The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

I heard about The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise by Michael Grunwald while watching the CNN episode of “The Wonder List” about the Everglades. The host Bill Weir interviewed the author. The show was aired this year yet Grunwald’s book was published in 2006. I got this book from the Niagara Falls Public Library System, so my thanks go out to the staff of the Mississauga Library System’s interloans department who managed to get this book to me a mere six days after receiving my request. That is a personal record for interloan speediness.

Ever since Europeans settled in Florida–relatively recently when compared to all the other states on the American east coast–they have been at war over the Everglades. Land was needed to settle upon and to grow crops, yet the nasty southern half of the Florida peninsula was a vast river of grass. The wetlands were seen as a nuisance, yet were shallow enough that drainage seemed possible. It was only a century ago that man believed in his supreme right of dominance over nature. If we wanted to move into a region, we would conquer whatever or whoever was in the way. The original native peoples of Florida, the Calusa, were driven out by European expansion and the Seminole, a collective term used for the native peoples who migrated into northern Florida and were forced further and further south, saw their land area shrink and become more wet and inhospitable. How could one settle on land that:

“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 sawgrass felt like bathing in broken glass.”

Engineers developed schemes that promised drainage and entrepreneurs bought wide ranges of swampland in the hope of selling it off as dry lots. Overeager buyers often took the sellers’ word for it when they were promised a plot of land. One dismayed buyer, upon seeing his plot, said:

“I have bought land by the acre, and I have bought land by the foot; but, by God, I have never before bought land by the gallon.”

No drainage scheme, however, was ever as effective as it was intended to be. The Everglades was too vast a region to control whether one dug canals or dammed it up. Grunwald outlined years of successive multibillion-dollar plans, which ended up causing more and more damage to the region:

“But man’s most dramatic alteration of the ecosystem was his disruption of its natural water regime. Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of the Everglades, was now cut off from the ecosystem’s circulatory system. The transverse glades and other natural outlets that had been the veins of the Everglades had been deepened and widened to drain the water that had been the lifeblood of the Everglades.”

As the water table lowered, sawgrass and bulrushes invaded, choking the life out of the remaining flora and fauna. The natural landscape was effective in helping calm the effects of hurricanes, yet dredging and ripping out plant life and tree islands unknowingly created a more vulnerable environment. Thousands of people were now living in harm’s way and nature was not there to help. Levees and dams broke, causing floods that were more damaging than anything caused by Mother Nature.

The Swamp was a long book, covering 370 pages followed by 62 pages of minuscule endnotes. I flipped to the endnotes after every chapter as the pages they referred to were not indicated by superscripts. I do not have an engineering background yet Grunwald made all the talk about drainage, canal building, levees and dams a can’t-put-down read. I also never would have considered that the topic of environmental devastation would captivate my attention so intently. Thus The Swamp took me a lot less time to read than I thought it would when I first examined its layout of solid text of long paragraphs. The only time the book lagged was near the end, as Grunwald discussed the environmental infighting and inaction of government. The prose mirrored the progress to save the Everglades. In spite of this, it was not a flaw large enough to prevent me from giving this book a five-star rating.

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