His Novels of Planetary Devastation Will Make You Want to Survive

The house backs onto a sloping plot of land that ends in a ravine, thick with vegetation, snaking through the back lots of the other neighborhood houses. Jeff and Ann are working on rewilding their portion of the land — a gradual process, documented on VanderMeer’s Twitter account, where they identify and remove invasive species like air potato and nandina, replacing them with native species from local plant nurseries. Ann and Jeff lead me through the yard, pointing out native ferns planted uphill and close to the deck to absorb the rainwater draining off the slanted roof; for groundcover they’ve planted butterweed, a quick-growing yellow-flowered native of the area that should spread fast enough to claim large swatches of ground before the invasives can return. By the fence, Jeff shows me the Ocala anise planted in a neat row earlier that week, and Ann encourages me to smell the sweet-scented native azaleas. Standing meekly on its own is a young, recently planted Torreya pine — a rare species that grows only in a local state park, where the population is threatened by a spreading fungus.

The logic of rewilding is simple: The plants that formed the original, native ecosystem are more nourishing to the insects and birds that already live in the area, so bringing them back means more bugs, which means more birds and reptiles and mammals, which add up to a healthier ecosystem and a general abundance of life. It’s like finding missing puzzle pieces, putting them in place and completing the picture. As I looked out over the ravine from the deck above, I could see small yellowish songbirds zipping between the trees, and humming insects flit by, illuminated by shafts of sunlight falling through the canopy of trees above. A diffuse, melodic fog of birdsong hung over the scene. “One cool thing about living on the edge of a ravine — you get to see the birds approach from the top down into the bottom where the feeders are. Some swirl down like dead leaves. Some plummet. Some hover. Some stitch their way horizontally. Some kind of jump off into the blue,” reads a typical Jeff VanderMeer backyard tweet. Below it are the replies from followers, many of whom have begun to rewild their own yards, following his example.

It was pouring warm, heavy rain on the March morning when VanderMeer met a team of biologists to go searching for the larvae of the frosted flatwoods salamander, an endangered amphibian that lives in a narrow band of habitat east of the Apalachicola River. Everything in VanderMeer’s creative process seems to lead to salamanders these days: He often gets stuck on a particular animal and uses it again and again. There’s one gigantic salamander and hundreds of regular-size ones in “Dead Astronauts,” and another fictional species that he developed in consultation with a biologist plays a large role in his next novel, “Hummingbird Salamander.”

The more he learned about salamanders, he told me, the more they came to symbolize the vulnerability of living beings to our own thoughtless environmental contamination. “I think the thing that got to me was that they absorb so much stuff directly through their skin. So it really is a physical dramatization of what we’re doing to the planet, when they’re endangered, when they’re not well,” he said. “There are so many things we do, and we just don’t even realize how we’re harming things, you know? You could put a frog — I saw a picture of a frog someone had put a plastic cap on, a tiny plastic cap, and that could hurt the frog.”

In photographs online, the larvae are odd-looking and almost impossibly elegant, a perfect compromise between orchid and lizard. Their broad, flat, gently smiling heads are surrounded by a ruff of reddish, feathery gills; the thin-limbed bodies end in a broad, tapering tail the shape of a willow leaf. VanderMeer had seen the photos and videos, but he needed to draw from the feel, the form, the sheen of the real thing as he wrote the larvae into his next novel. A biologist fitted me with a pair of stiff, knee-high rubber waders and asked whether there might be any soaps, fragrances, sunscreens or other potentially harmful chemicals on my skin that I could accidentally track into the wetlands habitat.

In the passenger seat of a ranger’s S.U.V., VanderMeer wondered whether they’d seen any unexpected changes to the behavior and breeding patterns of the salamanders. Months earlier, a storm surge from Hurricane Michael forced saltwater from the gulf into the freshwater ponds, and nobody was quite sure how it would affect the rare, sensitive species. “We had live adult salamanders, but we’re not finding any larvae this year,” said Terry Peacock, who manages the refuge and leads the team of researchers and interns. In the driver’s seat, she guided the vehicle in and out of deep, mud-slick depressions in the road. “Which is disturbing. But we’ve had so much rain that a lot of their places where they would have laid are underwater. We don’t know if we’re not trapping in the right place, because they may be more dispersed over the landscape than what we would normally have.” She and VanderMeer talked about the unusually warm winter, the unusually short research season and the unpredictability it lent the whole enterprise. A running joke between them is that “the salamanders don’t read the literature” — the species has not been thoroughly researched and may not behave according to existing accounts; they might be more resilient or more vulnerable than scientists imagine.

The troop of biologists waded into knee-deep marsh followed by VanderMeer, camera in hand, each of them uncertain whether they would find what they were looking for. If they found salamander larvae in the brackish water, among the tufts of razor-edged sawgrass, it won’t mean that the species has survived the weather disruptions undamaged. If none were found, this day or the next, it wouldn’t mean that they’ve been wiped out: There could be nests in unknown locations, in new marsh undisturbed by visitors or researchers alike. In “Dead Astronauts,” the slow, gradual death of a Leviathan created by the Company to consume its rejects frees a niche in which other species can thrive. VanderMeer writes: Undigested life lived among the holding ponds. Little fish ate the algae between the scales of the Leviathan and he did not thrash or twist to dislodge them, to scoop them up in his jaws. The dreams receded. The holding ponds grew shallow. The little foxes that existed at the fringes of the Behemoth’s territory prospered. What old thing is new again? Though hope may be too strong a word for it, the unexpected, unpredictable resilience of life endures in VanderMeer’s work: the spirited uncertainty of extinction, the unflagging uncertainty of survival, the thing with feathers a kind of hope in and of itself.


Alexandra Kleeman is a professor at the New School and the author of the novel “You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine.” Her next novel will be published by Hogarth Press.