Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”
Florida became home for Jeff VanderMeer when he was young—the humid, subtropical climate reminding him of his early years in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. Many of VanderMeer’s books, including Hummingbird Salamander (MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), are concerned with the planet: the changing climate, the erosion of natural habitats, the survival of animals—and humankind’s part in the destruction. In 2023, his publisher reissued his first novel, Veniss Underground, which was initially published two decades ago. According to VanderMeer, the book was oddly prescient: “I didn’t realize how much it has so many of the themes and things that I’ve dealt with since.”
VanderMeer calls upon his love of and concern with the natural world—and the unique biodiversity of Florida—in both his creative and nonprofit work. He has written a string of articles for The Nation, Esquire, and TIME about the importance of environmental justice in his home state, a place where he understands all too well both the impulse to leave and the urge to stay and help.
“Everything is connected by water,” he said of Florida. “When you add development, when you build in floodplains, you’re basically taking away the natural resiliency that also protects homes from flooding and allows people to live in this state. The more that we misunderstand that, the more we’re basically dismantling wetlands and biodiversity, the more we’re actually making it less possible for people to live here.
“It’s definitely got a social justice component in terms of which communities are going to be most left behind on the coast, with sea-level rise,” VanderMeer said. “I think it’s very important to stand and fight.”
Alison Stine: Did you always want to write?
Jeff VanderMeer: I did, actually. I think from early on, growing up in Fiji. I started out as a poet—not a very good poet, but it gave me an appreciation for the use of language. And my parents read to me, and they read me strange stuff. They read me not only “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” but a lot of William Blake when I was a kid. I think it helped that they were so into reading to me and my sister—I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t writing.
AS: What about your interest in and love for the environment? When did that develop, do you think?
JV: My earliest memories are actually not of Pennsylvania, where I was born, but of Fiji, which was both a tropical paradise and a volcanic island. It had a lot of different micro-climates. We did have a mild winter, where you could go up into the mountains and you’d have to wear a jacket—and you might see a tiny little sprinkling of snow at the very top. But the whole area was just completely rich, verdant: a jungle, a tropical-climate landscape. And then the sea was right there.
My dad studied invasive rhinoceros beetles, and his work took him to various islands. He would take us along in little boats. Pretty much my growing up—until we moved to Ithaca, New York—was just completely about nature. It was kind of hard for me to imagine not being surrounded by that—until Ithaca, which, hilariously enough, is actually pretty rich in wildlife. But I did not appreciate going to an Ithaca winter from Fiji.
AS: It sounds like a magical upbringing in a way—learning the magic of nature early.
JV: Well, it was. It was also juxtaposed with the fact that my parents were going through what I’ve called a 10-year divorce. The mixture of those things, even though they weren’t fun to go through, was formative for the writing, because the nature was seen through the prism of the human stuff. I think that that created a tension that also made me want to write. To this day, although I don’t think of writing necessarily as therapy, it is absolutely true that when there are traumatic things that have happened, I am able to work through them in the writing.
AS: I always say that the stories in my fiction aren’t true, but my feelings are in the fiction and those definitely are true.
JV: Absolutely. What I do a lot is the transference of emotion from a real context to an imaginary one. And I find that’s very effective for conveying something.
AS: How did Florida become your home?
JV: Our family could not stand more than two Ithaca winters. And my dad, who was teaching at Cornell, almost drowned in a flood in a river when he insisted on trying to capture this invasive moth that was crossing in the middle of the rapids. That was kind of the final straw. And so we moved to Florida. He got a job offer as a fire ant researcher at the University of Florida, USDA. But also, it seemed like the climate that was most close to Fiji—and maybe those almost-drowning tragedies wouldn’t occur in a place that was much more familiar! That was Gainesville, Florida—which, again, was extremely full of nature and was wild. Eventually, I moved up to Tallahassee to live with Ann, my wife, in ’92.
AS: I learned through your nonprofit, the Sunshine State Biodiversity Group, that Florida is one of the most biodiverse places in North America. I never made that connection before.
JV: I think it’s useful to recognize that South Florida used to be an incredibly biodiverse place, but overdevelopment has completely taken that off the table except for the Everglades. But in North Florida, there are still places with dirt roads that are almost impassable sand and have no cell phone or Wi-Fi reception. There are places that are extremely wild. It is definitely one of the most biodiverse places in the world. And part of that is because other biodiverse places have, unfortunately, undergone certain tragedies. [Biodiversity is] something that is really important, I think, to fight for, since it’s essential for survival. But also, it’s kind of invisible. Unfortunately, people in the US don’t always understand just how rich the southeast in general is.
AS: Your current house in Tallahassee, and the process of rewilding your yard—how did that change you? How did that change your life?
“It’s harder when you see development around town, because you know exactly the animal personalities that are suffering because of it.”
JV: Until Trump was elected president, I was very involved in environmental causes, more at the national level, supporting things like the Center for Biological Diversity. I hiked a lot and I talked about Florida a fair amount, but it wasn’t quite as personal. After Trump, I sought therapy in nature in almost a selfish way, by being more invested in putting up bird feeders and things as a way not of escaping but just to find something that would get me past feeling frozen. That was really life-changing in the sense that suddenly my kind of obsessive–compulsive nature was fine-tuned onto plant species and microhabitats and my yard.
When we moved to this new place, there was even more possibility. Now it’s more down to the individual animals. I didn’t used to know the individual raccoons that lived in the yard of the old house. But now I actually know the habits; I know the differences in behavior. And even some of the birds, some of the cardinals, the hummingbirds. All have personalities. Once you see all of that, it’s a very different, ground-level, view.
It’s a more difficult thing because it’s harder when something bad happens. It’s harder when you see development around town, because you know exactly the animal personalities that are suffering because of it. So, there’s that. But there is also a great deal of joy and just simply feeling like you’re getting to a greater sense of the granularity of the world.
AS: You feel more connected to it. Tell me about your nonprofit.
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JV: I really like to try to actually get things done. I don’t have a lot of patience for efforts that don’t lead to results. And I had spent what I would call a kind of disastrous period in 2021, ’22, involving myself in local politics, supporting local candidates in much more proactive ways than I had in the past, helping to fund and edit a progressive news site. And even though some of it had results, a lot of it just felt like, ultimately, maybe not the right space for me. So, thinking out of the ashes of that, I thought, Well, what makes sense?
One thing that really makes sense is conserving land, given the way that Florida has so many preemption laws and other things that work against conservation. So I founded the Sunshine State Biodiversity Group, in part for that and in part for education about biodiversity. I was told by a couple of people, “Don’t put biodiversity in the title because people don’t respond to that.” I think maybe the messaging about it has just not been that great. One thing that our projects do is if we consider land, it might be a hyperlocal project, but it’s going to involve pieces of land that have species on them—whether plant or animal species—that are probably found nowhere else in the world: even if locally abundant, they’re rare.
In addition to the preservation of these sensitive plots of land, we plan to do national public messaging about all of our projects. That’s the education component, and that’s where it becomes more for a general reader, or someone who is involved in the environment: takeaways that you can use in any context. We might do a box turtle citizen survey, because box turtles are a big part of the landscape here. I think that they’re a way of anchoring people to their yards and seeing the value of it but that will also have a national messaging component.
There are things that we can do that larger nonprofits cannot. Larger nonprofits are not going to be as invested in 20 acres of cypress swamp—but it’s still got 400-year-old cypress trees on it. That is incredibly important. So, we can also fill in the gaps, I would say.
AS: That reminds me of something my grandfather did. My grandfather was a farmer in rural Indiana. He only had an eighth-grade education, but he raised enough money to buy this plot of woods, and he just left it wild. He didn’t farm it. He didn’t hunt it or anything. And that was rare at the time—to buy land just to conserve it. But he thought it was really important.
What is it like, though, to balance your creative work—which is often so private and so personal (you have to shut yourself away to write)—with the nonprofit and advocacy work that you do?
JV: There are certain ways that we can legally leverage the popularity of The Southern Reach Trilogy to help the nonprofit raise money. That’s kind of easy, because I was already kind of doing that, but just generally for environmental causes. Then also, it’s about personnel. So, for example, Ali Sperling is our community outreach director and VP, and she does a lot of the stuff that I’m just not as comfortable with, being more of an introvert. It’s great to have her, and just to slowly assemble a board that has complementary skills—enough unique attributes that we have everybody we need in place as we’ve grown.
“I always say, try to find something that keeps you in the moment, if you’re working in the environmental space—something positive that keeps you anchored, so then you can deal with the larger things.”
We’re almost at $100,000, raised this year with almost no formal fundraising—including a $40,000 grant from the Fredman Family Foundation, for land preservation. I’m really excited about our ability to fund other efforts, also. We just gave a small grant to a 4-H–run, young naturalists program that allows 10-to-13-year-olds to experience the wilderness in an educational sense, with the right guidance. It’s going to be a great program, and it’s something that we were able to fund right off the bat; I think we’ll probably continue to do that. As we raise money, we’ll be looking for opportunities to liaise with other groups who we think support the kind of values that we have.
AS: How do you keep from getting burned out when it comes to environmental activism? How do you keep from getting discouraged?
JV: The yard itself keeps me balanced. Just gardening—planting something and weeding and all that is very physical. I think that helps quite a bit. I think the nonprofit, the fact that we’re actually doing stuff. I mean, we had a whole environmental suite of programming at our local writers’ festival. We’re having environmental films that we’re curating at the Tallahassee Film Festival. The fact that we’ve been able to do so much right off the bat is incredibly encouraging and helps a lot.
And I always say, try to find something that keeps you in the moment, if you’re working in the environmental space—something positive that keeps you anchored, so then you can deal with the larger things. But also to take time off, the necessary time away from it to not get burnt out.
AS: I think also as creative people, it’s necessary to have that fictional world that we can disappear into. I know for me it’s a nice escape to be able to go back and forth: I can’t handle reality right now—I’m going to be in a reality that I made.
JV: Absolutely. And that’s one thing that was beginning to stress me out with politics (not with nonprofit work). Balance—I didn’t really have the time or the headspace. It’s been kind of a relief the last few months to feel like for the first time since the beginning of COVID, really, I’m actually back in the usual rhythm of the routine of writing.
AS: You’ve written from the perspective of people very different from you, including a lot of women—women who are scientists, a bodybuilder in your book Hummingbird Salamander….How do you create these characters?
JV: It’s a tough one, because there is a lot of that transference of emotion, transference of autobiographical detail when it seems appropriate, when it seems like it’s going to fit a character. Often, a main character is connected to some kind of very charged image or situation. And then I just think about it for a long time until I know what the ending is, even if it changes by the time I get to the ending. That’s when I begin to write.
“I think it’s important that all writers in all situations are self-aware enough to know what their strengths are and what their limitations are. And then in situations where you can really do damage…just don’t write certain kinds of things.”
Right now, I’m working on three novellas. Mostly handwritten scenes. And then these notecards of little ideas that have come to me are put in chronological order by story. In terms of creating those kinds of characters, for Annihilation it was partially that that’s the way they came to me and then partially this idea that I really hated movies and books where it was all men and only one woman. And the fact that my books were well received, I think, gives my subconscious the permission to continue doing that. So, even though I’d been writing women characters before Annihilation, I think the reader response really gave me permission to continue in that vein.
That said, I think it’s also very situational. The expedition that they’re going on in Annihilation isolates them from society, so there’s less of a responsibility for me to show the complexity of what it’s like for someone who isn’t a White guy to move through societies, so to speak. And even with Jane and the bodybuilding, she is isolated at one point, and is kind of a loner to begin with. So, I pick my spots.
I think it’s important that all writers in all situations are self-aware enough to know what their strengths are and what their limitations are. And then in situations where you can really do damage, getting something wrong—just don’t write certain kinds of things.
AS: You weren’t an overnight success, which is something I appreciate about you. You held on to your day job for a long time. Did the success of Annihilation and The Southern Reach Trilogy surprise you? Do you think there was something different about that first book in the series that resonated so much?
JV: It’s interesting, because that book did require a lot of hustle, and it did involve things like taking on more nonfiction assignments. But from 2007 until 2014, when Annihilation was published, I was a full-time writer, and it was with piecework—doing novelizations. I also did things like The Steampunk Bible coffee table book [Abrams, 2011]. I was really proud of that era. Even though the hustle is such that I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have eventually killed me, I’m proud of the fact that I was a full-time writer during that period.
It’s more that as I was beginning to realize I wanted to write about Florida in some form, I realized I was going to be writing some novels that were set in some version of the real world. I knew I was working toward that. I knew that would automatically be more accessible than the fantasy work I was doing. But the fantasy work was really important. It had to come first.