You’ve seen them on Facebook or YouTube or, possibly, in your neighborhood. Houses, manors, even strip malls that have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature—trees growing through the roof, vines covering the walls, flowers pushing out of drains and soil spreading over walkways and parking lots. The sight is oddly gripping, and that’s because the overgrown home is a sneak preview of what will happen when we are all gone—or at least a good hunk of us.
Pop culture is overgrown with examples that reinforce our fascination with the phenomenon—from TV shows like The Walking Dead and Last Man on Earth to books such as Stephen King’s The Stand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and of course movies such as the Mad Max films and (spoiler alert) Planet of the Apes.
In these post-apocalyptic fantasies, either war or disease have wiped out most of the human population, and the stories are in many cases a dramatic pretext for showing us a world in which all we’ve built has fallen apart—and, by extension, what remains when our modern technologies and constructions are gone.
The nice thing about the overgrown home is that it provides a real-life version of what these movies and books and shows offer, but in a small and properly contained dose. You take in an abandoned structure in the same way you watch a post-apocalyptic movie: Let it stir your imagination for a moment, and then go on with your life. No nuclear bomb has to drop, no virus variant has to spread. You can have a taste of what it will be like when society collapses, but still keep that dinner reservation.
While the appeal of the overgrown home is longstanding, in the past year the curiosity has gained some depth because humanity has collectively been giving the side eye to the apocalypse since oh, about March 2020. Coincidentally or not, that’s the same month a video detailing a series of buildings turning back to nature posted on YouTube. In the time since, it’s been viewed nearly 20,000 times.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to more than 3 million deaths globally, even with shutdowns and quarantines around the world designed to limit the damage. While the pandemic has been a horror show—death, illness, massive unemployment, lives disrupted—the crisis offered some hints about what happens on earth when humanity recedes, and those details have been at least as intriguing as the doings of Joe Exotic and other quarantine distractions.
When China went through its first hard shutdown, wasn’t it good for the ozone layer, even if just a little bit? And when countries went into lockdown, the news was peppered with reports of wild animals moving into cities. There were javelinas in downtown Phoenix, bears entering Connecticut homes in record numbers, and even a mountain lion in San Francisco. And while the stories about the canals of Venice filling with dolphins turned out to be phony, the fable captured the spirit of the moment. The stories tell us that if humanity ends, nature stands ready to take back what it has lost.
And nature has been losing to humanity for a long time now. Ever since the industrial revolution, or thereabouts, the rout has been on.
As Joni Mitchell put it, we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
And while we all appreciate a good parking spot—something in the shade that’s roomy enough to get in and out without a hassle—we’re not beyond feeling some regret about all these things that we’ve built, especially on days when they’re not making us happy. It’s why we can root for the vines and weeds to have their way with that abandoned house. It’s why we, in essence, root against ourselves.
It’s the thought that maybe if all our creations are overtaken by nature, we have a shot of getting back our paradise.