Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Everglades: River of Grass

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Credit: wikipedia

The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
(390pp., 1947, pub. By Rinehart & Co., New York.)

Marjory S. Douglas (1890-1998) lived to the age of 108, She was a journalist, activist, feminist, environmentalist, and advocate for civil rights. She received numerous awards for her writing, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was inducted into several halls of fame. In 1907, she received her first award from the Boston Herald for “An Early Morning Paddle”, a story about a boy who watches a sunrise from his canoe.

This is not a biography, but aspects of her life are just too interesting to be passed over. She moved to Miami in 1915 when the streets were dirt, the population was only 5,000, and the city-to-be was referred to as “no more than a glorified railroad terminal”. She became a reporter for the Miami Herald. When sent to write an article about the first woman to join the Navy from Miami, the subject of her story failed to show for the interview, but while there Marjory decided to join the Navy herself as a yeoman first class. Marjory was later granted a discharge when it became obvious to all concerned that she and the military were not a match. She hated getting up early in the morning, and her superiors got tired of her constantly correcting their grammar. She later became assistant editor and book review editor before giving up the newspaper business in favor of freelance writing. Many of her articles appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. In 1940, Ms. Douglas was approached about writing a segment on the Miami River for the book “Rivers of America.” Her research lead to a love for the Everglades that would last her lifetime. When “The Everglades: River of Grass” was published in 1947, it sold out of print the first month after its release. It has since undergone a number of editions and sold over a half-million copies. A book review as late as 1997 wrote, “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.”

The book proved interesting on a number of other fronts. For example, it gives a good glimpse into Florida’s early history, the lives of the people that settled there, from ship wreckers, pirates, and freed slaves to railroad tycoons, and land speculators. One of the interesting things I gleaned from it was the realization that there was no such thing as a Seminole Indian tribe. Seminole was actually a fabricated word of the white man to describe all the tribes living on the Florida panhandle and peninsula. It came from a couple words of the Muskogee tongue meaning “free man”. It included the Indian nations of the Creek, Micasukis, Muskogee, Talasis (from which the name Tallahassee is derived), Choctaw, and Calusa. As their numbers dwindled during the Seminole Wars and they were forced to relocate, the various groups banded together and began to identify with the white name. The name Seminole became prophetic, as the Indians of the Everglades were the only ones undefeated and never totally subjugated by the whites. (To interject a more recent history, in the 1950’s the Federal government moved to abolish tribes, but the tribes fought back against having their identities erased, and were allowed to self-govern as Federal corporations. The Seminoles organized as a legal corporate entity with their tribal council administered from Hollywood, Florida. Each tribal member has equal ownership of the tribe’s holdings in cattle ranching, wholesale and retail operations, sugarcane, and tourism.)

There’s a lot of interesting Indian cultural history. From the beginning,their only goal was to be left alone and allowed to keep to their own ways. One of the pre-Civil War government’s objections to them doing that was the Indian’s accepting in their midst the slaves that escaped from plantations in Georgia and the Carolinas. The plantation owners screamed hard and loud about the loss of their “property”. The Indians would be told by the government that they would be left free if only they would hand over the slaves that had settled among them. The Indians refused to do that, and even began to attack slaving parties that landed their human cargoes on the coast of Florida to march them over land to the plantations. The Indians would free the slaves and steal the property of the slavers. This Robin Hood kind of activity is only a small part of what you’ll find interesting in “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

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