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Everglades Author Would Back Kids

Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Stephen R. Dujack

Stephen R. Dujack

Editor, The Environmental Forum®

The survivors of the horrible massacre at the high school in Parkland, Florida, have created a national movement in favor of measures to reduce gun violence. Firearms kill roughly as many Americans as does pollution and thus represent an equivalent threat to public health.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas

In bringing their message to the nation’s capital in a huge demonstration in March, with sibling gatherings around the country, they were consciously following in the tradition of their school’s namesake. Before Rachel Carson, before Aldo Leopold, there was Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “In the history of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures,” according to the Independent. She was a prolific freelance writer — a staple of the Saturday Evening Post’s fiction lineup during the Depression — and earlier one of the vanguard of female journalists of a muckraking bent who began to come on board early in the last century (think Ida Tarbell).

It was relatively late in life, in 1947, that she published The Everglades: River of Grass, a great example of branding that burned into the public consciousness that this was a treasure, not a swamp that had to be drained for development. She was eventually bestowed the sobriquet “Empress of the Everglades” and became beloved by conservationists and dreaded by industry.

Douglas campaigned for environmental protection generally and for Everglades protection specifically for the rest of her long life — she died in 1998 at the age of 108. The massacre survivors who led the march in Washington were born a few years later.

Her famous book was a project that began from an assignment for a series of works on American rivers. She researched the Miami River and found it had its source in the Everglades. The publisher permitted her to change her scope, and she spent the years of World War II crisscrossing the huge wetland, gathering information.

It was during this research that she came to realize that the water in the Everglades was a huge southward flow emanating from Lake Okeechobee and flowing to the Gulf of Florida. That gave her the famous title. Then she penned her signature line to open the book: “There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Fifty years later the Christian Science Monitor would comment, “Today her book is not only a classic of environmental literature, it also reads like a blueprint for what conservationists are hailing as the most extensive environmental restoration project ever undertaken anywhere in the world.”

Mangrove, Everglades National Park, Florida (Vincent Lammin)

From her arrival in South Florida, it is safe to say that Douglas was horrified by what she saw happening. Before World War I, Miami was an outpost of 5,000 people. But even then sugar cane farmers and ranchers were burning down the Everglades to make way for their exploitation of what Douglas came to realize was the source of drinking water for the burgeoning city and the rest of growing South Florida. Her evocative language shamed the businessmen for their rapaciousness and galvanized the public to protect the wetland, although that is still a project very much in progress.

Hired by the Miami Herald in 1915 to write the society column, her third day on the job she wrote about suffrage. She also took on the Ku Klux Klan. “She wrote whatever the hell she wanted to write about,” says biographer Jack E. Davis. The Washington Post enumerates columns “shaming her readers for not knowing that Florida was still running a slavery-like convict-leasing program and demanding the creation of a public welfare office for the protection of children.”

As the Post puts it, “Douglas had a reputation for relentlessly challenging politicians and powerful political interests even on issues that seemed like lost causes at the time.” The paper calls that “a description that almost eerily parallels the efforts of the teenagers leading the charge today.” Of the survivors’ efforts, the Post quoted a former journalist for the Tampa Bay Times who was among the last to interview the late activist: “I would bet my soul that Mrs. Douglas would not only approve, but applaud,” said Jeff Klinkenberg.

Douglas, like the kids, had her experience lobbying Florida legislators, in her case for suffrage — an occasion she likened to talking to “dead mackerel.” But her constant crusade on all fronts to protect her beloved wetland was eventually rewarded by some measures mitigating the harm and attempts at restoration.

The effort to protect the River of Grass is far from over. The high school in Parkland was built on land reclaimed from the Everglades, an irony that bothered the great lady and serves to illustrate the difficulties in preserving this national treasure. There are no other Everglades in the world.

 

This piece will appear in the May/June issue of The Environmental ForumNotice & Comment is written by the editor and represents his views. 

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