Jesse Oberman’s plans for the summer go sideways after discovering that his parents have decided to send him to a drug rehabilitation and leadership program called Natural Living. Natural Living is based upon the Outward Bound program that deals with troubled youth. The reason that Jesse doesn’t go to one of the many treatment and recovery centers in Miami, Book 2 spoiler alert, is that his mother’s boyfriend wanted to have the summer alone with her.
Jesse emphatically does not want to go to into the program or to the Everglades. From a high enough vantage point it appears that there are no people inhabiting the region at all.
This, however, is not true. The Everglades have been continuously occupied by various peoples since 1000 B.C. The Calusa were there first, but their population was decimated by disease and guns by colonial settlers who thought that the land could be easily tamed for intensive agriculture. The land, not a swamp but a river of grass wholly unique in the world, was not easily changed a la the Dutch model nor were the indigenous people that moved there from north easily tamed.
The Muscogee Creek Confederacy was a large civilization in the Mississippi basin area the had lived in the area for some two-thousand years. Faced with dispossession and genocidal actions of the American government and militant settlers, these peoples had two options – to go further west or to go south into areas unsettled by whites. Going west meant conflict with other tribes and continued conflict with White settlers. Going south meant adjusting to life in a radically new environment. Since the
Escaped slaves in Northern Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas were faced with similar considerations. To make a long trip up North where there chances of getting caught were high or to go to the Glades and seek refuge.
The Miccosukee and the Seminoles came to be composed of a mix of indigenous tribes and the descendants of tribesman from Africa. Though their original languages and cultures were different, Creek soon became the common tongue and white men the common enemy. The unpleasant climate and difficulty for agriculture allowed what became the largest haven in the U.S. South for runaway slaves. This was impressive not only for this fact but also as the people’s there were able to organize and lead the largest slave revolt – the 2nd Seminole War – in U.S. history that lead to the only emancipation of rebellious slaves prior to the U.S. Civil War. This and subsequent bellicosity when faced with continued aggression by the Federal government lead to the Seminole epithet of “unconquered tribe”.
Jesse’s entrance into the Everglades and the experiences that he has there should thus not be seen simply as a “rehab and recovery trip”. In Unraveling the only mention of white society’s impact on the Everglades is the early 20th century government’s spreading of melaleuca seeds (now considered an invasive exotic that current taxpayers must pay to destroy) by plane to soak up the fresh water, the introduction of pythons that have decimated the natural wildlife and the alteration of the region via dikes and levies operated by the South Florida Water Management District. Despite this lacuna of discussion, this deeper history remains in the land at a deeper level and Jesse’s speedy adaptation to life there as well as the mystical experience he has directly before he returns home should be seen as his unconscious connection to this history.