The best works of fiction have a way of transporting the reader into the world they create on the page. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer managed to pull off that enthralling incantation better than any other book in recent history, which is no small feat because it made an otherworldly wilderness of shimmering vegetation and mutated nightmare animals feel like a place you’ve actually lived in. For VanderMeer, whose first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy was also adapted into the somehow still under-appreciated 2018 Alex Garland film, conjuring such an uncanny environment was a bit easier because he does actually live in it.
Sadly, like many of the other national parks and wildlife refuges around the country, the place VanderMeer drew his inspiration for his books from, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge in Tallahassee, has come up against a horror even more terrifying than human-eyed alligators or indifferent Lovecraftian behemoths: the Trump administration’s government shutdown.
The visitor center at the refuge has been shutdown since December 24, and in that time, they’ve fallen behind on raising funds that would typically go to maintenance, educational programs and programs that bring children to visit the exceptionally diverse place.
“Employees are furloughed or required to work and are not getting paid,” the Friends of St Marks Wildlife Refuge wrote in part on Facebook. “Visitors enter the refuge at their own risk. Friends Nature Store is closed resulting in the loss of more than $5000 that would have gone to support refuge programs.”
“St Marks Wildlife Refuge is one of the most unique places on the planet honestly,” VanderMeer explained in a phone call from where he lives nearby in north Florida. “It has such a diversity of landscapes going from exactly the terrain described in Annihilation, which is from these pine forests to these black water swamps, and then out to basically marshland and brackish water, and these lakes full of alligators, and then the sea. It has species you can’t find anywhere else.”
As part of an effort to raise funds for the refuge VanderMeer is encouraging fans and anyone who cares about the environment to purchase an Area X T-shirt sold by the visitor shop, or to make a donation to the magical place he’s been hiking in and inspired by for over 20 years.
“It does feel like a place out of time,” VanderMeer said of the refuge. “It also feels very prehistoric when you’re way out in the marsh flats. There are little islands and trees among the reeds and the mud. There really is a beauty in the desolation of that. It can be very silent, it can have the light in it that’s like a J.M.W. Turner painting or something. It’s something you can’t photograph you just kind of feel it when you’re there. Part of it is the stillness and the wind and everything too. But the direct inspiration for the book, the entire path that the expedition takes in Annihilation, with some minor tweaks and supernatural elements so to speak, is the 13th mile hiking trail that I do out there taking me through all those terrains.”
VanderMeer says he’s been approached by all manner of people with ideas for merchandising for his books, but the design of the T-shirt brought to him by the volunteers who work at the refuge immediately struck a chord.
“They showed me this design and I was like holy crap the design is amazing, the cause is great, wonderful. And because of the T-shirt, I’ve grown to know the people connected to the Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge better, which has been wonderful because they’re all really committed to environmental causes. They’re really fun interesting people. And most of them are not paid employees, they’re volunteers. They’re manning the shop as volunteers because they believe in the place. That’s why it’s doubly troubling when something like this comes along and you realize with federal funding cuts and everything, literally what they’re making at the store, which is volunteer run, is helping fund endangered species programs, so it’s really vital.”
Proceeds from the sales or donations will help them make up lost money as the interminable shutdown drags on he says. Maintenance of the park will be a big concern as well, something they already fell behind on after the hurricane.
“It feels like a terrible cynical thing,” VanderMeer said of the shutdown.
“I believe to some extent Trump wants this chaos, because, and I don’t know if it’s even necessarily him that’s the most rigidly ideological about this, but I do believe there are people in his administration pushing to destroy parts of government because they believe those parts should not actually exist… This hurts everyone’s quality of life. It’s actually imperative for our own survival with climate change that we keep as much natural space as possible. It’s literally a no brainer in terms of carbon dioxide and also with regard to having clean water and everything else. There’s a fundamental dysfunction with this administration where they either don’t care because they don’t have to suffer the consequences or they literally don’t understand how the world works.”