Sunday, June 10, 2012

Thoughts on the Everglades by Moderator Michael Grunwald

I first visited the Everglades in August 2000, when I was an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Nature wasn’t really my thing; I just happened to be writing about the largest environmental restoration project in the history of the planet. My idea of experiencing the outdoors was playing tennis. And I must confess that my first reaction to the Everglades was: Huh? Why would anyone want to restore this hellhole?

August, it turns out, is not the best time to visit the River of Grass. It’s hot. It’s gross. There are mosquitoes. “My advice is to urge every discontented man to take a trip through the Everglades,” one early explorer wrote. “If it doesn’t kill him, it will certainly cure him.” And let’s face it: Even in the tourist season, the Everglades is not the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. It’s got no rugged cliffs or majestic valleys, no glaciers or geysers or craters. It’s less ooh and aah than hmm. Even the first superintendent of Everglades National Park wrote that “to put it crudely, there is nothing in the Everglades that will make Mr. Jonnie Q. Public suck in his breath.”

Obviously, the Everglades grew on me, or else I wouldn’t have written The Swamp. But I’ve taken some flack from nature-lovers over the book’s initial description of the Everglades, because it’s not the kind of awestruck lyricism that writers are supposed to produce when introducing ecological treasures:

The natural Everglades was not quite land and not quite water, but a soggy confusion of the two.

It was a vast sheet of shallow water spread across a seemingly infinite prairie of serrated sawgrass, a liquid expanse of muted greens and browns extending to the horizon. It had the panoramic sweep of a desert, except flooded, or a tundra, except melted, or a wheat field, except wild. It was studded with green teardrop-shaped islands of tangled trees and scraggly shrubs, and specked with white spider lilies and violet-blue pickerelweeds. But mostly it looked like the world’s largest and grassiest puddle, or the flattest and wettest meadow, or the widest and slowest-moving stream. It had the squish and the scruff of an untended yard after a downpour, except that this yard was larger than Connecticut.

Bo-ring! So literal! Where’s the drama? How could I describe one of nature’s cathedrals without using words like “magnificent” and “ethereal” and “breathless”?

Don’t worry; I promise I did at least some overwrought nature writing in The Swamp. Sawgrass arching in the breeze like a congregation at prayer, cauliflower clouds printing their reflections on glittering sloughs, that kind of thing. But the Everglades, as the guidebooks say, “takes some getting used to.” It “reveals its secrets slowly.” Its appeal “may escape many visitors at first glance.”

For the next couple months, I’m going to chat with you about The Swamp, and also about The Everglades: River of Grass, by the late Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Marjory was also a journalist, not a naturalist, and I hope it’s no disrespect to her memory to point out that she once believed the Everglades should be developed into “the great tropical agriculture center of the world.” It was an acquired taste for her, too. But she later became an activist, and helped make the Everglades the political equivalent of motherhood and apple pie, singing its praises and shaming its enemies. So I thought I’d start with a question: How can Americans be persuaded to care about nature? Polls suggest the electorate generally supports “the environment,” but cares less about it than almost any other issue. So how can it be protected?

I’m not asking about the Grand Canyon and Yosemite; they’re the charismatic megafauna of ecological treasures. Not even the drill-baby-drillers want to mess with places like that. But the Everglades was once almost universally considered a God-forsaken wasteland, “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles.” Now it’s almost universally acknowledged as a jewel. All politicians—left-wing, right-wing, buffalo-wing—at least say they want to restore the Everglades, even the ones that still treat it like a wasteland. My book was in many ways the story of how a reviled wilderness that was once America’s last frontier became a beloved national treasure—at the same time it was being developed into not only a tropical agricultural center but a sprawling megalopolis.

So why should the tennis players among us care about saving the earth? The question partly answers itself; we live on earth, and it’s got the finest tennis courts in the known universe. One of the main themes of The Swamp is that the destruction of the Everglades by people has had some very negative consequences for people, and that the restoration of the Everglades could help restore our tattered paradise down here in South Florida. Our drinking water sits underneath the Everglades. Millions of visitors to the Sunshine State fish, hunt, bird-watch and otherwise enjoy the Everglades and its ecosystem, and red tides that make it impossible for tourists to breathe at the beach are bad for business. And as exurban sprawl has ravaged the Everglades, it has also ravaged the quality of life in South Florida, turning paradise into an unsustainable hellscape of strip malls, golf courses, interminable traffic jams, overcrowded schools and hospitals, overstretched municipal budgets, and a vanishing sense of place, the New Jersey Turnpike with better weather. It was no coincidence that the sprawling subdivisions that invaded cheap Everglades swampland became Ground Zero of the foreclosure crisis. It may be a coincidence that geologically, the best way to combat sea-level rise over the next century would be to restore the flow of the River of Grass, but it doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

Marjory famously said that the Everglades is a test; if we pass, we may get to keep the planet. That’s what attracted me to the story. I think South Florida is where we’re going to figure out whether man is capable of living in harmony with nature, whether we can repair our abusive relationship with our environment. It’s a test of our intelligence, our science, our planning, but it’s also a moral test. It will reveal our character as a species.

But if Marjory were here, she would also point out that the Everglades is not just about us. She may have started as a journalist, but she became an activist, because she believed the Everglades was a special place that ought to be saved for its own sake. She began River of Grass with her best argument for the Everglades:

There are no other Everglades in the world.

They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the erath, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in their simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of sawgrass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and the water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.

Now that’s nature writing!

[WILD READ Editor's Note: 
Michael just published the following book: The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era (Simon & Schuster, 2012)


Mark LaRoux said...

If one visits the Grand Canyon, the scenery is mostly rocks with a dotting of life. Yosemite is a mix, with life and rocks about 'breaking even' when you look, and its an obvious struggle. The Everglades is all about life, unavoidably and with little else than the occassional sand and water. It's so much life that just standing still and watching it will get you mosquitoes and ticks to remind you that you are really part of the life, whether you accept your place in nature or not. Heck, it's life saying out loud "I DID THIS!". Many people prefer not to be reminded they are part of nature, and assume that after the swamp was drained and the malls and houses were built that nature was 'defeated' by man, and that south Florida is just a warmer New York. They are just too busy with each other. Most don't 'bother' to notice. Bother...

jO said...

Fully agree with M Grunwald's comments about 'swamps'. Most folk, viewing a swamp for the first time, aren't likely to consider it a place of beauty. For many, such a place looks forbidding...even frightening. Over time, however, these watery ecosystems 'grow' on you as your senses are stimulated by haunting, primitive scenes: a barely-perceptible alligator sunning on a log, a field of bright yellow flowers growing from the murky water in autumn or irises in the spring, a snowy egret of the purest white slowly and silently stalking its next meal. Such scenes are stored in my memory from swamp outings of long ago and, when called forth, invariably bring a sense of wonder and appreciation Nature. With gratitude for the likes of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Michael Grunwald and countless others who write so beautifully on behalf of our marvelous planet. JO

Bill Sherwonit said...

I now live in Alaska, which has a grant variety of extraordinary wild landscapes. But I have also come to relish the more ordinary (yet still wild) landscapes of my adopted home, Anchorage. And I grew up in Trumbull, CT, where by most standards the landscape is quite ordinary. Yet The Woods and yes, the neighborhood swamp, a short walk from my family's yard, were marvelous places to play and explore and love. To a youngster who loved solitude and strange creatures (frogs, snakes, and snapping turtles), the swamp was a magical and mysterious place.

I finally visited the Everglades a few years ago, in winter. So I wasn't besieged by the worst of its insect onslaught, which may have made my visit more delightful. Though I didn't get far from the road system (yet did some hikes with my sweetheart, Helene), I found much to love about the place, including the "swampy" landscape, the alligators, and the amazing variety of birds. I think it helped that I had formed an early relationship with a swamp to better appreciate the Everglades' own form of grandeur.

The question of how Americans can be persuaded to care about the larger, wilder, "natural world" is a crucial one, with no easy answer, especially in an era where people are increasingly withdrawing from wild nature -- except for brief visits to more charismatic landscapes or when looking for charismatic creatures. Though I appreciate the argument that it's helpful to show the importance of "wild America" (or more broadly, the wild Earth) to our own lives, it always disturbs me when persuasion is based soley, or mostly, on human utility. Like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, I think the greater challenge is this: how do we get more people to recognize and embrace the notion -- in my view, the clear reality -- that wildlands and wildlife (and landscapes and other life forms generally) are "special" in and of themselves, and worthy of being protected, for reasons that have nothing to do with us humans. That is is indeed the test, which our species seems to be failing badly.

Thanks for this discussion.

Ellen said...

Caring about nature is something that should start when we are young so that people grow up valuing undeveloped areas. Anything anyone can do to encourage schools to keep nature in school curriculum is important. In many places, it is not until high school that the environment is actually studied, but it can easily be included in all subjects beginning in PreK classes. Unfortunately, many teachers feel they are not qualified or interested in the subject to even include it in their teaching plans.

As for adults, for the past 40 years we have grown 2 generations that are more and more removed from nature and that does not help preserve the wild places. Reconnecting may come one person at a time--actually taking one adult and introducing them to natural wonders (bugs and all!) is a slow process, but in the end, change really comes because one person connected with another.

Karene said...

Michael, I enjoy your revealing and graspable writing very much. I thoroughly enjoyed The Swamp; your evolution from tennis player to activist for ‘place’ is a hopeful story for any of us who care about natural areas. Because of your book, I felt a strange allure to explore the everglades through my summer reading and just started the novel, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. I think others may enjoy her quirky (and accurate) descriptions of life in the isolated hummocks of Florida. It includes outlandish characters and bizarre plot – so it’s not for everyone. Are there any other books you particularly recommend to round out my swampy summer?