What is late-staged, middle-aged, white male environmental activism but ending up in a ridiculous shouting match about native plants? That’s how it worked out for me, at least. But long before I found myself screaming, “What if this were your front yard?!” at a guy operating heavy machinery, I was just a writer forging a path into the environmental movement—by way of the popularity of a novel I wrote with the cheery title of Annihilation.
Annihilation of what? Of a certain sense of self? So a different self can emerge? Wandering college campuses in the aftermath of that novel in 2014, flooded with invitations to speak on climate change, I realized I knew fuck all about the subject from a drilled-down, personal angle. For years, I’d contributed to causes. And yes, I’d hiked through the wilderness to report back on the particular tilt of a bobcat’s head taking in a backdrop of blue teal ducks rising from a lake. Who cares? But then I wrote a book that made people come up to me and say it’s why they entered environmental science or became a biologist. Annihilation also spawned a thousand takes on topics ranging from “global weirding” to the permeability of organisms to plastic. Every possible ecological metaphor, washing up like sea wrack.
The novel couldn’t cure climate change, but it had unexpected agency, and the cynic in me panicked. If this fiction actually infiltrated the real . . . then what was I doing in my real life?
Two years later, Trump was elected president. I put up five bird feeders in my yard and took comfort in watching blue jays be happy. I bought native-seed packets and tossed the seeds all over with no plan or pattern. I was distraught, bereft, and the thought of growing something comforted me. I was someone else again, living in a different world.
I’d known there was another world already—I’d written about it. But now that world opened up more and more until, right before we moved to a new house in Florida, I learned the name for it: rewilding. To restore the native plants that support so many more species than plants that haven’t evolved for a particular landscape.
At the new house, with a wooded ravine for a backyard, my obsession deepened. I added more than 400 plants and trees. I bought a lot of ecology books. I started to recognize the plants on my hikes, so the trails overloaded my senses.
By then the landscape had become political (although it always had been). Our governor seemed hell-bent on dismantling any safeguards for wild Florida. Wetlands were just an inconvenience to be paved over rather than essential to human life. Local development was toxic, aided by developer relationships with public officials that would be deemed corruption anywhere else. The death of wildlife had a planned quality—we had decided to commit ecocide and we were basically okay with that.
The house, surrounded by verdant abundance, began to seem like an ark, even though the yard was the real ark. The choppy seas, the political waves, made me involve myself in local elections. I wrote an editorial denouncing sprawl and helped found a progressive news website in 2021. But foremost in my mind, forever and always, was our backyard. With so much else being destroyed, that was stalwart and everlasting.
In 2022, I contributed to local campaigns and spoke about ecological issues for national organizations. Often I was presenting my view of rewilding to people who had 30 or 40 years of experience, whereas all I had was fame from a book signifying that what I said carried weight.
But I liked rewilding as a concept, and perhaps that enthusiasm of the newly converted meant something, too. Rewilding was egalitarian. You could spend $10 and plant wildflowers on your balcony, or you could let dead logs lie where they had fallen and help insects, woodpeckers, and ground-foraging birds. Every week, my hashtag #VanderWild converted new rewilders. This felt, in aggregate, like it made a difference.
At that point, the rewilding was in its fourth year and the yard burgeoned with life. The ravine became a thoroughfare for so many animals. Foxes feasted on rabbits and squirrels, yet rabbits and squirrels also thrived. I even discovered a rare daytime type of firefly that had only one other sighting in the area and just 33 total on iNaturalist. I had become anchored to this plot of land, even though I knew, in the long run, that it cared nothing about me and my care for it might mean the death of me. If you care, then you worry, and you’re always alert to any new threat, whether it’s a neighbor hosing down a slope with herbicide or a reflexive “kill all snakes” attitude extended toward the gentle rat snakes that use our yard as home base.
Is that activism? Does that feeling count as activism, or something else?
In the winter of 2022, a neighbor had a dead tree cut down, but the tree company dumped the heavy logs on my front yard’s rain garden, for reasons unknown.
Because we had no drainage ditch, a landscaper had helped me turn the area into a trough of blueberry bushes, soft-rush reeds, butterweed, frogfruit, poppy mallow, sunshine mimosa, and blue-eyed grass. The sound of a truck provided my first inkling of damage. I hurried out to find that the logs had been piled across my plantings.
The guy sent to retrieve the logs was maneuvering his grabber claw into position while I pleaded with him to stop. The logs had to be removed carefully, or else the plants would be scraped up.
I was telling him, “Just leave it, leave it, and I’ll do it.” The guy was saying, “This is my job. I have to do it,” and I was explaining, now shouting, that he could leave it to me. Then the guy said, “You think I’m stupid—I can tell.” Surprised, I said, “No, I don’t think you’re stupid. I’m stupid. Nobody’s stupid. But please, just let me take care of the logs.”
The grabber claw swung, clacking, near my head, and the guy kept tossing logs into his truck bed.
“These aren’t weeds!” I shouted.
“You think I don’t know weeds after 20 years of working for a tree company?!” he shouted back.
Clack-clack, another log and more of the plants I’d planted with such love, gone.
“What if I told you what to do with your front yard?!” I yelled. “Would you like that?! What would you do?!”
This article appeared in the September 2023 issue of Esquire
He paused, then looked me straight in the eye. I could see exactly what he would do. But it didn’t matter, because of the weeds, the weeds that weren’t weeds at all but the culmination of all my care about the environment. Even on the edge of my ark, no border could keep the world out.
The moment passed, the tension receded, and the truck left, leaving me with a scarred and broken slope. I didn’t know if I’d been an activist, a fool, or some combination thereof. I didn’t know if in the end it meant anything at all—or if it was just two guys who could not back down, one over a principle and the other over another principle.
I’d been unable to marshal any of the arguments I’d used for the keynotes, the lectures, the workshops. I just felt the certain knowledge of damage. I was worried about snakes and grasshoppers and every other organism in that narrow trough.
Mostly, I’d been a fool, but a fool with good intentions. Afterward, I sat on a bench, unsure if this was part of the life I’d been living or some new life.
In time, I would replant everything. In time, I would reinforce the slope and the open wound would be harder and harder to see. In time, I would again become more involved in the world outside my yard and found an environmental nonprofit dedicated to conservation and education, the Sunshine State Biodiversity Group.
Damage is inherent in rewilding, in caring, but so too is rebirth, regrowth, repair. The tiny emerald sweat bees feasting on the nectar of poppy-mallow blossoms where once was just a scar of bare earth know nothing now but a dream of plenty.
Jeff VanderMeer is the New York Times-bestselling author of Annihilation and twelve other novels. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Nation, Current Affairs, and many others.