Jeff VanderMeer and Lili Taylor Talk Books, Birds, and Beauty
In Conversation with Megan Mayhew-Bergman
Megan Mayhew-Bergman: It is always a pleasure to come together to talk about books, but it’s an additional pleasure to talk about birds, rewilding, and untamed lawns. I was hoping, Lili and Jeff, to start our conversation tonight by talking about a relationship with beauty because I feel it factors into the art that you two make—on screen, and within books.
Jeff VanderMeer: It’s certainly been fraught during this time. I think I have much more of a connection to individual birds and individual animals in the yard. And the flip side of that, of course, is that I see more of the things that happen that aren’t quite so beautiful, like the raccoon that has some kind of laceration on its paw and walks around with three legs.
MMB: Marilyn Robinson talks about how beauty has always been a terrifying concept and made too small for what it really can be. Could you speak about your conversion moments, when you realized you wanted to pursue the notion of beauty with birds, rewilding and nature?
JVM: I think of it as a series of short, sharp shocks. One of the first was the Gulf oil spill, because it brought it regionally home to me. But when we moved to this new house, that’s when the eureka moment really occurred. I thought we had this amazing backyard, and then I realized it was all invasive plants and a complete food wasteland for wildlife. In a weird way, I was like the narrator of my novel, in terms of not being aware of certain things. I realized: I have to do something, and then I was obsessed. I was between novels and I basically was in the yard 24/7 pulling things out. I think I pulled out a ridiculous number of air potato tubers, like 4000 of them. That was a revelation too. When you’re on your thousandth potato, crawling on your hands and knees in the ravine, you do begin to wonder if you’ve lost perspective on life. But it was important to have that kind of zeal to get the job done.
MMB: I love that thought about conviction and zeal as fuel. Lili, was it a slow gradual dawning for you or something abrupt that changed your vision toward birds, toward the natural world?
Lili Taylor: It’s been a process. It’s like consciousness. I liken it to not noticing falling in love. Waking up one day and noticing, “Oh my god, you’ve been here the whole time. What have I been doing? I love you.” That’s what happened. I fell in love, and it’s really about noticing, paying attention, listening. It’s like when Helen Keller understood water. I feel like I’m running around naming everything. I can find out what something is and discern and learn. And then all these things start opening up and then the zeal happens, which Jeff spoke to, which I completely relate to.
MMB: I do think it’s contagious. Lili, your comments made me think of this line from a Jonathan Franzen interview where he talked about coming to know birds and specificity, and that it was second only to sex in terms of the way it colored the landscape and his awareness of the world. Jeff, would you mind painting a picture of your yard in Florida?
JVM: In Tallahassee, you have a lot of very steep ravines where they built houses across the top—and then you have the wooded ravine. So you have this trough of woodland which extends the half acre, because there’s also an easement that’s a strip that can never be built on. And then you have our house, which hugs the ravine so perfectly, and the windows are such that the inside and the outside are very confused in a way that’s rather marvelous. It’s why I can see so much wildlife. We have a limestone garden on one side, that we put in for erosion, with moss and ferns. That’s one kind of habitat. On the other side, there’s a more manageable wildflower garden that I am very proud of. In the front of the house, there’s a little strip of lawn with these huge azalea bushes that I’ve created into more of a wall. And then the little strip of lawn I pretend to weed whack from time to time. I can make that look presentable if I want to. And then behind that is the front yard, which I’m gradually turning into a bunch of bushes for birds. It’ll be all fruit bushes. This part is just for the birds. So it does look deliberately overrun and unruly in places because that’s what the wildlife needs.
MMB: I think you’re getting to the heart of something that the three of us are probably thinking a lot about, which is this idea that a fastidious lawn aesthetic does not feed or house species as well as something with a little more texture. And Lili, I saw some photos from The Times piece of things that you’re doing in your farm property. Would you mind describing to listeners what that project looks like for you?
LT: Well, it’s cool because I have two kinds of habitats. I’ve got Brooklyn, where I’ve put all natives in the backyard and bird feeders. And then I have Upstate, where I’m on 100 acres that’s also an easement. I’ve got a lot of invasives. I’ve figured out what they are, I’ve done my best to pull them out. It’s like what Jeff was saying about the unruliness and the element of beauty. So many of us have just been miseducated. When I go to a nursery, I go to the plants that have the bees. And really, it’s a small section. I feel like most people don’t know that lawns are a desert for living things. I’ve built a bubbler. I dug a hole and put this bubbler in because water is so important. A lot of trees. Trees that house as many insects as possible. The oak is the number one, I think it houses 524 Lepidoptera insects. I’m just working, like Jeff said, just non-stop.
MMB: It’s vast once you start to think about the scale of what it could be. Jeff, would you speak to how the close observation of the increasing health and vivacity of your yard area or your anti-yard populates your writing?
JVM: It’s so important to me that there’s no element of the natural world that’s not from first-hand observation in any of my books. Even in the ones that are more fantastical, if there’s some element that’s still tied to the real world, it’s from experience. When I’m writing a novel, I’m a receptor for everything. So to be quite frank, during the rewilding process, it’s been fairly intense, because I’m already very open and receiving. In terms of sensory detail, as we enter our third year of rewilding here, it’s actually kind of overwhelming. I’m very protective of the rewilding in terms of turning it into fiction. I’m not ready to do that yet. So there’s something about, knowing from the trail cam, the personalities of the different raccoons, for example, that I think has already begun to enter the fiction. The other day I got the trail cam footage, and I thought there was a snowstorm down in the ravine, but it was just the moths in the third year of rewilding, because we provided so many different plants. I’m still trying to emotionally deal with that moment. So these are the kinds of things that will be fairly far down the road in the fiction because I take a lot of time to really think about them and digest them. It feels like my personal life and my fiction is aligning more and more into the same trajectory. So there’s like no separation, which is kind of an amazing feeling, and also kind of a frightening feeling.
MMB: I appreciate that. We’re living in a moment where a reparative narrative feels like something we all want to amplify in all forms, and I’m thinking about the control of the narrative, and how as artists, you work with your conviction, and how you choose to channel it.
LT: Well, I’ve been working, actually, on a one woman show. And it’s really about birds and acting. It started because I realized the same skills were intersecting. The listening, observation, investigation. One thing I think about is empathy. How would I want to be talked to? What would shut me off? And embodying it. Paying attention. Being very human with it too—it’s so hard to listen. Most of the time, I’m not listening, but the good news is, that listening is a skill, and you can keep getting back up on the horse. I want to spread the good news, and to do it by being a power of example.
MMB: I believe in what you were just alluding to, which is that we’re all sort of allergic to righteousness. Nobody wants to put themselves in the path of that. Jeff, how do you manage tone?
JVM: I try very hard to be very positive. I don’t sugarcoat things, but I try to focus on positive but still fairly complexthings. I write a lot of nonfiction. I just wrote a piece on yard hacks that’s fairly funny. I found out that you can get raccoons to eat yellow jacket nests. I do a “Wild Tallahassee” column that’s kind of like a test run for pushing back against these foundational assumptions we have about certain urban wildlife that a lot of people see as negative. So I provide positive examples. And being very aware also of the fact that I’m new to this. I don’t want to recreate the wheel; I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Locally, I’ve been reaching out to a lot of environmental activists in the area to just listen to what they’re doing and see if there are any places where my skill set might fit.It’s so important to me that there’s no element of the natural world that’s not from first-hand observation in any of my books.
MMB: I appreciate the complexity. I wonder if either of you would be willing to talk about the humility, I think, involved in creating habitat for others and wanting other species to thrive. I would love to hear what your thoughts are on that, and how humility factors into this work?
JVM: Well, I think that I always keep in mind that if we weren’t around, the world would be better off and wildlife would be better off. I keep that in mind in terms of trying to have the least possible footprint. Especially for this half acre where there are a lot of microclimates. There are very large worlds in very small places. I personally find the details of the life cycles of all these animals, the intricacy of it, absolutely something close to spiritual, and I think that is one thing that I think about. I also think about not imposing too much. There are places where we just let the native seed bank recover, and it was humbling and awe inspiring to have lions paw and other things come up that had been lying dormant, maybe for decades, because of the invasives. But they were still there, and all these plants came up, like a kind of miracle that just needed the space.
MMB: Lili, any thoughts about just sort of how you’ve experienced humility, or how it factors into what you’re doing with your properties and with birds?
LT: By going into that world, I get to focus on things that don’t have anything to do with me, that are bigger than me, that I don’t understand. And just that in itself is healthy, just observing something else that’s living and truly observing it, not imposing my ideas. That’s something to pull into acting. It’s the same thing I’m trying to do with a character. I’m trying to not impose on her. Let her tell me who she is, and it’s the same thing with a bird or an animal, to try to really be open and neutral.
MMB: You’ve both spoken to the act of receiving, and also to reverence. People have talked a lot about how environmentalists are too good at dystopia. Jeff, I know you have feelings when people throw that word around at you. You were starting to speak to that balance of pessimism and optimism. We’ve spun a lot of dystopian storytelling. What does “good” look like? If you think in terms of your own properties, what does the healthy vision look.Well, I think that I always keep in mind that if we weren’t around, the world would be better off and wildlife would be better off.
JVM: That’s a great question. In terms of what this place might look like, there’s again, a practical aspect and the dystopia, utopia thing, is really in the context of fiction. We need to face the actual facts, and the actual facts aren’t depressing, if they lead to policies that make sense. What’s depressing is if we don’t actually have the right facts, or we don’t operate on them. So even with regard to the yard, I’m always kind of updating what I think about certain things, because you kind of adjust to the landscape. What would be good in this yard in five years is if I don’t need bird feeders—that there’s so much food in the yard from the fruit bushes and the fruit trees and everything else that maybe I need just one bird feeder for goldfinches.
MMB: Lili, do you have a vision for your properties or the way that it feels healthy to you? Or, some indication of success in your mind?
LT: Yes. The National Wildlife Federation actually has criterion. And if you check all those boxes, they send you a nice little piece of paper that you’re certified. And I’m certified in both places. Water, habitat food, and shelter, food through the course of the year, like what Jeff was sort of alluding to. It’s actually not that complicated. That’s the second thing I just want to get to. The problem with the dystopian thing is people shut down. Human beings really need things to be manageable, or we just check out. There are actions one can take. And it’s not that complicated. There are organizations, Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, that are giving you all this info to do it. Just follow it, and boom, you’re there. Like me, I had some Joe Pye weed, which is called ugly, but it’s actually so important. It was in Brooklyn, and I saw a monarch floating around looking for food. No food source. I ran down and I planted the Joe Pye weed really fast. And then the monarch settled. It doesn’t take much, and a lot can happen. That’s the good news.
MMB: There’s such an act of generosity in that. I want to ask one craft question before we get to the practical questions of resources. How do you choose your material? Does it find you?
JVM: I think that there has been a kind of feedback loop since Annihilation came out. I was getting invited to talk to environmental science departments and at a lot of interdisciplinary conferences, and that influences the novels. I’m a big believer in letting my subconscious kind of rule on the things that should be organic, and then learning the craft of what should be mechanical. Usually, I get four or five ideas at once and then spend years and years untangling them and thinking about them before I actually begin to write.
MMB: Lili, you started speaking about where birding and acting were overlapping for you. Would you say more about that, or about how you choose your work these days?
LT: I have a great opportunity, because if I show up with my bins on a set, bins attract conversation. They’re weird, and all of a sudden, people are talking. So I have a lot of pretty cool opportunities to get the word out. This older actor said to me, before we started acting for the first time, he put his hand out and he said, “Dear, shall we leap empty-handed into the void?” I try to get into that state, that leaping empty-handed into the void, which is a very difficult state to get in for many reasons.
MMB: I was wondering if you would speak, in practical terms, about rewilding. What are some resources for people trying to create a healthier environment for birds and other species in their yards?
JVM: I know, it’s old fashioned, but on my website I actually started doing blog posts. If you go to my website at jeffvandermeer.com, you’ll find resources, including an article for The Guardian that Megan wrote and all these articles I’ve been writing. One other thing that I found helpful was finding a native nursery nearby with someone who’s willing to do a walkthrough of your yard. It doesn’t have to be large scale; it can be tiny and still make a difference. I would also say if you’re on Facebook, because that’s where these groups tend to be, find your wildflower organization or state group. There are a lot of them that can really help plug you in with people who can give you some expert information.
MMB: Lili, does anything come to mind?
LT: I think Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home is an excellent book to start with. I-Naturalist is a great app. That’s how I found out the names of things, the knowledge and keystone species. And as Jeff said, you are doing something by putting that wildflower on your balcony or the hummingbird feeder up. It’s worth it.
MMB: Beautifully said. Thank you, Jeff and Lili.