Finding the Everglades

On Tuesday I went to find the Everglades.

That should not have been difficult, considering that the original Everglades ecosystem covered an area twice the size of New Jersey, extending from present-day Orlando south to Florida Bay, and the present-day (much smaller) Everglades National Park covers 1.5 million acres, only a little less than the state of Delaware. But much of that original Everglades ecosystem is long gone, replaced by sugar cane farms, houses, shopping centers, airports, Miami, and, yes, Disney World. Most of the National Park is accessible only by canoe or kayak (activities not on my agenda!), so most visitors, especially those from the west side of Florida, can only touch the edges of the wilderness.

I set out for the Gulf Coast Visitors Center of the Park. The directions were simple enough: take I-75 (aka Alligator Alley) east toward Miami, turn right at Exit 80, and then drive until the road ends. It turns out that the road (SR 29) actually ends at the Smallwood Store, an historic building and museum on Chokoloskee Island. The Visitors Center is about four miles north of that, in Everglades City. Once there, I took a pontoon boat ride out into the 10,000 Islands area, had lunch in a seafood shop overlooking the Barron River, and then on the way home stopped at Wooten’s for an airboat ride in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

So what motivates a very fair skinned, middle-aged woman to spend nine hours traipsing around southwest Florida, by herself, under a hot April sun, looking at mangroves and sawgrass? In my case, three things: TAQS, Hodding Carter, and the State of Pennsylvania.

TAQS is the Taiwan Art Quilt Society. Last year TAQS announced a call for entries for the Taiwan International Quilt Exhibit 2012. When I first saw the announcement, I thought, “how exceedingly cool to be in an art quilt show in Taiwan!” but nothing – absolutely nothing – came to mind on the theme: “river and moving water”. Nonetheless, I downloaded the prospectus and tucked the exhibit and theme away in a corner of my memory.

In January, on one of my visits to the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel, I noticed, in the gift shop, the book The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1947), along with several books of gorgeous photography by Clyde Butcher. “River of Grass” — now there’s a image! But neither Mrs. Douglas’s luscious prose nor Mr. Butcher’s gorgeous photos gave me quite the approach I needed.

On the other hand, *Hodding Carter’s book, Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades from Its Friends, Foes, and Florida (2005), found at the local library, had the right blend of humor, facts, and outrage – after reading it, I wanted both to see this environmental treasure and to create something protesting its desecration.

Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise (2007), provided a further description of the current situation, although his depiction of Florida politics is stomach-turning.

Despite Grunwald’s title, the Everglades are not a swamp. Originally, this ecosystem began in the watershed of the Kissimmee River, which once meandered 103 miles through central Florida, collecting groundwater to flow into Lake Okeechobee. During the rainy season, “Lake O” overflowed into the Everglades, feeding a vast, shallow, slow moving river – 60 miles wide and 100 miles long – that flowed into Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the first white men came to Florida, they have talked of “taming the swamp”. During the last century, they have channeled the Kissimmee into a series of straight ditches, dammed up Lake O, directed millions of gallons of “excess” water into the Caloosahatchee River (damaging its ecological balance), and built miles of drainage ditches to move “overflow” east to the Atlantic. The Tamiami Trail, US Highway 41), built in the 1920’s to provide better access between the east and west coasts, is one of the most successful environmental assaults: it was built on top of a dyke that essentially prevented water from the north part of the Everglades from flowing into the south part, effectively interrupting the river of grass and beginning the destruction of the ecosystem downstream.

Of course, in the process of taming the Everglades, these developers and visionaries and politicians almost destroyed the freshwater supply for Miami and the southeast coast of Florida.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was instrumental in drawing attention to the importance and the plight of the Everglades. Federal and state projects have been underway for years to try to correct and repair some of the damage, but the official map and guide to the Park still refers to the Everglades as “presently on life support, alive but diminished”.

So here was definitely a subject for a piece of art – in my case, an art quilt – and maybe a series. The back story is, I think, more interesting then talking about how the art quilt was made or what techniques were used. Suffice to say, I did complete it, I did send in the entry and photo by the due date, and …. it was accepted! It’s called (of course) “Everglades: River of Grass”. [Click on the image to open for a photo of the entire quilt.]

But I still need to know more about the Everglades, still need more first hand experience (even if I can only nibble at the edges), still need my own photos of the mangroves and sawgrass. That was the main reason for my expedition.

Oh, and the State of Pennsylvania? That’s what caused my trip to be on Tuesday, April 17. That was tax day, remember? I agreed to help my son with taxes for his business in Pittsburgh, so I spent a long weekend at the computer trying to figure out and fill in RCT-101 forms and PA-205/PA-65 forms and all the required schedules and attachments….. When I finally finished and put the damn things in the mail, I needed (and actually felt entitled) to be out in the open air and sunshine.

What better place than “the swamp”?


* W. Hodding Carter IV is a journalist and writer and son of the Hodding Carter who was Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

A note about my links to book titles: Book titles are linked to the site of McLean & Eakins, an independent bookseller in Petoskey, Michigan. They sell online, and their service is outstanding. Yes, you can undoubtedly buy these titles cheaper on Amazon, but, you know, I think keeping independent bookstores in business is more important.