In the Mid-1800s, Miami was known as Fort Dallas. It was a mucky, rutted, steaming, snake-infested settlement of 200 souls, perennially under attack from crafty Seminoles or decimated by epidemics of malaria. This was a time long before [Carl] Fisher, [Henry] Flagler and the other land-grabbers arrived to suck their fortunes out of North America’s most famous swamp. . . . Then as now, the smell of opportunity was too strong to ignore, attracting a procession of grafters, con artists, Confederate deserters, geeks, bush-whackers, rustlers, gypsies and slave traders. Their inventiveness and tenacity and utter contempt for the wilderness around them would set the tone for the development of South Florida. They preserved only what was free and immutable — the sunshine and the sea — and marked the rest for destruction. . . . All this was done with great efficiency and enthusiasm but with no vision whatsoever. Carl Hiaasen — ‘Tourist Season’
There is a reason that alligators eat poodles in the suburbs west of Miami. Besides being easy pickings and stupid, poodles in South Dade do not possess the survival instinct of indigenous swamp creatures like raccoons, water moccasins or Skink.
It is not in a poodle’s thought process to relate to its breeding as a midmorning snack for a ravenous bull alligator weighing in at nearly a quarter-ton but masquerading his deceptive speed as he goes about his submerged surveillance in a nearby man-made canal that separates the swamp from the suburbs, and in one violent gulp takes what he needs and leaves only a severed rhinestone leash and gashes in the manicured sod as evidence of his presence. No, the poor poodles are just unsuspecting victims who have the misfortune of being in the wrong part of the food chain at the wrong time.
The only creatures less knowledgeable than the poodles are their owners. They came to Florida swallowing the myth of “waterfront property.” They knew they weren’t going to be buying next door to Donald and Marla in Palm Beach, but hell, Florida was long, skinny and surrounded by oceans. Their blind faith and bad sense of geography have deposited them smack-dab in the middle of one of the biggest swamps in the world.
The first time I ever set foot in the Everglades, I felt out of place. This was long before I ever thought in terms of preservation or population. That day, I only wanted a beer to cool me off from the heat and monotony of the trip from one side of Florida to the other. It was 1968, and I was 22 years old. I had embarked on a spring-break pilgrimage with two college roommates in a borrowed VW bus, on my way to the Florida Keys for the first time. It was a trip that took me from the free orange-juice stand on Highway 98 at the Alabama-Florida border to the end of U.S. 1 in Key West, and it changed my life forever.
At a serpentarium on the Tamiami Trail, we were feeding quarters to the piano-playing duck near the entrance to the alligator-wrestling pit. The local whites were weird; I was sure I had seen most of them as extras in the movie Village of the Damned. They were all running from somebody or something. Why else would they be out in the fucking Everglades? The tourists were embarrassing, with their bad clothes, bad complexions and kindergarten questions. The Indians were friendly but haunting. They knew something that three white boys from Mississippi would never learn. In this bizarre gathering of humanity, each of us played out his part against a backdrop of activities from rattlesnake milking and alligator wrestling to the piano-playing of the duck. It must have been the corn dogs we ate for breakfast in Naples or the Boone’s Farm beach party near Sarasota the night before, but I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Half-water, half-earth and always moving: This wasn’t Florida. Hell, it wasn’t even America. The early Spanish map makers didn’t just pull the original name of this haunting place out of some Conquistador’s helmet. There was a reason that they named it La Laguna del Espíritu Santo.
I am certainly no expert on the economic or environmental aspects of the fight that now rages, but I recognize that like most abominable behavior by an empowered few that affects the unempowered masses, the destruction of the Everglades has its roots in power and greed. I cannot lay out the boring and despicable details of a price-support policy for sugar that has Democrats and Republicans agreeing on its absurdity. I cannot quote salt-content or pesticide figures or the government publications on mosquito control or disappearing panthers, but I do know a little about the place.
I have chased snook and tarpons through the Lake of the Holy Ghost, near Flamingo, and found myself hopelessly lost in a watery labyrinth known as Hell’s Bay, where clouds of mosquitoes could give any tribe of cannibals a good run for its money. I have had the privilege of spending an afternoon with the author and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her Coconut Grove cottage, sipping tea and listening to a noble woman’s simple plea for sanity. I have sat at a dark marble conference table surrounded by charts, graphs and slide shows as an invited guest of the sugar barons who refer to themselves as “farmers” and listened to their attempts to wash their hands, Herod-style, in the waters they have helped pollute. I have traveled to Tallahassee in hope of finding answers to real problems but more often than not found only more problems.
The Everglades are in trouble, but how does that relate to the vast numbers of people who have never been to Florida, let alone been in the swamps, and can think of the region only in flashes of B movies filled with rattlesnakes and rumrunners? It is simple. It is about us, as the human inhabitants of the planet, coming to grips with our responsibilities. The Earth is not made of kryptonite. There is no more free ride. The byproducts of our march out of the caves to the stars are catching up with us. We are only the tenants here, and we have done a pitiful job of keeping house.
Basically, we do not belong in the Everglades. None of us. Environmentalists, sugar barons, real estate developers, hunters, fishermen, bird watchers, tomato farmers, dope dealers or bureaucrats. The only people who should be in the Everglades are the Indians, because they understand that this moving river of grass is a fragile piece of our planet, and they can hear the call of the herons, owls and panthers who come out under the cover of darkness and, in the cautionary words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, cry out, “There are no other Everglades in the world.” I hope we are starting to hear the call.