Review of "River of Grass"

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ book The Everglades River of Grass is a compelling and poetic account of the geological, biological and social development of the Everglades region. By starting with a deep analysis of the first two of these conditions, she is able to show the great degree to which the Everglades itself determined human growth on the region. Early boosters for developing the region appeared to be willfully unaware of the problems presented by the complexities of the environment, the raw power of the intermittent storms that exposed claims of unrelenting progress to be hubris and the disdain that the original inhabitants had for the settlers which sought to transform the region into an image of their own making rather than adjusting to life as it was.

Opening with great detail on the type of ecosystem that forms the Glades provides the setting for the development of the region. Douglas’ gives an extended description of the hard oolithic limestone, the qualities of the diverse and abundant of plant, animal and insect life. All of these favored nature’s power over a pre-industrial cultures capacity. Human’s initial inability to impose their own conception of order made it the primary determinant of the culture and social relations, at least until the colonizers came and technology reached the point where they are able to increasingly do so. The Mayaimi, Tekesta and Jaega, the people of the Glades settled in what is now called South Florida adapted in various manners to their environment. Religious celebrations were based upon seasonal patterns, an animistic religion guided their relationship to nature and, while reluctant to agree with Douglas’ conception of the division of labor initially existent as a “sort of caste system,” tasks required for reproduction and social health were divided amongst the people based upon qualities such as strength, intelligence, cunning and leadership capacity (76). Given the tribal nature of society social mobility was limited, but from the records that Douglas and others have cited they were content and preferred the social relations in to which they were born rather than that of the colonizers.

These newly arrived colonial powers, first from Spain then from England, France, The Confederacy and the United States were interested in exploiting the clearly fecund soil and using their natural harbors as locations from which to stock and rescue trade ships. Their colonial capacity to exploit it, however, were at first highly limited to small tracks of land and their antagonistic relationship with the Glades tribes which neighbored their settlements. The colonizers attempted converting them to Christianity in order to pacify their hatred for the dispossession of their lands, but the natives viewed this as the importation of a foreign God that literally had no relationship to the cycles of life on the Glades. The acts and tales of cruelties by these men far outweighed the few who were truly peaceful and thus conflict continued amongst them. At times adherence was feigned, but usually in order to obtain goods. Peaceful relations were broken up at times by intermittent conflict, but the colonizers were always limited in their capacity to overwhelm the people that had so sturdily adapted themselves to every aspect of their environment. This did not, however, mean social stasis.

Recognizing that the unique qualities of the Everglades and other coastal islands and estuaries was helpful to illicit trade and piracy, small coastal settlements formed. Other native tribes such as the Creeks, that once populated regions to the north and west recognized that they were unable to push back western expansion and forced their way south. Their new holdings were fertilized with the blood of previous occupants. Additionally playing a factor in the composition of Florida’s population were former slaves. They were aware of the conflict and the egalitarian values of the Glades people and often sought refuge amongst them. This was pre-text for greater conflict between them and the slave-owning society that abutted them.

The end of the American Civil War marked the beginning of an epoch that would accelerate the transformation of the socio-environmental landscape of Florida. Veterans and their families settled into peacetime occupations in the under-developed region of northern Florida and along the eastern coast. To facilitate growth the Federal government established mail routes and encouraged the transplanting of plant life. Intermittent conflict that erupted into prolonged campaigns to pacify the Seminoles or move them on to reservations continued, but so too did relatively peaceful trade relations between them and northern Florida Crackers and southern traders. Exchange of foodstuffs for coin, high-use or subjective value manufactured goods, such as guns and beads, as well as alcohol increased. Soon, however, a new item was prized: bird feathers. The northeastern hat-feather market was exploding and Seminoles labored to fulfill the near limitless demand for them. The demand for aigrettes was so strong that within four years the rookeries were destroyed. Recognizing the need to protect wild birds from the capitalist nexus between north and south, the Florida Legislature passed a law to protect the birds. Enforcement, however, was minimal to non-existent.

The technological capacity of the colonizers progressed and two major forces came to bear upon the environment: trains and drainage. Shrinking the limits to growth and the speed of exchange, these two rapidly expanded the facilitation of capitalist relations in the area in and around the Glades. Plant and Flager’s importation of these capacities led to the increased in foreign settlement. While initial harvests were small due to a lack of knowledge of soil conditions, this would later be fixed via the application of the science to the dirt. High capital investment would first presented a barrier, however later land companies were able to appeal to local and state governments for funds to create flood barriers, canals and military forces to push the Seminoles further to the interior while also encouraging greater assimilation through schooling. Unseasonable frosts encouraged farmers to move operation further south.

A state of regional anarchy best categorized the manner of housing and agricultural development while industrial development was limited due to the semi-tropical environment and lack of air-conditioning. Agriculture and tourism were the primary industries in the region surrounding the Glades and were increasingly at odds with one another as developments spread out rather than up. Former native combatants in the Seminole wars largely reconciled themselves to a peripheral place in the new productive regime in order to maintain their cultural peculiarities but still fought to prevent large techno-political projects from touching there habitation. Whether they were aware of similar battles over issues such as the salination of fresh water canals due to poor planning is not touched upon, but it’s clear that an increasing sense of the fragility of the environment was an increasing concern.

Douglas is not optimistic of the capacity for sensible land-use policies to be pursued by the government that has taken control from those that once wholly adapted themselves to the region. Given the history that she has written this is understandable. Following the arrival of colonialists her history is largely a depiction of a hubristic faith in progress, defined as increased technological manipulation of nature and man to further capitalist exploitation, that is able to correct any problems that occur. This despite the willfully suppressed recognition that the canals had caused soil depletion, industry has poisoned soil and that locks and drainage are frames for a holistic region that can be subdivided at the cost of huge and potentially irreversible environmental impact. As such the tension found in the initial written history of the region is one that continues – to adjust as people or to adjust the land around us.