The Everglades: River of grass, water of life

Anyone visiting Florida should read Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s book, which helped the Everglades to flourish again

 

“There are no other Everglades in the world,” writes Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the opening of The Everglades: River of Grass, her very readable 1947 study of one of the world’s most fascinating and least understood regions. 

Like so much of her writing, which ranges from the environment to women’s issues and civil rights, she conveys a great deal of information and ideas in a few words. She was at once drawing attention to the Everglades’ unique qualities and implicitly insisting on the importance of conserving it even as she watched it dying before her eyes. 

Her book weaves ecological and social history into a compelling and dramatic narrative, and it remains influential. The Everglades in Florida had generally been regarded as a noxious swamp that could somehow be “reclaimed” into prime agricultural and housing land by crude and wholesale drainage. Her book helped shift local and national public opinion, at the last moment, in favour of recognising its true value for both nature and human wellbeing. River of Grass is comparable as an environmental classic to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, although it is much less well known.

 Even if you visit Florida only for its entertainment parks or exquisite beaches you are likely to find that Douglas’s account enhances your experience and understanding of the landscape. Everything in the state is linked to the core issue she explores so vividly: how fresh water moves across vast areas that rarely rise more than a few metres above sea level, and the disastrous consequences of altering those flows without understanding them.

Colonised

Florida’s coast was the first part of what is now the United States to be colonised by European settlers. But its interior, the last part of the country to be accurately surveyed, came under full government control only as late as the 1930s. And the heart of that interior is the Everglades.

Douglas’s book was first published as part of a series on the country’s rivers, which may at first seem surprising. Much of the Everglades is forested, and water seeps so slowly through the region that its direction is often almost imperceptible. But the insight that this ecosystem is indeed a river captures a key fact: it is a single integrated watershed running from Lake Okeechobee through all of southern Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic.

For centuries the baffling maze of dense mangrove jungle on its fringes and the majestic pond-cypress in its interior made it impenetrable to white settlers. So did the thickly packed sawgrass that once dominated its great northern expanses – and ripped the hand of anyone foolish enough to try to grasp them. Thriving populations of crocodiles, alligators and venomous snakes also served to deter intruders.

But the Everglades is far from inhospitable to people capable of adapting to this semi-aquatic landscape. It had long been widely, if probably thinly, populated by Native Americans. Small communities lived well off an abundance and diversity of fish, birds, animals and plants. They subtly altered its topography, creating enormous shell mounds, artificial islands on which to build their dwellings, tend their kitchen gardens and bury their dead.    

But when those populations crashed through exposure to European diseases their mounds were almost instantly overgrown, and the familiar colonial misperception that the Everglades were empty and pristine took root. 

Solitude

Certainly, one of its attractions to modern visitors remains a sense of apparently infinite solitude, well captured by Douglas in passages such as this one: “An Everglades kite and his mate, questing in great solitary circles, rising and dipping and rising again on the wind currents, can look down all day long at the water faintly green with floating water lettuce or marked by thin standing lines of reeds, utter their sharp goat cries, and be seen and heard by no one at all.” 

The early part of the book is an illuminating journey through the geology and natural history of the Everglades, an exemplary translation of complex science into straightforward but lively and sometimes very poetic prose.

Here she is on the predatory life cycle of the strangler fig: “Its long columnar trunks and octopus roots wrap as if they were melted and poured around the parent trunk, flowing upward and downward in wooden nets and baskets and flutings and enlacings . . .”

But Douglas was keenly interested in the human inhabitants also, and she gives an equally rich account of Native American lifestyles. For a popular writer of her period she is remarkably nonjudgmental, even approving, about their distinctive social, religious and sexual customs. But she does not romanticise their relationship with nature nor patronise them as “noble savages”. 

Her tone is laconic but acerbic about the duplicitous and rapacious conduct of the US authorities and citizens during the so-called Seminole wars of the early 19th century. Seminole is simply the Creek [a native American tribe] word for fugitive, and by this stage the Everglades was home to the remnants of a dozen native peoples, along with the escaped black slaves who found refuge with them. She celebrates the handful who survived another 100 years without surrendering, deep in the Everglades, as the sole “undefeated” people of that terrible time.

Her key message, however, is to castigate the repeated assaults by “developers” and misguided agriculturalists who successfully campaigned for the wholesale drainage of the Everglades long before anyone had done a single comprehensive study of how the system worked.

The results were catastrophic not only for its myriad plants and animals, and for the remaining human inhabitants, but also for many of the speculators and settlers. The only agriculturally productive soils were in the northern areas. Even there, soil suddenly exposed to wind, fire and overexploitation was often quickly eroded or exhausted. And as the fresh water from Okeechobee was channelled rapidly into the seas, salt water began to penetrate rapidly inland, where the slow seepage of the Everglades had kept it out for millenniums. The new coastal cities had chronic water shortages.

River of Grass welcomed the designation of the Everglades as a National Park in 1946. Yet, as Douglas notes in an afterword from 1974, misguided water policies continued to seriously threaten the region for decades. It was only with the establishment of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, in 2000, that real signs of still-fragile recovery became evident.

The Everglades still faces all the old challenges, and many new ones, not least the new administration in Washington, DC. With luck Floridians will have the wisdom – really just enlightened self-interest – to continue to restore the great green waterway Douglas loved so much.

How to get there: Points of entry to Everglades adventures

From the north: stay in Everglades City (a small town), hike swamps and prairies in the Fakahatchie Strand and Big Cypress Preserve, and canoe with alligators (they have right of way) through the mangrove tunnels on the Turner River and Halfway Creek; visit the boardwalk at Shark Valley to see alligators and wood storks without getting your feet wet.

From the south: the park entrance here is less than an hour from Miami and the Florida Keys. There is another extraordinary boardwalk where you can see normally shy birds such as bitterns – and almost a dozen heron species – close up. Walk the coastal prairies and look for the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live side by side in the wild, at Flamingo.

North and south: spend three days kayaking the Wilderness Waterway from Everglades City to Flamingo. You can sleep on open platforms – “chickees” – but don’t lie down on top of a snake.

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