The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradiseby Michael Grunwald Published 27 Mar 2007
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The Swamp is the story of the destruction and possible resurrection of the Everglades, the saga of man's abuse of nature in southern Florida and his unprecedented efforts to make amends. Michael Grunwald, a prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, takes readers on a journey from the Ice Ages to the present, illuminating the natural, social and political history of one of America's most beguiling but least understood patches of land.
"The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise" Reviews
All I knew about the Everglades before I visited in May 2009 was that I had never been to them, despite all the time I had spent in Miami as a child, and they had alligators. All I knew when I left was that the Everglades were endangered because of water use conflicts and that they weren't near as wet as I thought they'd be. Then I picked up The Swamp.
Grunwald does a masterful job of simplifying (perhaps over-simplifying but to one who knows nothing the clarity was welcome) the history of the Everglades, the history of southern Florida and the politics that still get in the way of logical and useful policy.
I used to think of the Everglades as a "from the dawn of time" kind of thing but it isn't all that old. As Grunwald writes, "If the history of the earth is condensed into a week, algae started growing Monday, fish started swimming Saturday morning, and birds flew in early Saturday afternoon. The Everglades showed up a half second before midnight, around the time the Egyptians started building pyramids." The land that would become the Everglades was formed at the dawn of time, when Pangaea broke up and North America spirited away with an appendage-shaped chunk of northwest Africa that would become Florida. It's been geologically stable ever since; none of those upheavals that cause mountains or canyons. It spent a lot of time covered by ocean. Then it emerged with a unique make-up; a gentle limestone slope towards the sea with a large lake (Okeechobee) that drank up the rain and overflowed slowly, sending water cascading gently towards the ocean. The conditions in the Everglades were harsh; very unsuited for life. Except life took hold anyway and created an ecosystem unlike any other in the world. An ecosystem that, by design, worked flawlessly despite the dearth of materials to support it. Then Man showed up.
And Man wanted progress. White Man, that is. Indian populations lived in the Everglades for centuries, taking advantage of the abundance of the ecosystem but also using sustainable practices, preserving the resources while simultaneously living off of them. White Man didn't do it that way. White Man wanted to conquer. White Man, particularly Christian White Man, wanted to exert dominion over nature; it says that in the Bible after all. A tiny example; White Man killed birds with abandon during the plumed-hat craze of the late 1800s. They left chicks to die without adults to take care of them. Then they wondered why the birds were disappearing.
That's how White Man approached the Everglades; how can it make me money? Once in a while, a White Man would pop up with the notion that human victory over nature didn't really represent progress but since there weren't dollars attached to the idea, that visionary was often ignored. Natural resources are only valuable insofar as they can be exploited by human beings.
Thoreau tried but his "loving nature for nature's sake" schtick wasn't appealing to the masses who only cared about the dollar and progress. Then George Perkins Marsh piped up with, "All nature is linked together by invisible bonds, and every organic creature, however low, however feeble, however dependent, is necessary to the well-being of some other." That rang a little farther than Thoreau's poetic diatribes. But it didn't ring far enough.
Sure, conservation was a cornerstone of the progressive era; Teddy Roosevelt had a fascination for living beings. He also liked to shoot them. But he couldn't shoot unless there were beings to shoot, hence conservation.
But conservation is not preservation. And shooting things just for the pleasure of shooting them didn't over-ride the concerns of those who wanted to see economic progress; farm land made out of the River of Grass. Cities connected by roads and railways. And airports. Progress not preservation.
So the boondoggle of draining the Everglades began. And continues to this day. It never entirely worked, due mostly to the epic incompetency of the Army Core of Engineers, but it sure did destroy the ecosystem that made the Everglades the Everglades.
"There is something very distressing in the gradual destruction of the wilds, the destruction of the forests, the draining of the swamps, the transforming of the prairies with their wonderful wealth of bloom and beauty - and in its place the coming of civilized man with all his unsightly constructions, his struggles for power, his vulgarity and pretensions...We constantly boast of our marvelous national growth. We shall proudly point someday to the Everglade country and say; Only a few years ago this was worthless swamp; today it is an empire. But I wonder quite seriously if the world is any better off because we have destroyed the wilds and filled the land with countless human beings." -- Charles Torrey Simpson.
There are famous names of those who tried to save the Everglades and it was made a National Park, regardless of the fact that, as Grunwald writes, "It was less ooh or aah than hmm." But it also had to compete with the influx of man into a land that doesn't have enough natural resources to support the population that followed the developers' piper song. And even in the 1970s, when preservation became hip, the Everglades had to fight with the humans over who got the water. And the humans always won; or the corporations run by humans, rather. The Army Core of Engineers only released water to the Everglades when no one else needed it, including the Everglades. The delicate balance of the Everglades Ecosystem relies on the pattern of flood and drought that came to it naturally before man arrived. But that pattern isn't sustainable when the water is needed to assuage the thirst of all those retirees who flock to "God's Waiting Room" during the dry season when there wasn't enough water to go around even before they arrived. And the runoff from the crops contains phosphorus, which allows heartier life to take hold; cattails replace sedge sawgrass and the ecosystem changes forever. So the water that IS released to the Everglades often is one more bullet in an already dying corpse.
So the Everglades loses. Still losing, even though in a bizarre move in 2000, when a bipartisan coalition of unlikely characters like Jeb Bush and Al Gore came together, in the midst of Gore v. Bush, to sign an agreement that would ostensibly save the Everglades.
But the Everglades is still in dire danger. And so is the quality of life in south Florida; it's already a virtual hellscape of concrete, asphalt and strip malls. Man is soiling his own nest. Even "lower" beings don't do that.
"We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature today is critically important, simply because we have acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. We in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery - not of nature, but of ourselves." -- Rachel Carson
"We have met the enemy, and he is us." -- Pogo
"The Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet." -- attributed to Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Flocculent ooze: Politics, progress and the poisoning of an American treasure
Author Michael Grunwald provides a riveting look at a swamp filled with danger, unpredictable currents, sucking quicksand, predators and prey, and treachery. And that’s just when he is describing Florida politics. The real star of the book is the Florida Everglades, a unique, threatened and vulnerable ecosystem in Florida. Known as the river of grass, it’s a long, gently sloping swamp which once covered a large percentage of the state and was home to a staggering array of flora and fauna. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see flocks of thousands of flamingos take to wing, but sadly, fashionistas needed their plumes to compensate for their own shortcomings.
I picked up this book on a swing through the Everglades national park on our way to Key West, and was very glad I did. Just a few hours stroll through the park and we got a lasting sense of what a majestic place the Everglades were before man tried to drain them and, in between mojitos and snorkeling, I immersed myself into the filth and muck of the politics behind the current park.
The book opens at the end of the story, as then-president Clinton signs into law an $8 billion restoration project for the Everglades with Jeb Bush on hand, as well as a variety of developers, environmentalists and other unlikely political bedfellows from both sides of the aisle. The bill was signed into law even as the Supreme Court was deciding the Gore vs. Bush recount in Florida (a decision which, the author hints, would have been rendered unnecessary had Gore come out in opposition to an airport expansion that gave at least 10,000 votes to Nader).
With the context set, the book then rewinds to the past when Native Americans lived in Florida and the Everglades was a massive, slowly seeping natural wonder akin to the Grand Canyon, only utterly flat and soggy and verdant. He then chronicles the painful march of history from natural wonder with saw grass as far as the eye could see, to national shame with strips malls as far as the eye could see, as Florida underwent an endless cycle of boom and bust development activities that wrecked the environment and pushed the Native Americans into the swamp as. Eventually, of course, the Everglades were deemed to profitable to leave alone and the Native Americans were impolitely asked to leave. They chose to fight and the U.S. got mired in a Vietnam style war two hundred years before the Vietnam War.
Following that, an endless array of politicians set out to tame the swamp, build roads and levees and canals and railroads and the resulting floods and fires and run-off loaded with poisons slowly strangled an American Treasure, albeit, a slightly mucky one.
It is a powerful look at how we always hurt the ones we love, especially when it comes to the environment. It would have been an enjoyable read without the firsthand introduction the Everglades, but the fact that I got to see alligators, anhingas, mangrove trees and even a purple gallinute up close made it a uniquely satisfying – and depressing – experience. Add to that our time in Key West where we traveled streets named for many of the players in the book, and I have to give this the highest rating.
It was exhaustively researched and he is a talented writer (even though he used the term “no one wanted to see their ox gored” a few times too many, it was redeemed by lines such as “…like drunks at the end of a bar fight. Their arms felt heavy and they wanted an excuse to stop slugging.). Highly recommend, and I also recommend – if you haven’t already – taking a trip to see what’s left of the Everglades before they are gone forever.
Did I ever tell you I fell in love with Florida two years ago? I thought I was too good for it, a ticky-tacky place with no wilds ruled by the Mouse. I avoided Florida all my life until I made the mistake of just-passin'-thru on the way to something else. I was a gone in 30 seconds from that warm, sweet air and the sight of my first palm tree swaying green and shirtless by the exit ramp. In no time we were downing boilermakers (for when you need to catch up) and necking behind the pinball machine. And much too soon, I found myself doing the flight of shame back to Montreal. But I digress.
One of the enjoyments of reading this book is the names--Okeechobee, Calosahatchee. It's one big Bobby Gentry song. Unfortunately, there are many unbearable facts in this book. The Everglades were a very slow river. It was a vast and delicate water cycle that is now stopped up through drainage projects, dams, canals, invasive plants, agricultural run-off, runaway development etc. As usual, the politics that come up against fixing it are complicated and powerful. The history of this mess is fascinating, sad, and through Grunwald, excellent reading.
Places like the Everglades, recently impenetrable, can give us a false sense of their immortality. This happens with the Far North as well. They are tough environments, but that doesn't mean they're tough. They're really just very well balanced and specialized, which makes them extremely delicate. This book gives a lesson in what's finite, the limits of the everlasting. Odd that a book about a wetland in the south can make me fear for the north. But all of it is finite; greed is not.
Interesting convergence p. 309: under politics
"Al Gore had lambasted Big Sugar in his book, but Alfonso Fanjul was so angry when the vice president endorsed penny-a-pound that he called the White House an hour later to complain. At the time, President Clinton was in the Oval Office telling an intern named Monica Lewinsky that he no longer felt right about their sexual relationship, but he interrupted the breakup to speak to Fanjul for twenty-two minutes.
"I think it's fair to say that tensions were high," Graham recalled."
I enjoy finding local bookshops when we travel and buying a book or two about the place we're in. Normally I go for a local author or a history of the place. On our trip to Sanibel we found a great little gem of a place called simply the Sanibel Bookshop. This place had everything, including this book, "The Swamp." I had to buy it.
This book is fascinating, mainly because it mixes the history of South Florida from the early Spanish days up through the modern day with the environmental history of the Everglades. Before reading this book I had little knowledge of what the Everglades are but now that I have finished the book, I want to head straight back down to Florida and see them.
The Everglades are one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. You won't find any other environmental structure like them on Earth. And they're dying. We're killing them with sprawl, chemicals, and bureaucratic neglect. Grunwald does a nice job of weaving the story of how man has lived with the Everglades ever since the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians lived there (and some still do).
There are times when the author gets a little distracted with one person's story or some silly government red tape crap, but overall this book inspired me to think more deeply about places like the Everglades. I've been a fan of our national parks for a long time, but now I have a better sense of how some of our parks need more than just a legal protection; they need engaged, knowledgeable bodyguards to keep them from disappearing forever.
Grunwald, Michael. THE SWAMP. THE EVERGLADES, FLORIDA, AND THE POLITICS OF PARADISE. (2006). *****. The author is a reporter for the Washington Post, and, as such, was very interested in getting to the last third of the book covering the politics currently surrounding the Everglades. There’s lots of insider stuff there that is really depressing, but the first two-thirds makes up for all that. I’ve been to the Everglades twice in my life; once when I was four years old when Mom and I went down to visit Dad when he was on leave from North Atlantic duty during WW II. I was fascinated by the indians and their rather tawdry theme parks. They wrestled alligators. They wove baskets for you. They made jewelry for you out of coral. The second time was in the early 1970s, when I specifically went down to take a tour. This included the customary air-boat ride and visits to indian villages within the now national park. You don’t pick up a lot of history on trips like that. The author, however, provides lots of history about the Everglades, and south Florida in general, from prehistoric times to the present day. It’s a little confusing, but Grunwald makes very clear from the start that the Everglades is a marsh rather than a swamp, since it is composed of grassy vegetation rather than trees. Then he goes and calls his book the Swamp. Go figure. There are lots of arcane (to me) facts in his narrative as he takes us through the history of the region. There was, in the early days of the Florida land book, a man named William “Fingy” Conners. He was a Buffalo shipping magnate who shared political power over New York’s political machine with Tammany Hall. He was fascinated with the region early on and made lots of plans and spent lots of money on development projects that didn’t work out. Turns out that he was the inspiration for the comic strip hero Jiggs in “Bringing Up Father.” Jiggs was disguised as a gruff, but lovable Irish bricklayer turned millionaire, but folks apparently knew the reference at the time. Other familiar characters are also given their due in the book, names we know more about, like Flagler and Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and Francis Dade. We also learn about the people who loved the Everglades and did their best to preserve it. This includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who wrote the famous entry in the “Rivers of America” series: “Everglades: River of Grass.” The author provides us with an overview of Florida’s weather and some of its disastrous effects. These include the two hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, the latter being the second largest natural disaster in the U.S. to that date. “Today, half the Everglades is gone, drained for agriculture or paved for development. South Florida has been transformed from a watery wasteland into a fast-growing megalopolis of 7 million residents, 40 million annual tourists, and one-fifth of America’s sugar production. Disney World, the Sawgrass Mills Mall, Florida International University, and Burger King corporate headquarters were all built in the natural Everglades ecosystem. But millions of acres have been preserved in dozens of parks and refuges.” Highly recommended.
I give The Swamp two thumbs up, and will certainly read it multiple times. The book
describes the topography of the Everglades and what is known about the
geologic forces that shaped the continent, and continues with its
human history and impacts that various groups that came in contact
with the area had on the land and each other. European explorers and
early settlers of America viewed it as an undesirable region best left
to mosquitoes, alligators, and the Seminoles that took refuge there.
After the Civil War, it gained attention as a new frontier to be
conquered and "improved" for human use in agriculture. Speculators
sold "land by the gallon" and "improvements" in constraining water
levels and canalization made more land accessible, but led to
wildfires and floods. The roles of various political and interest
groups in devastating the Everglades, and the struggle between groups
desirous of restoring the Everglades and those that pay lip service to
restoration/preservation while promoting overdevelopment of the area,
are described in great detail. I found the story riveting--I highly
recommend exploring the Everglades area, reading a Carl Hiassen novel,
then checking this book out of the library.