On Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades: River of Grass

Michael N. McGregor

My first visit to Florida came this past March, exactly one month after the massacre of seventeen students and staff at a Parkland school that put the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas on news anchors’ lips. Like most Americans not from Florida, I didn’t know who Douglas was, or bother to find out, until I started seeing her name everywhere in that state. My guidebook said she was a champion of the Everglades, but it wasn’t until I stopped into the Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City (an old company town whose name reflects the wrongheaded ways whites have viewed that land since they first encountered it five hundred years ago) that I began to understand why Floridians revere her. A chatty docent gestured toward a photograph of an elderly woman in a red dress, oversized glasses, and a rakishly tilted Panama hat. If I wanted to understand the Glades, he said, I had to read her book.

The woman, of course, was Douglas, a journalist, fiction writer, and conservationist who authored a dozen books in her 108 years. None of them was more important or had a bigger impact than The Everglades: River of Grass, which many credit with bringing the destruction of the Everglades—the damming and canalling and turning of vital wetlands into farmland—to the attention of the general public. When it was published in November of 1947—just weeks before Harry S. Truman dedicated the Everglades National Park, preserving only a fraction of an ecosystem unmatched anywhere in the world—its first run of 7,500 copies sold out within a month. It has sold another half-million copies over the past seventy years but despite its eloquence and impact, it is curiously missing in discussions of the most important conservation and environmental books today.

Now that I’ve read it, I can’t fathom why. Maybe it seems too regional to some to have wider implications. Maybe its fact-based approach, seasoned with just a soupçon of sarcasm and wit (until its devastatingly persuasive final chapter) isn’t boosterish enough for contemporary environmentalists. Or maybe Douglas’s holistic view is still more expansive than how we think of nature or the environment now: she begins with a poetic look at the Everglades’ topography and hydrology, continues through an extensive cataloging of its flora and fauna, proceeds into a prehistoric and historical account of everything that happened there (including the arrival of its indigenous people and the destructive incursions of the Spanish, the British, and the Americans), and ends with a cri de coeur for the restoration of what she so perfectly describes as a river of grass.

As poison from Washington infiltrates more and more of our lands, stripping scenic areas of monument status, threatening our national parks, and allowing the kind of chemical intrusion into water supplies that Douglas documents in the Everglades’s vital source, Lake Okeechobee, it’s time to give her book a new look. It’s time, too, to remember why the Parkland school was named for her, starting with this clear-eyed and life-affirming work.

Much of the initial strength of Douglas’s book comes from her apparent faith that scientific facts, whether plainly stated or poetically rendered, can achieve an overwhelming power simply by being true and being ancient. When she introduces the human element—coming first as a trickle, then a flow, then a torrent of activity—she trusts that its dire impact on a finely balanced ecosystem needs no commentary. The effect is much like listening to Ravel’s Boléro: a quiet, pleasing tune that gradually, disturbingly crescendos.

Hiroshima author John Hersey called Douglas’s book a “remarkable almost poem,” and while some of the drier historical passages read like Wikipedia notes, as if Douglas felt compelled to include even the parts that bored her, in other places it is filled with masterfully told stories and stirring evocations of vistas and skies and simple saw grass. Nuggets of sad and prescient wisdom, too. Here, for example, is Douglas on the decades-long desire—and attempts—of American men to foolishly drain the Everglades before “a thorough and scientific study” was finally undertaken during World War II:

Before that, in all those years of talk and excitement about drainage, the only argument was a schoolboy’s logic. The drainage of the Everglades would be a Great Thing. Americans did Great Things. Therefore Americans would drain the Everglades. Beyond that—to the intricate and subtle relation of soil, of fresh water and evaporation, and of runoff and salt intrusion, and all the consequences of disturbing the fine balance nature had set up in the past four thousand years—no one knew enough to look. They saw the Everglades no longer as a vast expanse of saw grass and water, but as a dream, a mirage of riches that many men would follow to their ruin.

Sound familiar?

When Douglas is done with her poetic inventory of the Everglades’ exquisite ecosystem, her stories of conquistadors hungry for gold or heartless hunters killing egrets, ibises, and reptiles to give New York society plumed hats and alligator shoes, and her accounts of native tribes holding off the Spanish for three hundred years or defying the US government’s point-of-a-gun insistence they move to Arkansas, she rises to a new level of passion and even anger in a closing chapter focused on the failure of Americans to appreciate and protect one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. In this chapter, which she calls “The Eleventh Hour,” she describes the terrible ecological effects and human costs of blocking and diverting the Everglades’ water supply: sea invasion of the coastlines, salt intrusion into freshwater wells, devastation by fire of dried-out tree stands and saw grass fields, and the deaths of millions of water- and land-based creatures. Yet, despite the destruction she bears witness to, her final note is one of hope rather than pessimism—a reasonable call not for conservation (“You can’t conserve what you haven’t got,” she once said) but for restoration and intelligent, nature-attuned management.

This chapter alone should make The Everglades: River of Grass required reading for everyone concerned about the environment, the government, or the destructive power of big-moneyed interests.

At the book’s close, Douglas, who fought for the Everglades and other causes her entire life, does her best to find promise in “one small thing” a local government has done to try to get freshwater flowing again, then ends with both a warning and a plea:

Unless the people act the fires will come again. Overdrainage will go on. The soil will shrink and burn and be wasted and destroyed, in a continuing ruin. The salt will lie in wait.

Yet the spring of fine water had flowed again. The balance still existed between the forces of life and death. There is a balance in man also, one which has set against his greed and his inertia and his foolishness; his courage, his will, his ability slowly and painfully to learn, and to work together.

Perhaps even in this last hour, in a new relation of usefulness and beauty, the vast, magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost.

Michael N. McGregor is the author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. He is writing a memoir about living in nature in the San Juan islands.