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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Swamp’: A Fast-Paced Run Through the Everglades and Florida Real Estate Development; History, Ecology Never Was So Fun to Read!

Posted by kinchendavid on August 4, 2006

There are no other Everglades in the World – South Florida Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998)

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV – The Florida hurricane of 1928, which struck the hardest at Lake Okeechobee, killed 2,500 people, mostly poor blacks who drowned in the vegetable fields of the Everglades, writes Michael Grunwald in “The Swamp” (Simon & Schuster, 464 pages, illustrations, maps, $27.00).

The death toll was second only to the Galveston, Texas hurricane of September 1900, when 8,000 to 10,000 died. The Okeechobee hurricane death toll was higher than that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, “another case of poor blacks in low-lying floodplains betrayed by inadequate dikes.”

Subtitled “The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise,” “The Swamp” is an lively, entertaining and thoroughly researched book about humans attempting to take a perfect ecosystem – the Kissimmee River valley, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades — and trying to “improve” it.

We humans never seem to leave well enough alone, as the siting of New Orleans and the monstrous over development of South Florida amply demonstrate. I could add the development of a gigantic megalopolis in a place that gets about 14 inches of rain a year – greater Los Angeles – and the more recent out of control development of another city in a desert, Las Vegas. The real motto of Homo Americanus seems to be: “anything worth doing is worth overdoing – and then some.”

A prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, Grunwald traces the history of the Everglades from its beginnings in the Ice Ages to its function as a natural “river of grass,” as Marjory Stoneman Douglas dubbed it in her 1947 Rivers of America book (Those wonderful books enchanted me when I was in high school in the 1950s! Numbering 65, they rivaled the WPA guidebooks to the states in sheer readability) to thoroughly misguided attempts to drain the swamp that isn’t a swamp. It really is a slow moving body of water than once covered much of southern Florida, providing a lush habitat for thousands of species of animals and plants and purifying the water through sawgrass (not really a grass) and limestone aquifers, Grunwald writes.

In some respects, the destruction of the Everglades was inspired by the draining of the swamp where Chicago now is, Grunwald suggests. In fact, one attempt to “improve” the Everglades came from a 1913 report produced by 65-year-old Isham Randolph, “one of America’s best-respected hydraulic engineers.” (Pages 160-61). Randolph had served on the Panama Canal board and had overseen the Chicago Drainage Canal, “a gargantuan project best remembered for reversing the flow of the Chicago River.”

Almost all the attempts to destroy the Everglades were motivated by development, first of cattle ranching in the Kissimmee Valley, where the winding river was turned into a die-straight canal to keep the river from flooding the land; to draining areas south of Lake O to create gigantic sugar-growing fields. I’ve never understood the need for so much sugar – I never use it in my coffee or cereal — but it produced multimillionaires who had terrific clout in Florida. One of them – in fact the father of the Everglades sugar industry, Grunwald writes — was Ernest “Cap” Graham, father of the late Washington Post publisher Phil Graham, Miami Lakes developer Bill Graham and Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham.

The 1928 hurricane – they weren’t named in those days – ended the Florida land boom for almost two decades, but it didn’t stop plans by a variety of developers and Florida governors to dig canals, build dikes that would withstand hurricanes and generally destroy an ecosystem unique in all the world.

The Everglades National Park that was dedicated by President Harry Truman on Dec. 7, 1947 – a month after the publication of Douglas’ “The Everglades: River of Grass.” The park included only 1.3 million acres, excluding all of the upper Keys, Big Cypress and “everything else north of the Tamiami Trail, the coral reefs, the Turner River area, the marshes of northeast Shark Slough along the park’s eastern boundary, and a 22,000-acre tract of farmland inside the park known as ‘The Hole in the Donut.’”

The newest Florida land boom was underway when the park was dedicated, spurred by the returning veterans of WW II who fell in love with Florida and the arrival of what one wag called “the newly wed and the nearly dead.”

Huge suburbs sprawled out in Southeast Florida, from Dade County on the south to Broward County (Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood ) named after Florida Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who was a major swamp-draining advocate, north to Palm Beach County, whose growth was spurred by Henry Flagler, John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand-man at Standard Oil.

Flagler built the Florida East Coast Railroad, inspired by his honeymoon with his second wife in St. Augustine. That’s a true capitalist: Dreaming of railroads, monster resort hotels and cities like Palm Beach and West Palm Beach while on his honeymoon!

“The Swamp” is a great read for anyone interested in the politics of development. The second half of the book deals with attempts to preserve – even restore to something like its natural state — much of this unique ecosystem.

Long before Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” spurred the modern environmental movement, Grunwald says, Aldo Leopold, a pioneer ecologist, wrote “A Sand County Almanac” which was published in 1949 shortly after his death (Pages 226-27). In his book Leopold persisted in “questioning the notion that nature existed to serve man, calling for a land ethic in which people would be responsible citizens of the earth rather than its conquerors.”

Leopold (1887-1948), an Iowa native and a long-time Madison, Wis. Wisconsin resident, was a founder of the Wilderness Society in 1935 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldo_Leopold) and inspired Floridians like Ernest Lyons, editor of the Stuart News, who made a stirring ecology-based case against a massive flood control project by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lyons warned against the “Hollandization” – referring to the land ethic of the Netherlands – of South Florida, arguing that the project would provide land reclamation for the few and destruction of natural wetlands that provided nature’s better way of flood control (Page 227).

The Everglades may have even cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000, Grunwald suggests (Page 337-38ff). Gore’s refusal to come out against the proposed Homestead airport that would have gobbled up a huge chunk of the Everglades resulted in environmental diehards turning away from a resolute supporter of ecology toward Ralph Nader. Gore lost Florida by 537 votes. “Nader received more than 96,000 votes, and some operatives attributed 10,000 of them to the airport issue. That was more than enough to elect a president who would support oil exploration in the arctic National Wildlife Refuge…and enrage environmentalists like no president since Ronald Reagan,” Grunwald writes.

A prediction: “The Swamp” will be on everybody’s short list for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. If I were voting, I’d give it both honors!

Publisher’s web site: http://www.simonsays.com

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