Friday, January 30, 2009

"River of Grass"

The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)

Every once in a while, something good happens which makes the national news. On Thursday, November 8, 2007, according to a CNN report, “The Senate … handed President Bush his first veto override -- authorizing $23 billion in new water projects.” Two billion dollars of these funds are earmarked for Florida and of that, most will go towards Everglades restoration. If Marjory Stoneman Douglas were still alive, she would be smiling.

In addition to living 108 years, Marjory Stoneman Douglas (April 7, 1890 - May 14, 1998) was unusual in that she was a professional woman in an era when most women did not work outside of the home, and those who did were employed in clerical work. After divorcing her husband, Kenneth Douglas, in 1917 after one year of marriage, Ms. Douglas moved to Miami to work for her father who was the editor of a newspaper which would eventually become the Miami Herald. Across the next several decades, she wrote many short stories and articles for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Woman's Home Companion, as well as a number of novels.

Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947 – when development of south Florida was in full swing along the east and west coasts. As more people moved down to enjoy the beautiful winters, demand for buildable land led to the creation of a vast network of canals to convert the wetlands to dry so that development could continue to move inland. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was so successful in drying the swamps that in addition to almost killing the Everglades, it brought south Florida to the brink of ecological collapse. What no one seemed to understand was that the slow, southward flow of water through the river of grass prevented salt water from seeping into the aquifers which provide Florida’s fresh water. If not for Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her efforts to save the Everglades, south Florida might have become uninhabitable.

In 2007, Pineapple Press published a 50th anniversary edition of River of Grass. It includes two additional chapters which provide an updated look at the state of the Everglades as well as the efforts to reverse some of the damage. Without these new chapters, the book might seem dated as so much has happened, both good and bad, since its initial publication. Just the same, the original work is a timeless and well-researched piece of journalism. Ms. Douglas begins the book with a rapturous description of the vast sea of grass which reads like an epic poem. Her beautiful prose reveals the passion and tenderness she had for the strong, yet fragile, Everglades. In the first chapter, she analyzes each sub-system of the overall: the grass, the water, the rock, the plants and animals, and the people. Her research covers natural and human history which, taken together, enable the reader to understand why the Everglades nearly died, why this ecosystem must be saved, and what the goals of restoration must include.

Even without the drama of saving the Everglades, Florida’s history is fascinating to learn about and River of Grass presents an overview which is detailed enough to give the reader an appreciation of this. Humans have inhabited the Florida peninsula for almost 20,000 years when the last great ice age created mass migrations southward. The tribes settled on the coastlines where fish were plentiful and their descendents – the Seminoles – still live here. Life was predictable for millennia until the Europeans mastered the open ocean in the 1400s and the great age of discovery began.

Christopher Columbus was credited with discovering the American continent, although he made landfall on one of the islands of the Bahamas. It took several voyages for Spain to reach the great continent which would be called “the new world”. During this time, the Spanish proceeded to enslave and exterminate the natives on every island they took. When the Spanish slave ships made their way to the Florida peninsula, the native Floridians, understanding the threat, were prepared to fight and much Spanish blood was shed. The Spaniards did not go away, however, they returned again and again with more men and superior weapons. At the same time, other explorers began encroaching on the Spanish territory. The natives, however, were cunning warriors who refused to be defeated and kept the conquerors at bay.

For approximately 300 years, the natives lived peacefully in and around the Everglades. The Spaniards remained in the north, establishing harbor towns and forts, choosing to leave the natives alone in their watery wasteland. Other Europeans continued to make attempts to encroach on south Florida and as the United States formed and began expanding its boundaries, the native Americans came under attack with increasing frequency.

In the years before the Civil War, escaping slaves often made their way to Florida where they were out of reach of the slave bounty hunters. Some were taken in by the natives and others learned to survive in the wet Florida wilderness. Confederate Army deserters, too, found Florida a good place to disappear and thus the non-native population began to grow and change the nature of the environment by introducing land cultivation and cattle farming. Meanwhile, the United States Government recognized that Florida had both economic and strategic value and began a campaign to kill the natives and displace any survivors by coercing them into signing treaties which took advantage of their naiveté in matters of money and real estate. Some of the natives, understanding that their world had been taken, retreated into the impenetrable cypress swamps where they would be safe for a time. Others, defeated and dispirited, followed the trail of tears to strange and hostile new homelands.

At the same time the United States was fighting the final battles against the native Americans, Spain was causing trouble from its colony, Cuba. Once the United States won the Spanish-American War, trade with Cuba opened up. It was a time of extreme lawlessness on the peninsula with pirates seizing ships and outlaws hiding in the Ten Thousand Islands. Plume hunters ravaged bird rookeries and alligator hunters nearly brought the species to extinction. Mosquitoes plagued everyone and yet, once the natives and the Spanish had been dispatched, industrialists like Henry Flagler and Henry Plant saw opportunities in the swampy south. But, it was Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward who took the idea of draining the swamps and made it happen.

The Army Corps of Engineers, recognizing that Lake Okeechobee turned into an overflowing saucer during hurricanes, built up a levee around its southern shore. In addition to flood control, this levee severely restricted the flow of water out of the lake into the river of grass rather than allowing the water to flow south. Instead, the engineers created canals to channel the water east and west into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers where it emptied into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Healthy, meandering rivers became straight water conduits leaving dried out swamps which no longer could support indigenous plants and animals in their wake. As farming increased, runoff contaminated the water in the lake and consequently, the rivers.

As the Everglades receded, the area around Miami began expanding in all directions. The beautiful climate attracted winter and year-round residents alike and that created a building boom. In the north, from the panhandle and Jacksonville, development along the coasts advanced rapidly, too, surrounding the swampy southern interior and creating additional pressure for drainage. Great fortunes were made in real estate speculation, but not everyone was happy with the changes being wrought in Florida. Some, like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, decided that enough was enough. As champion of the Everglades, Ms. Douglas took on politicians and developers alike in her formidable campaign to save what was left of the Everglades.

Ms. Douglas’ work on the Everglades began as a result of an assignment to write about the Miami River as part of a series on American rivers. In the course of field studies of her subject, she came to understand that without the Everglades, the Miami River would shrivel up and die, along with all the plants and animals living in and around it. Her editor agreed to let her expand the scope of her report and her life’s work was born.

It has taken a long time for us as a nation to appreciate the singular beauty of the Everglades and stop thinking of it as a watery wasteland in need of draining and filling. We should all give thanks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas for being like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike and stopping a catastrophe.

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