The Lay of the Land: the Mysterious Everglades
WELL beneath the abundance of colorful images and the frothy profusion of stereotypes that we tend to immediately recognize and appreciate as facets of the Great Florida Dream, there has always run an ancient and solemn sense of mystery. It might be understood as Florida’s “shadow” or “dark side,” balancing out the bright and garish color we usually associate with the State. (What other place not only yields a fruit named for a color, but declares it the “State fruit?”?)
A clue: nowhere.
W.P.A. Depression-Era tile mosaic installation at my alma mater, Coral Way Elementary School.
The Swamp Woman, a role model to us all!
In this case, the “dark side” connotes no sense of evil, nothing necessarily sinister at all. Closer to, for example, the dark side of the Moon. It is very much like the side we know, but simply not illuminated. We might not know exactly what it is (thus its mystery), but it is not frivolous. There is real power in it, beyond even our ability to measure, or even perceive.
It seems suitable that underground rivers and even “seas” (or aquifers) run beneath the ground that we walk upon, for we do not know precisely the routes they follow, what their source, or where the mighty dark rivers might be bound if left alone to nature.
It makes the mystery no less because we turn on the shower or the sink and that very water pours out, though we might then tend to think about it no more.
If one had to pinpoint the very center of that deeper “mystery within the Mystery” at the core of Florida’s being, it would have to be the Everglades. Some might be delighted by and drawn to it and others repulsed, but in either case the “gathering” of the magic in the place, the intimation of deeper and more ancient rhythms, is undeniable.
IN the course of doing some exploring for this posting, I came across an extraordinary article published in a 1904 issue of Century Illustrated Magazine.
I wanted to share with you these parts of it:
“Not only the name fascinates, but the mystery. Here is a vast region close to inquisitive pioneer life, bordered by lines of commerce and fashionable travel, and yet as unplotted and almost as unvisited as the darkest Africa of our school-day atlases. A few hundred Indians share its hidden life, thread its silent water-paths, and are at home in the heart of it; but the white man does not follow. They disappear from his sight as into another planet, and he stands upon the brink gazing curiously after them.
What is out there under the sunset?
There is undoubtedly agricultural value in the rich deposit of mud and muck at the bottom of this wide-stretching inland lagoon; and if the water could be withdrawn, the battle with the grass would become comparatively simple. Hence all the projects that have had to do with the taming or reclaiming of the Everglades have been based on the draining of them. … in fact, the enormous task is being boldly attempted. The fortress will be taken by siege, not by assault.
Meanwhile, there are other points of view than the practical. The mystery of the Glades creates a fascination.
What is out there, just beyond our ken, under the warm evening sky?
The mystery is a part of our national inheritance. In our earliest geography lessons we were told of this great, trackless water-wilderness. It captivated our fancy once and for all. It has its place among the country’s native wonders, like the Mammoth Cave and Niagara Falls, the Yellowstone and Yosemite and the Grand Canon of the Colorado, the Great Natural Bridge of Virginia and the newly discovered greater natural bridges of Utah. After all, it is rather a good thing to have a little of Wonderland left. If this semi- tropical portion of it is not yet surveyed and plotted and drained and homesteaded, there are compensations.
We shall all feel a secret regret when the North Pole is reached. There is a compelling charm in the unknown. In the Glades that charm is still potent. There are boats in the Mammoth Cave, Niagara has been measured and harnessed, and there are national routes into the national parks and railroad trains to the Canon; but the Everglades, taken as a whole, are still marked on the latest maps ” Unexplored.”
Q: Is it true that the eastern edge of the Everglades once ran along the line now marked by 27th Avenue?
A: Yes. Now stop bugging me, already!
I had heard that in its natural state, just over one hundred years ago, the above was the case. Only ten blocks west of my home. I found that difficult to comprehend. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “my friends Eric and Katy live down in Homestead, and they’re the ones who live near the Everglades. From where I live, it’s a haul.”
Yet as I will show you visually the statement is true; that is indeed where the boundary lay when Mother Nature wrote the script. Upon further thought I realized that part of my difficulty in really getting that idea was that I had come to regard 27th Avenue as considerably more real, or solid, than the abstract idea of the Everglades. When I paid careful attention to my thinking, “Wow, it came right up to 27th Avenue,” I got a kick out of it. I was thinking as if as if two immovable forces of nature had collided, and perhaps been surprised to meet one another.
In my experience, the avenue has always been there, indeed something of a landmark if nothing to write home about (but then again, I am home) and as reliable as the North Star in my navigation. Since the road was laid down before my birth, by definition, it has always existed. And always run North and South. The Everglades, on the other hand, remained somewhere else.
THINKING back upon it, I recall the family drive down to the Everglades National Park in my childhood as a fairly epic journey, distance-wise, with little to show for it. There were no geysers on the hour, performing animals, or thrilling sharks. There was sawgrass; I remember that.
As I recall, a park ranger might have pointed toward this infinite field of green and talked about the natural habitat of the alligators. “That’s cool,” I thought, suddenly paying keen attention and hoping to glimpse a sudden blur of reptilian motion, ideally hear an ear-piercing, dramatic and extended, rattling and gurgling death cry, and then see blood gushing. Lots of it!
But nothing happened. He just kept droning on, as if he might have been trying to talk himself to sleep, and the grass shimmering in the waves of summer heat began to blur in my vision.
IN retrospect, as a child I had no real way of putting into perspective where that “park” stood, what it might mean–, in relationship to, say, the “other jungles,” such as Monkey Jungle or Parrot Jungle, where at least they had either cool or garish animals (or both), or for that matter Pirate’s World up in Dania, which had not only actual rides but also really great ice cream, and was therefore of clear and paramount importance in the natural order of things.
Map to Parrot Jungle. Few dared venture in without it.
And I definitely saw more animals at the Lion Country Safari attraction in Dania, although looking back they might well have been sedated. Can’t really say that I blame them.
Paul takes his B & W Polaroid to Lion Country Safari, early ‘60’s.
Now, getting back to the question. I came upon evidence! This shot, taken in 1911, depicts the 27th Avenue bridge crossing over the Miami River.
Since that road runs North/ South, we now look westward past that landmark:
Since I know where the bridge is, having traversed it countless times, I have a “link” to meaning. Nothing else in the image is even vaguely recognizable, except for the river itself, sort of.
Of course, I had to add a little color to the situation. I just do these things; don’t ask me why.
Upon reflection, I realized that the photograph was not at all what I’d first taken it to be. In the same sense that color postcards once proudly illustrated the exciting new factories belching forth their formidable funnels of black smoke into a wide blue sky, here was an image important and exciting only in its depiction of progress!
The first words of its title are “Drainage Canal,” and this is no nature shot. It is to be filed under “technology/ progress,” with the Glades along for the ride only as its hapless victim. The massive engineering project of “reclamation” is now underway, once and for all addressing the “problem” posed to agriculture, “progress,” etc., by all that damned water flowing willy-nilly in the Great River of Grass.
SINCE the Everglades is in essence a great river flowing South, these canals running East/ West bisecting its path are much like a stake to the heart of a vampire, intended to disrupt and destroy its ancient patterns so that man can finally take matters in hand and proceed with the “taming” of this uncontrollable and thus offensive , and ultimately impermissible place.
ALL of which (somehow!) eads us back to where we now stand. To put things into some meaningless perspective, let’s look at the same site today.
Click on the photo to enlarge: the Red “A” marks the site of the bridge.
Or, here is the same view from the ground, courtesy of that ultimate voyeur, Google Earth. (“Hey, is that your car passing by?”)
You can even catch a glimpse of the same stretch of river, at least a bit of it.
Just to end this study on a more positive, if completely imaginary note, I was moved to rewrite history through Photoshop, if only on my computer and if only for a moment.
But doesn’t the Earth look happier? I know I would be.
SO, having waded the perimeters of the great watery heritage of the Sunshine State, let’s start drying off as we move on.
Next, we’ll go back a little further. Anyone up for some time travel?