The Everglades: River of Grass

“There are no other Everglades in the world.”

Those are the introductory words of the famous book, “The Everglades: River of Grass”, written in 1947 by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (April 7, 1890 – May 14, 1998).  They are considered to be the most famous words ever written about the Everglades, and the book RiverOfGrass-0020itself is a delightful description of what once was, and was almost lost.  Part geology lesson, part adventure tale, Ms. Douglas wove the known science of the day regarding the fragile ecosystem into a story of both mysterious beauty and deadly caution.  She wrote it in a time before Disney World and time shares, and in it she described an Everglades that began in the area where the Kissimee River flows into Lake Okechobee, then flows to the southernmost tip of Florida.  She carefully painted a literary picture of both extraordinary beauty and urgent ecological importance.  The book was released the same year that the Everglades National Park was dedicated, sold out within months, and has since sold more than 500,000 copies.

RiverOfGrass-0024Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a civil rights advocate, feminist, writer and staunch environment activist and I doubt I ever would have paid attention to her story if I hadn’t taken this trip to the Everglades.   She was a fascinating woman.  Born in 1890 to parents who would eventually separate, and to a mother who was committed to a mental sanitarium several times, she persevered through life with intelligence and grit.  Despite the difficult circumstances of her parents divorce, Ms. Douglas benefited from the wealth and connections of her mother’s family, and was able to attend college at Wellesley College.  She graduated in 1912 with a BA in English.   Two year later she met a man 30 years her senior, who charmed her completely, and they married only three months later. When he turned out to be a con artist and likely bigamist, she was persuaded to leave him. She then relocated to Miami where she was reunited with her father, who was the editor of The Miami Herald.  She joined the staff of the newspaper in 1915.  At that time, the city of Miami boasted of a population of about 5,000 people, and Ms. Douglas’s writing assignments consisted of writing about tea parties and social events, a topic clearly of marginal interest to her.

Her failed marriage clearly didn’t deter a tendency towards adventure seeking or snap decisions, and in 1916, she joined the Navy, only to quit shortly therafter (I don’t even want to guess at what the military would have been like for a woman at that time) and instead join the American Red Cross, where she cared for war refugees. After the war, she returned to Florida and took a position as the assistant editor at The Miami Herald. Marjory’s popularity grew through her daily column entitled “The Galley”, and she developed a loyal following for both her poems and civic minded content.  She was clearly a talented writer, and through her column, Ms.Douglas supported women’s suffrage, civil rights, sanitation, and opposed prohibition and foreign trade tariffs.  In the 1920s, she wrote a ballad lamenting the death of a vagrant who was beaten to death in a labor camp in North Dakota.  It was so popular that it was read aloud to the Florida Legislature as they were debating a new law that would ban convict leasing.  The law passed, and Douglas herself wrote in her autobiography, “I think that’s the single most important thing I was ever able to accomplish as a result of something I’ve written.”

Fans of the Everglades might disagree with that statement, as it was the assignment to write about the Miami River for a Rivers of America Series that brought her to writing about the Everglades, the topic for which she is most famous.  Ms. Douglas spent five years researching the cultural and ecology of the Everglades and South Florida, and in the process formed a relationship with her mentor, geologist Garald Parker.  Parker is credited with discovering that the source of all of South Florida’s fresh water is the Biscayne Aquifer, which is filled by the Everglades through the slow flow of water that begins at Lake Okechobee. Parker assured her that describing the water flow as a “River of Grass” would be an accurate.

RiverOfGrass-0044At the time of the book’s release, The Everglades were rapidly disappearing, as most people viewed the land as a swap to be drained for either building land or sugar cane farms.  Douglas passionately argued for the long term preservation of the unique ecosystem, not only for it’s historical importance, but also to preserve both fresh water and biodiversity.  Environmental activism was not her only passion, as she also became a strong advocate for civil rights and was sought after as a strong public speaker for a number of causes, where she argued her position with tenacity, humor and grace.  She was a charter member of the ACLU, lent her support to the ERA, and also to various agencies in support of migrant farm workers.  In her later years, Ms. Douglas was honored by many, including Queen Elisabeth and President Bill Clinton, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In 1915, Douglas’s home in Coconut Grove, FL was designated a National Historic Landmark.

RiverOfGrass-0257It was super interesting for me to learn that much of what Douglas is now celebrated for was accomplished late in her life.   She was 57 years old when her famous book was published, and her effectiveness as a environmental and civil activist was largely a legacy of her later years.  She used her small physical stature, her intelligence, and her to humor to her advantage in order to gain the focus at the podium away from men of power who would otherwise have likely been able to dismiss her.   She lived to the ripe old age of 108, and her friends remarked with fondness that death was the only thing that finally “shut her up”.

Alligators in the water, fish in the air.

Perhaps a bit ironically, Marjory Stoneman Douglas did not actually spend a lot of time in the Everglades. She found the area to be too humid, too buggy, and not all that hospitable. As I imagine the Everglades before the installation of modern roads and elevated walkways to view the alligators below, I see her point.


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