An Excerpt and a Photographic Tour

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[clyde butcher photo gallery]

Photos by Clyde Butcher, all rights reserved.


Not quite land and not quite water

The natural Everglades was a vast sheet of shallow water spread across a seemingly infinite prairie of serrated saw grass, a liquid expanse of muted greens and browns extending to the horizon. It had the panoramic sweep of a desert, except flooded, or a tundra, except melted, or a wheat field, except wild. It was studded with green teardrop-shaped islands of tangled trees and scraggly shrubs, and specked with white spider lilies and violet-blue pickerelweeds. But mostly it looked like the world's largest and grassiest puddle, or the flattest and wettest meadow, or the widest and slowest-moving stream. It had the squish and the scruff of an untended yard after a downpour, except that this yard was larger than Connecticut….

It lacked shade and shelter, high ground and dry ground. Breathing its heavy air felt like sucking on cotton. Wading through its hip-deep muck felt like marching in quicksand. Penetrating its dense thickets of sharp-toothed saw grass felt like bathing in broken glass. And there was something downright spooky about the place, with its bellowing alligators, grunting pig frogs, and screeching owls—and especially its eerie silences. “The place looked wild and lonely,” one hunter wrote after an 1885 expedition through the Everglades. “About three o'clock it seemed to get on Henry's nerves, and we saw that he was crying, he would not tell us why, he was just plain scared.”

The Everglades also teemed with rats, roaches, snakes, scorpions, spiders, worms, deerflies, sand flies, and unfathomably thick clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes that flew up nostrils and down throats and into ears. The pioneer Miami naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson loved the Everglades like a son, but he readily acknowledged that “the wilds of Lower Florida can furnish as much laceration and as many annoyances to the square inch as any place I have ever seen.”

“My advice,” another explorer wrote, “is to urge every discontented man to take a trip into the Everglades. If it doesn't kill him, it will certainly cure him.”

But the Everglades was more than a river of grass, and it contained more than swarming bugs, slithering reptiles, and lacerating annoyances….

For all its mystery and monotony, the Everglades ecosystem did have a few awesome attractions. Charles Torrey Simpson was enthralled by its 100-foot-tall royal palms with trunks like cement pillars, standing guard over its golden ocean of sedge and stream: “It is a picture of unsurpassed beauty set in a wonderful frame. …The whole effect is glorious beyond the power of description.” Another visitor adored its profusion of wild orchids, “specimens colorless and full of color, scentless and filled with odor that made the surrounding air heavy with their fragrance: some garbed somberly as a Quakeress, others costumed to rival the Queen of Sheba.” Early explorers were mesmerized by the millions of ibis, egrets, herons, storks, and other wading birds that seemed to darken the its skies. The legendary artist and naturalist John J. Audubon nearly swooned after watching a flock of hot-pink flamingos soar over the Everglades: “Ah! Reader, could you but know the emotion that then agitated my breast. I thought I had now reached the height of my experience.”

For the most part, though, the Everglades was less about beauty than subtlety and originality. It was less ooh or aah than hmm….

If the Grand Canyon was a breathtaking painting, the Everglades was a complex drama, and everything in it had a role. The American alligator, the original Everglades engineer, dug muck out of shallow depressions in the marsh during droughts, creating oases for fish and wildlife like the watering holes of the African bush. The red mangrove, the original Everglades developer, trapped sediments in its spidery prop roots until they formed new spits of swampland, while providing shelter for all kinds of estuarine species. Cauliflower clouds, the mountains of the Everglades, printed their reflections on glittering sloughs as they drifted over the marsh, then funneled and blackened into thunderheads that unleashed spectacular torrents of rain. And that clean, fresh, shallow water was the lifeblood of the Everglades, fueling its flora and fauna, recharging its underground aquifers, keeping its wetlands wet.

“A certain kind of lure began to dawn on me,” wrote Zane Grey, the best-selling western adventure novelist who was also a record-breaking south Florida snook fisherman. “This is a country that must be understood.”


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