River of Grass.
This lyrical other name of the Everglades was conceived by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. It came to her much as story ideas come to a writer: through personal experience, research and learning from others. When she contemplated using it in the title of a book, Gerald Parker, a hydrologist who knew the natural mechanics of the Everglades better than anyone, told her the concept fit with scientific reality. It also bordered on radical. A hideous swamp, the common perception of the Everglades, was contrary to poetic references. But Douglas discovered a “shining and slow moving” body of water, a truly dazzling wetland, in South Florida’s famous swamp, and with the 1947 publication of The Everglades: River of Grass, she extended a felicitous corrective to a traditionally maligned place. The Everglades were (she referred to them in the plural) a river of grass.
In recent years, scientists and others have criticized Douglas’ phrase as a poetic oversimplification. They argue that as an ecosystem, the Everglades is (they prefer the singular) more biologically diverse than sawgrass and water, and that Douglas’ lamentable representation undermines the complexities of restoration. Read River of Grass, however, and you will see that Douglas faithfully details the multifaceted nature of the Everglades. She also celebrates it.
She did so even though her sense of natural beauty matured elsewhere. A New Englander, she grew up amidst rolling hills and dales, babbling brooks and minty birch and hemlock woodlands, where birdsong began in the predawn hour, sometimes with the morning hail of loons, and the day ended with the waning sun casting gold on lake and pond. At age 25, seeking a divorce and new direction in life, she settled in Miami in 1915. Home for the next 83 years, South Florida heedlessly pursued destructive growth. Douglas noticed this proclivity from the first. She saw too how physically different this new place was from New England. Florida was relentlessly flat, but it was equally a land of contrasts and extremes – mucky swampland and dry limestone ridge land, thick jungle and open prairie, moderating trade winds and stifling heat, protracted droughts and flash storms. She found a desperate sort of paradise here, and yet, unlike many northern transplants, she sought not to change it. If memories of New England vistas filled her with longing, she only had to look toward the cumulus clouds that piled up in late afternoon over the Everglades; there she saw white mountains. Nothing otherwise contrasted more with New England than that rarified wetland, and nothing inspired her so greatly.
The late nature writer Edward Abbey said that the “human sensibility cannot assimilate” the desert. This has been the history of the Everglades. Many sorts of people, from Spanish settler-soldiers to American land merchants and agricultural barons, hesitated before this vast and forbidding quagmire, even as they thought about, tried and eventually succeeded at subduing it. Conquistadors all, they could neither assimilate nor accept the Everglades in their raw, uncharted grace. Efforts to take command of the wet wilderness began in the 19th century with private drainage concerns and continued through the 20th with government water-management projects. Douglas eventually condemned these activities.
But she was not the first to perceive the need for a new sensibility. In 1928, Ernest Coe, a semi-retired landscape architect, and David Fairchild, a famous tropical-plant scientist, organized an association to lobby for the creation of a national park. They recruited Douglas to join their group and write supportive newspaper and magazine articles. The odds were stacked heavily against them. National parks were supposed to embody a rare natural keepsake – a geyser, waterfall, desert rock formation or mountain – and public recreational opportunities. To the average American, the Everglades were an outsize no-man’s land fitting for only alligators, snakes and biting vermin. But after a six-year struggle, the association convinced policymakers of the prospects for recreation and vistas of singular beauty in this proposed park like no other. And approval came with an unexpected bonus. Everglades was the first national park authorized with the goal of protecting biological features for scientific study. Still, 13 more frustrating years passed before the park opened.
In the meantime, Douglas, who had established herself as a magazine writer, entertained an invitation from a major publishing house to write a book about the Miami River. She suggested the Everglades instead. Over the years, she had eased into a relationship with them as one does with a lifelong friend. In addition to her work on the park association, she spent time fishing and bird watching and used the wetland as a setting in her short fiction.
The book required years of research. She met hydrologist Gerald Parker, along with geologists, anthropologists, biologists, meteorologists, ornithologists and historians – and she consulted famous naturalists who were part of her rich social and intellectual life. A lot of people knew a lot of things about the Everglades, but no one had ever brought that accumulated knowledge together in a single source. And she did so with consummate passion and tantalizing eloquence. Piece by piece she assembled the bountiful ecosystem for readers – the plant and animal life, the scrubland, tropical hardwood uplands, pine flatwoods, mangrove forest, wet prairie and sawgrass marsh. All formed a vibrant community sustained by lifeblood water passing through the arterial Kissimmee River-Lake-Okeechobee-Everglades flowway, which she described as maintaining “the persistent fine balance” of the “long heart of this long land.” Where others saw only green and brown emptiness, Douglas argued infinite variety thrived. How could she not refer to the Everglades in the plural?
The book debuted in late 1947. The timing was perfect. Four weeks later, on a blue-sky December day, President Harry Truman dedicated Everglades National Park. In his ceremonial remarks, Senator Claude Pepper referred to the great wetland as the River of Grass; so too did newspapers and magazines reporting on the event. As Douglas’ phrase embedded itself in the national language, few people suspected that the Everglades’ worst days lay ahead.
Within weeks of the dedication, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a bulldozer assault on the Everglades, ultimately conquering them with a mind-boggling system of levees, canals and building-size water pumps. In her book’s last chapter, Douglas welcomes anticipated water management for the good of the park. But government engineers arranged their priorities for the pecuniary benefit of commercial agriculture and urban development. In a magazine article 12 years later, Douglas chastises them for impeding water’s natural flow and endangering the park’s ecological health. Destroy the River of Grass, she had first warned in 1947, and you destroy the organic center that supplies the region’s freshwater, moderates the local climate and checks population sprawl. Her activism, for the time being, ended with the article.
But others were paying attention. During a five-year drought in the early 1960s, the park thirsted on the brink of death when Army engineers refused to direct flow away from vegetable and sugar farms. (The latter were undergoing massive expansion after securing a federal embargo on sugar from communist Cuba). Environmentalists fought through the decade to win a congressional mandate forcing the Corps to share water with the park. By then, their attention had shifted to a new insult. Dade County had broken ground for the world’s largest airport – in the Everglades, a few miles from the park.
Seeking reinforcement, activists searched for a spokesperson with public appeal, one who carried the authority of local history and the truth of the Everglades. Douglas was their person. A remarkable speaker, she projected ideas with high-volume clarity, despite her age. (A friend would dub her the “elocutioner;” she is truly one of Florida’s finest orators.) For more than 50 years, she had valued South Florida not as a slice of real estate but as a place to make a life. And her book, tucked like the Bible under the arms of local environmentalists, delivered the important truth, easily translated from the subtitle River of Grass. That was her lasting “genius,” said her longtime friend Helen Muir, transforming with three words a debased wasteland into the country’s most cherished wetland.
In 1969, the 79-year-old writer-turned-environmentalist founded Friends of the Everglades. After joining in the defeat of the airport, she guided her organization to press for the establishment of the Big Cypress National Preserve (1974), an end to agricultural pollution fouling Everglades water, reform in the expansionist impulses of water managers and restoration of the channelized, diked and otherwise arrested Kissimmee River-Lake Okeechobee-Everglades heart of the region. She spent her remaining decades moving the country toward a sensibility that assimilated the natural Everglades.
Much like her famous phrase, her name became synonymous with a valued place. In 1997, Congress attached it to a new 1.8-million-acre Everglades wilderness area, four years after President Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom. When she died in 1998, at 108, park rangers appropriately broadcast her ashes in the beloved river she gave to America, the River of Grass.
This article was first published in FORUM, the statewide magazine of the nonprofit Florida Humanities Council.
River of Grass.