coastal land could not––that the very shape of our shore was changing. I went in search of someplace in the United States where sea level rise was playing out in the present moment, which is how I ended up in Louisiana.

At that very moment, my life was sort of falling apart. I had just broken off an engagement to the man I was supposed to marry. I moved out and was living in a rented room in Crown Heights. All of my things were in storage. Often I think this helped me to see the transformation of coastal land and those living atop it from a deeply personal lens. I became interested in the question of how a person can stay in a place, even when the place itself is changing irrevocably and how, when the time comes, they learn to let go of the places they love. In Louisiana I realized that erosion, saline inundation, and land loss, these very scientific phenomenon, were deeply transforming both the land and the inner worlds of those who had lived there for centuries.

MS: In Rising you regularly cross the climate divide to report from frontline communities that question human-made climate change even as they witness accelerating environmental change. Can you talk about this part of your reporting process?  

ER: In Rising I wanted to draw close to the places where climate change is being felt now, in the present moment. More often than not, along the coast, these are communities that are not being buffered by big-budget infrastructure projects. They are rural communities where residents have long made a living off their relationship with the land itself. These are communities that have not traditionally been directly engaged by environmental writers and thinkers, though I do think this is certainly changing, thanks in part to the election and columns like yours, “Middle Ground” at Inside Climate News.

Many in the communities I worked in were not keen to use the words “climate change” to talk about their particular experiences. They were happy to talk about changes in the environment but “climate change” felt too politically loaded. They would admit that winters were getting warmer and that they were flooding worse, year after year. Some would say they did think humans were causing it, while others would demur, saying something like, “I am not a scientist so I don’t know what is causing the flooding.”

To be honest, I met very few people who denied the phenomenon outright. Instead they refused to use the terminology. And who can blame them? The words “climate change” are so entrenched in political discourse at this point that they fail to describe what direct experience with climate change feels like. The term itself does not describe how difficult it is, for instance, to watch the land where your father grazed cattle fall into the sea.

MS: What changes or surprises did you or your sources witness over the five years of writing Rising?

ER: During the time it took me to write this book many of the predictions of how high sea levels could rise by 2100 have doubled. Put another way: it is not just that sea levels are rising, but the rate at which they are rising is speeding up too. Significantly. Back in 2011, when I really started to dig into the subject, most reports I were modeling three scenarios: a low rate of rise, a middle rate, and a high rate of rise. Usually the high rates of rise would max out at about plus three feet predicted by 2100 and today the higher rate scenarios often max out at about six feet of rise by 2100.

A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, which is based not on predictive models but on observational data, confirm this fact. It states: “if sea level continues to change at this [new] rate and acceleration, sea-level rise by 2100 will be more than double the amount if the rate was constant.” And some scientists think that even six feet by 2100 is a fairly conservative estimate, given what we know about how fast seas have risen in the historic past: often in rapid surges, jumping as much as fifty feet in three short centuries.

The people I interviewed for this book bear witness to these changes. They have watched many of their beloved coastal communities begin to be transformed by higher tides and stronger storms. “Our area has been flooding progressively worse year after year: more frequently, more often,” Frank Moszczynski of the Staten Island Alliance told me. “Before Sandy, which was the five hundred year storm, there was Irene, which was a two hundred year storm. The year before that we had a three hundred year storm. In less than three years we got over one thousand years of wild weather.”

That weather has increased flooding so mightily in his neighborhood that Frank and his neighbors banded together to petition the State to purchase and demolish their homes. And you know what? The citizens won. That little community in Staten Island is now participating in one of the most progressive climate change adaptation strategies known as “managed retreat.”

MS: Tell me more about these more radical approaches towards conservation and adaptation, especially given the recent findings that suggest that, for instance, the West Coast’s tidal wetlands will drown by 2110 if human communities don’t move up and in.

ER: In the past, when sea levels dropped, the marsh dropped down too, and when they rose the marsh rose with them. If you were to take an aerial time-lapse photo of the process of marsh migration, it would look as if the tidal wetlands and the ocean were moving in and out together, the way desire follows the desired. But today so many of our human communities are sited right up against the farthest inland edges of these marshes, impeding their ability to migrate. This means that, as sea levels rise, these tidal marshes will, unless we relocate, drown in place. Nearly fifty percent of the endangered species in the United States are wetland dependent, which is one of the biggest reasons why I would like to see conversation around managed retreat, like what is taking place in those communities in Staten Island, gain traction in the public debate.

One newer approach to conservation is called “conserving the stage,” and it suggests that if we want to keep a diversity of plant and animal life thriving on our changing planet, we need to begin to set aside areas that are rich in geophysical variation. That’s because, as the earth warms, species are on the move, many relocating up in elevation or poleward at a respective rate of thirty vertical feet and eleven miles every decade.

The idea behind “conserving the stage” is that we need to create arenas where evolution can continue to unfold. Instead of setting aside selected areas (a particular national park) or ecosystem types (wetlands refuges) as monuments to an idea of nature that is no longer tenable, we need to think about working on behalf of the physical factors that foster biodiversity in the first place: soil types, hydrology, landform variation, and, above all else, topography.

MS: John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, famously said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.” Which of these felt most dominant to you as you wrote this book?

National efforts toward mitigation are dwindling. Today many of the battles are being taken up at the state and local level. But Rising itself doesn’t really take on mitigation. Again, I wanted to think about what human and more-than-human communities living in and around wetlands do when there are not a lot of resources being made available.

This leaves us with few options: retreat or perish in place. I personally think of human retreat as a radical form of resilience. Not only does it allow more-than-human wetland communities the chance to move in, it is also proof of how adaptable we humans really are. We can learn to let go of the places we love. We can remake our lives in different locations. We will have to.

Often while writing I came back to something John Bear Mitchell, a Penobscot scholar and member of the Penobscot Nation, told my students back in 2015. He said, “Within a single human existence things are disappearing from the earth, never to be seen again. In Passamaquoddy [Maine] our sacred petroglyphs—those carvings in rock that were put there thousands of years ago—are now being put under water by the rising seas. We’ve seen this happen for a long time—this diminishing of our natural resources—through climate change and invasive species. The losses have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harpers, Guernica, Granta, Orion, and the New Republic, among others. In 2019 she will deploy to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica as the National Science Foundation’s Artist and Writer in Residence. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University, and teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University. Read more of her work on Orion.  

Meera Subramanian is a contributing editor of Orion, award-winning journalist, former MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow, and author of A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis. She just completed Finding Middle Ground, a series exploring perceptions of climate change across America for InsideClimate News. You can find her at www.meerasub.org

Twelve Years is Nothing. And Everything.

Think for a moment about the number twelve. One dozen. Twelve brown eggs in a white carton. The approximate number of full moons that mark a year. The pairs of curved ribs found in the human body.

Ten plus two. A single decade, plus two years.

That’s barely any time to launch a massive global effort that would be the most important ever undertaken in human history. If we can pull it off. Twelve years is all we’ve got to dramatically change our ways – this according to ninety-one scientists from forty nations who analyzed more than six thousand scientific studies and just issued a landmark report containing that small, seemingly insignificant number: twelve.

According to this new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only twelve years to slash greenhouse gas emissions by forty to fifty percent. One dozen. That’s not much time when it’s already twelve midnight, and the ticking has grown loud. Do we hear it? Will we act in time? If not, we will suffer the consequences: more climate refugees, stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, higher flooding, and more deadly wildfires like the one in Paradise, California. If we do act, we’ll rediscover the power and potential of the human community galvanizing for a global cause, as we’ve done in the past.

To succeed, we need a moonshot for this millennium aimed at eliminating emissions. A moonshot greater than the Apollo 11 space project that landed the first person on the moon in 1969, when it was widely considered impossible. But our species pulled it off, and a human being left footprints on the moon’s surface.

To succeed, we need to inspire a new type of personal sacrifice for the climate – something akin to the eighteen million backyard Victory Gardens during World War II that produced one-third of the vegetables in the United States. People grabbed shovels and rakes and pulled together to grow food for a nation at war. Today, we need Climate Gardens that grow solar panels and wind turbines, as well as food and trees.

To succeed, we need a campaign to eradicate climate change like the global response that wiped out polio – a disease that once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children annually. During the 1950s and 1960s, effective vaccines eliminated polio in the West, and in 1988 the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. Today, thanks to twenty million volunteers in two hundred countries, and an international investment of more than $11 billion, the global incidence of polio has been slashed by ninety-nine percent.

History shows that humanity has the potential to mobilize masses to achieve success. But can we do this to heal the climate in a mere twelve years? Can we rally billions of people against something we cannot see, smell, or taste? Can we go after an enemy, even if that enemy is us? How much sacrifice can we inspire every person to make? Because this is what it will take, and more: Setting thermostats to a cool sixty degrees in winter and pulling on sweaters and hats indoors. Cutting industrial meat consumption in half. Ending food waste. Insulating all buildings. Slashing plastics production. Taking buses, bicycles, and the balls of our feet. And the big one: cutting our consumption of stuff by a whopping fifty percent, or more. Those who are most impacted by climate change are already living with very little. Now, it is our turn.

Yes, we will be cold at times. Yes, we will have to reuse almost everything. Yes, we will lose weight. Yes, we will make do with less. It will not be easy. It will seem impossible. But in the doing, we will also build community and share resources and strengthen our social fabric. We will make music and art. We will dance in the streets to stay warm. We will hold hands and stick together.

In the end, if we pull off another moonshot, a new form of Victory Gardens, a retooled polio eradication campaign aimed at emissions, we might well save our kids and the generations to come. Aren’t they worth the sacrifices this moonshot will require?

The babies born last week and this week and next week are waiting for us. And when they turn twelve – if we succeed – the world will be a better place. But we have only a dozen years. That fleeting window of time between birth and becoming a teen. One hundred and forty-odd full moons (more than one has already passed since the report was published). Twelve years. The pairs of ribs protecting our hearts and lungs. Take a breath. Now act.

We put a human on the moon. We grew vast amounts of produce. We stopped polio from killing our kids. We can do this, too. But we must start today. Turn down the thermostat. Put on a sweater. Call two coworkers and carpool tomorrow. Invite a neighbor over to dinner. Share your story. Breathe. Twelve years is nothing. And it is everything.

Gregg Kleiner is the author of the novel, Where River Turns to Sky (HarperCollins), and a book about climate change for kids (and their grownups), Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!, which asks what might happen if we could see CO2? He lives near the confluence of the Marys and Willamette rivers in western Oregon and is on Twitter at @greggkleiner

Music and Climate Action: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore


With all the impending despair of climate catastrophe these days, we locate wellsprings of hope in new emergences and creative responses, like the recent collaboration between writer and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and concert pianist Rachelle McCabe. Their project, “A Call to Life,” pairs two leading artists and thinkers into a unified sound of possibility and action. I connected with Kathleen Dean Moore to learn about the project.

NT: What is your new project, “A Call to Life”?

KDM: “A Call to Life” is a concert performance that uses music and the spoken word to call people to action on the global extinction crisis. Words alone are not enough to express the enormity of the losses the planet faces – or the tragedy. So I’m collaborating with Rachelle McCabe, a concert pianist, to link the power of music and the power of prose, so that people can feel the moral urgency of action in both their hearts and minds.

We have been taking the performance on the road. The next performance (closest to Orion’s headquarters) is at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts on Friday, November 2, 2018, 5:30pm at the Razzo Hall at the Traina Center for the Arts.. I hope people will come. Or if they can’t, they can find a studio recording of the performance on our website, along with a calendar of our coming performances.

We can promise people an experience that will shake them to the core. Not another talk about statistics and doom, but, as Orion writer Mitch Thomashow wrote, an emotional connection:

“I was deeply moved by the power, eloquence, wisdom, urgency, and insight of the presentation…
an emotional connection to the planetary emergency.”

NT: What inspired “A Call to Life”?

KDM: Rachelle was in the audience when I gave a talk urging climate action. As I walked off the stage, she stopped me in the aisle and said, “When I listen to you speak, I hear Rachmaninoff.” When you have a brilliant friend who says something like that, and when your friend is a renowned concert pianist, you follow up.

In her studio a couple days later, Rachelle played me Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli.”  Its connection to the extinction crisis made me shiver – on the verge of madness, its strong and resolute heart; in the depths of grief, its moral courage. “A formidable piece of music,” Rachelle said, “for a formidable challenge.”

NT: How did you fuse your writing/speaking with Rachelle’s music?

KDM: Rachelle played the Rachmaninoff Variations over and over, telling me about the “hollow chords of despair, the augmented fourth of yearning, the perilous transitions from dissonance to consonance.” We both cried. As she played the piece, the narrative arc of the music – from sorrow and terror to bewilderment to resolute courage – caught me up and I began to write. My words weave into the silences between the variations or spill on top of the music.

NT: Where has “A Call to Life” taken you? What is the audience response?

KDM: We have performed in a wild variety of venues, from the World Congress for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Hawaii, to the community hall of an Alaskan hamlet half-drowned by the tide. Geographically, we have ranged north to south, from Calgary to Arizona, and east to west, from Wisconsin to Hawaii. We are headed for New York City now, and next year, we will be in Scotland – wherever people invite us to perform.


NT: Why is the fusion of science and art so important in inspiring conservation?

KDM: The truths that science tells us are terrifying. Let’s be honest about that — so terrifying and sorrowful that a natural response is to close your heart against them, to turn away to deflect the blow. So the challenge is to deliver those truths in such a way that they open people’s hearts without breaking them. That is the power of art – it goes directly to the places where we grieve, rejoice, and find courage.

NT: How does this relate to the work of Orion magazine?

KDM: People often ask me: What can one person do to protect this lovely, reeling planet? I always answer, Stop being one person. To join in common cause with people with widely varying expertise, but all with the same creative energy and moral courage, all with the same passion for the planet – that is hugely empowering. That’s what Orion’s fusion of ideas about art, nature, and culture does – it creates a community of caring.

And I would say, a community of courage.  Orion says it straight and strong. It has found, in art and literature, what Rebecca Solnit calls the “joy of insurrection.”


NT: What’s planned for the future of “A Call to Life”?

KDM: We are fully committed to taking this call wherever an organizer can put together a piano and a couple hundred people. We want to carry our message everywhere: The cosmic going-out-of-business sale that we call an economy is a moral outrage, a betrayal of the young ones of all species – and we must stand against it.

Rachelle and I are also expanding our efforts, about to create a new performance focused on bird extinction, using, among other pieces, Sibelius’ Impromptu No. 5. Oh, such music — it will send you out the door, stumbling with grief and resolution, to do what needs to be done to save the winged ones.

As for me, I am working on two new books. One is Breaking Bedrock, a co-edited work on fracking’s impact on human rights. The other is a book of personal essays about ferocious love in a time of dreadful loss on a planetary scale. As for Rachelle, she is in China now, to teach and perform. But we will be back in your area for three performances at the end of October. Then Mesa Refuge in California, the Oregon coast, probably Fairbanks, and others.

Stay updated by following “A Call to Life,” a collaboration of climate action by Kathleen Dean Moore and Rachelle McCabe, on their website here.

Four Questions for the Author: Timothy Morton, Being Ecological

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He is the author of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence; Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (with Marcus Boon and Eric Cazdyn); Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, and other books.

His most recent book, Being Ecological (MIT Press), is “a book about ecology without information dumping, guilt inducing, or preaching to the choir.” I caught up with the author to learn more:

NT: Imagine I’m twelve years old. Explain your book Being Ecological to me in terms I understand.

TM: All of us—all life on Earth, including humans—are going through this horrible event called global warming. The way we talk to each other about it is also pretty horrible. We yell facts thinking that this will inspire and persuade people. We need an ecological language that doesn’t make the person who served me at my local fast food place feel stupid or evil.

Guilt is about individuals. Global warming is a billions-of-people scale problem. Let’s have a conversation about being responsible instead. If you can understand something, then you’re responsible for it. Instead of yelling about evil, let’s help people try on what it feels like to be a scientist: that sense of wonder and weirdness. I hope my book gives you the feeling of having accepted global warming without making you believe in factoids and yelling that we’re doomed.

NT: Your term hyperobjects references entities such as climate change “of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Can you connect the dots between your ideas in Being Ecological and hyperobjects?

TM: I hear a lot from people that they like this word, and so do I, because I think it’s very empowering. It’s nice to have a word for something, you know? For example, mass extinction, which is what I sometimes like to call global warming (climate change is way too much of a euphemism for me). You wouldn’t believe how hard it is even for advanced biologists to point to mass extinction because it’s everywhere, because it’s so vast.

Isn’t that amazing? The most horrifying event ever and we can hardly see it. Hyperobjects are physically big and scary but they’re like titans, not gods. You can defeat them. There’s only one global warming.

The human species itself is a hyperobject: a massive heap of things including humans, computers, fields, ideas about humans, interviews in Orion. This heap is vague and can overlap with other heaps. “Hyperobject” is a relative term. To an electron, a glass of water is a hyperobject.

NT: You say that, as a species, we are going through the initial phases of trauma, that we are living in a catastrophic moment in history brought forth, in large part, by our very own species. What does that do to tear us away from gaining a more ecological understanding of our place in the world?

TM: Well, maybe it’s kind of the other way around. I don’t think there’s a fall from grace going on. I think trauma is what ecological awareness feels like, at least at first, if you’re part of some kind of post-Neolithic type “civilization.” How do we go from tragedy mode to comedy mode? Comedy doesn’t mean this is funny. Comedy means you allow all the emotions, not just fear and pity, to coexist, kind of like an emotional equivalent of biodiversity. I think comedy is deeper than tragedy. When you can laugh, you can cry. This is grief work.  

NT: “Parts are Greater Than the Whole.” This is a central thrust of your book. Can you explain how this relates to our understanding of ecology?

TM: The funny thing is, it’s childishly simple to understand, but every time I talk about it I see people getting ready to hit an invisible delete button. We’ve become addicted to this idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we say it to ourselves and sound all clever. But have you ever seen a proof of it?

And what does it really mean?

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

This is so empowering once you accept it. For example, weather is so obviously a symptom of climate. There’s no point at all in wondering whether this or that storm was caused by global warming. Everything is being caused by global warming. But that doesn’t mean that being a symptom of global warming is everything that your local weather is. Weather is this delicious sensation on my arm. Weather is an example of how the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

Neoliberal capitalism now covers most of Earth’s surface and is pretty horrid for most people. But there’s only one of it. This means that the famous line of Shelley, “We are many, they are few,” which Gandhi and King really loved (the poem it’s from is a beautiful hymn of nonviolent direct action) is not only historically accurate, but it’s ontologically true. Deep in the structure of being, not just at this moment in history, there’s so much more “down here” than up there. That’s good, right?

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.