Review of "Totch: A Life in the Everglades"

Lauren “Totch” Brown’s autobiography Totch: A Life in the Everglades provides a fascinating insight into the daily lives of those on the periphery of the network of capitalist relations in South West Florida near the beginning of the 20th century. In this frontier region the settlers extracted value from the plant and animal life of the region – be it in hides, fish – and small distillery operations in order to self-reproduce and to enter the network of capitalist relations.

Totch describes this particular situatedness and his father’s guidance as instilling within him a distinct ethos that does not kill indiscriminately, but only does so based upon the need for food or the accumulation of capital. The rational behind this is simple: recognition that capacity to sustain life is intimately tied to the living beings there. Totch claims that only once did he violate this ethical position. This belief system is vastly divergent from the urban one and is more proximate to the Seminole values – a fact that explains in part his admiration for them. However, though Totch and the Seminoles may be neighbors on the ethical/locational level, there is still quite a large divide between the two.

This divergence is evident not only in Totch’s participation in the hides trade, wherein he would let animal meats waste due to their low to nonexistent exchange value, and in the form of goods he would trade for the capital he’d accumulated. Natives would primarily traded for goods of symbolic or consumptive value, whereas Totch purchased items of a primarily utilitarian use-value, such as guns, boats, motors, etc. that assisted in greater extraction of capital in the form of animals within his immediate surroundings.

As it was a financially unviable for Sears-Roebuck to showcase physical goods in such a small town, their catalog served as a means for transitioning the capital accumulated by trappers and fishers like Totch into commodities. This presents an irony unrecognized or unacknowledged by Totch. While he may declaim the closing of the region to limited hunting periods by the Federal government, construed of as outsiders, it was the logic of those businesses outside the Everglades that incentivized the massive culling of wildlife that led to the subsequent calls to preserve them.

The freedom within this regulatory periphery that Totch enjoyed diverged little from the once similarly lawless Alaskan fisheries and Appalachian still regions. Fishing grounds are not regulated by the permit or catch allotment but instead by personal initiative, i.e. showing up first in a place, local tradition and if need be capacity to mobilize a superior display or enactment of violence. This is evident when Totch and several of his employees travel south to the region and then, facing contestation of his extraction from the fishery, much shows off with a group of local fisherman. Limited regulatory capacity, in the form of small numbers of topographically knowledgeable park agents, is contested by frontier entrepreneurship that takes various forms. First it is in the alligator hides trade that soon enough, like the alligators, dies off and then it is in the marijuana trade. Once the Everglades region and the fisheries around it become regulated to the point of near or real prohibition for anything other than chartering or high-capital intensive fishing, Totch and others in the Everglades City community are able to capitalize on their social capital and investments in boats in order to become marijuana smugglers and stevedores.