E S S A Y S ,    A R T I C L E S    A N D    R E V I E W S

Wanderings in the Rivers of Grass

      by Kevin Peer
EarthLight Magazine #40, Winter 2001

This essay is written as a humble thanks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, for her extraordinary devotion to a place called the Everglades, and for her persistent and powerful influence over many years and through many battles to save and restore what remains of this remarkable region of Earth. 

      My first encounter with the Everglades reminds me of those unlikely stories of how certain married couples come together.  At the first meeting one person actually has an aversion for the other.  But gradually, they come to regard the other with genuine love.  So it was for the Everglades and me.

      We first met in the summer of 1971, during a family visit to Everglades National Park.  I was thirteen at the time, and our family had recently moved to Miami from northern Illinois.  All through childhood I had heard wondrous tales of the mysterious swamplands of southern Florida, tales of immense alligators basking themselves beneath moss-festooned jungle river trees.   Other dangers, like poisonous snakes and panthers, lurked about in terrifying abundance.

      I had seen books and even restaurant placemats featuring the natural wonders of the U.S.  that served to reinforce my fantasy of this far-off place.  Raised in the tamed and repressed cornfield-dominated landscape of suburban Illinois, restless for adventure with the emerging hormones of adolescence, I deeply wanted the Everglades to be a vast place of primordial wildness, exotic beauty, and predatory dangers.

      The family outing on that blazing hot summer day, however, was not to provide me with what I desired.   As we drove for miles through Everglades National Park, I thought we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  Instead of a tropical paradise full of wild exotic creatures, I saw a sun-scorched landscape of pale sawgrass and sparse trees that seemed as monotonous as the corn and soybean fields of my homeland.  I saw no alligators, no panthers, no snakes, and only a few distant birds.  We stopped to hike a trail but were immediately besieged by hordes of mosquitoes, horseflies, and deerflies, all hungry for blood.  We made a quick retreat to our Vista Cruiser station wagon, cranked up the air conditioner, and fled back to Miami.  I was deeply disappointed.  So much for my visions of an American tropical paradise, of a wild marshland where the fish and birds, snakes, and gators were so abundant as to boggle the mind.  I hated the place.

      But I soon learned, through stories told by a few of my neighbors, that the colorful tales, books, and restaurant placemats had not really lied.  It was just that they were inspired by a time decades earlier, before humankind’s drainage schemes, flood control projects, real estate developments, and wildlife poaching had fully taken their toll.  What I experienced on that disillusioning summer afternoon was also a land that was in the clutches of a drought, made desperately worse by the heedless diversion of its water source to the north.  For this was not a swamp, I was learning, but rather a vast, shallow river.

      Several months later, my father and I would stop alongside a highway called Alligator Alley to watch the dark vastness of the Everglades night illuminated by immense wildfires, fires that consumed the sawgrass and ate through the rich Everglades muck down to the very bedrock.  Snakes, raccoons, and turtles, in their attempt to keep ahead of the flames, tried to cross the highway.  Many were slaughtered by speeding cars and trucks.  A deep sense of loss welled up inside of me, a feeling that something within myself was being burned to bedrock as well.  I knew that I was beginning to love this strange and beleaguered place.

      I believe that people have their landscapes, and landscapes, their people.  Though it may seem like a person merely has a special affinity for a place, to my way of thinking the attraction is mutual.  Edward Abbey loved the desert of the American southwest.  John Muir felt a deep kinship with Yosemite.  Julia Butterfly was called to the redwoods and to a particular tree-being among them.  They loved and needed those places, and those places needed and loved them.

      Throughout my teen years my relationship with the Everglades and its immediate neighbor, the Big Cypress Swamp, deepened.  It was a relationship fed by many encounters with beauty and wonder, and with the wild inhabitants of this watery sun-drenched world.  They became my place and I became their person.  They gave me lessons in the beauty and diversity and vitality of life that my existence in the banal suburbs of Miami could not possibly provide.  In return, I was asked to emerge from a shell of shyness and insecurity in order to celebrate their beauty and uniqueness and to speak on their behalf.  And they needed it, for the destruction of these unique and irreplaceable wetlands was continuing at a rate and on a scale that shocked and horrified me. 

      As the years passed and my forays into the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp deepened, I found much of what I had been longing for on that initial, insect-harassed visit to Everglades National Park.  I found exotic and often sublime beauty, a fair share of danger, and a sense of immense natural processes.  I found wild mystery and a hint of the extraordinary fecundity of life this amazing place had birthed and nurtured for so long.  I also found something that I had not anticipated: a reflection of my own inner spiritual landscape, a place of vastness and beauty, great mystery, and many surprises. 

      In modern terms, one could say that the flowing watery realm of the Glades brought me into deeper contact with my feminine side.  This was a very fortunate thing for me, for I was an angry young man in many ways.  I was angry from the unresolved pain of my parents’ divorce.  I was angry that we had a corrupt president named Nixon in the White House.  I was angry at how quickly the sublime wetlands, pine woods, and subtropical forests of South Florida were being replaced by tract homes, shopping centers, and golf courses.  In response to my inner turmoil, I gravitated toward the more classically masculine model of manhood available at the time, and so I got tough.  I lifted weights, learned how to box, and became proficient at shooting a rifle and pistol.

      While learning the warrior arts is by no means a direct link to trouble, I was inwardly angry enough that I started to attract violence into my life.  It was the sublime marshlands of the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp that saved me.  They became my solace and refuge, my reminder that even though I felt irrelevant and sorely out of place in the asphalt and cinderblock world that I lived in, I was still welcome in their home.  Wandering ankle deep, knee deep, belly deep in their life-dense, clear flowing currents, I was soothed and reassured, blessed and renewed.  “These waters are your waters” they seemed to say to me, “You are kin; Earth is your home.  Lighten up and enjoy yourself.” It was a great gift.

      I felt deeply compelled to somehow share this gift with others.  And so, I started to make photography a major focus of my time in the wetlands.  My hope was that a few of these images would catalyze in others a similar experience of inner immensity and kinship, that this would lead to a longing to protect the place where the photographs came from.  This desire to create representations of my experience of place and to share them with others became the major force in the evolution of my adult path in the world.  It was a very personal quest, and as I was not yet experienced in the ways of connecting with other fellow humans of like mind and heart, it was a solo quest as well. 

      “Way leads onto way,” as Robert Frost wrote in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” We can never know where following the trail of our deepest longing will lead us.  But chances are that if we follow it with a steady heart (or at least dogged persistence), the journey will be wondrous.  The way led me to continue developing my skills as a photographer.  The way led me to study forestry, wildlife, and aquatic ecology in college with the idea of becoming a wildlife biologist.  The way led me to abandon this idea and to take up the path of becoming a documentary filmmaker.  On this path I have continued to travel. 

      Way leads onto way, and in 1980, at the age of 22, I found myself co-directing a film for the National Park Service, a visitor center film for none other than Everglades National Park.  It was during the script writing stage of the film that I discovered the writings of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her 1947 classic work, Everglades: River of Grass.  In her book I found a person whose words embodied what so haunted me about the Everglades: its uniqueness, its beauty, its vastness and compelling mystery, its struggle for survival.  Reading her book was like reading a deeply intimate and poetic biography on the life of a precious friend.  It was also very painful for me to read.  As gifted as she was at describing the extraordinary glory Southern Florida once was in its natural state, her book also chronicled the nightmarish path of humankind’s maniacal quest for absolute dominion over it.  Coming to know so deeply the unfathomable beauty we had lost in Southern Florida was devastating.  But it compelled me to feel even more kinship with the place.  I wrote Marjory a letter thanking her for the knowledge and inspiration she had given me.  Little did I know at the time that as way leads onto way, I would one day be making a film about her.

      In 1985, as a staff film producer for the National Geographic Society “Explorer” series, I was given the assignment of making a short documentary on Marjory.  She was 95 at the time, nearly blind, keenly lucid, and deeply experienced from her many battles against numerous development schemes that had been intended for her beloved Everglades.

      In her 1947 book, Marjory coined the phrase “River of Grass” to describe what many folks had regarded as a vile, stagnant swamp.  Those three words forever transformed people’s perception of the place, laying the foundation for a more empathic understanding of a long-misunderstood region.  Her role as an environmental activist, however, didn’t begin in earnest until she was 78 years old.  She founded an organization called Friends of the Everglades.  For the next thirty years of her life she would be a tireless and effective organizer, an eloquent speaker, and a potent icon for the cause of restoring and protecting the biological integrity of the Everglades region.

      People called her “The Grand Dame” or “Gladiator” of the Everglades.  This combination of symbol and substance in her person inspired and energized the efforts of thousands of people acting on behalf of the Everglades.  And her foes knew it.  “My only belief is in taking the direct approach,” she told me during an interview, “to say what you think and to say it clearly and to keep on saying it over and over and over again.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.  Nobody’s going to shoot me.  Maybe they wish they could but they’re not going to!” 

      Marjory died in 1998 at the age of 108, living long enough to strongly influence the contours of what will be the most massive ecological restoration effort ever undertaken in this country.  The hope and intent of folks like Marjory and Friends of the Everglades was to restore the natural flow and purity of water that once flowed from Lake Okeechobee to become the River of Grass.  What stands in the way of this indigenous flow now is a mind-boggling complex of levees, dikes, canals, and pumping stations, along with hundred of thousands of acres of corporate-owned fertilizer- and pesticide-ridden sugar cane fields.  The present restoration plan, as ambitious as it is, is still a far cry from what Marjory and Friends were hoping for, and what the Everglades most needs for its survival.

      Today, the Everglades is a seriously ailing patient on a failing life support system, the result of a hundred years of humankind proving to itself that with enough cleverness and persistence we can once again divert Earth’s generous bounty to serve our own interests.  Can we now prove ourselves to be wise and compassionate enough to allow this magnificent River of Grass to fulfill its own nature, to return the unimpeded flow of clear, clean water over the length and breadth of its remaining expanse?

      I miss that ailing river every day.  Its mystery and beauty initiated me into a deeper engagement with the journey of life.  The forces that threaten its existence  -- human small-mindedness, the cult of commerce that regards Earth and its inhabitants as outside of its fold -- threatens my existence as well.  And not only my physical existence, but my imaginal well-being, the deeper layer within me that needs to live in relatedness to my fellow creatures, and to the mystery that enfolds us all.

      The words which open Marjory Stoneman’s book are an invitation to this life-sustaining mystery: There are no other Everglades in the World.  They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the Earth, remote, never wholly known.  Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space.  The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of sawgrass and of water, shining and slow moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida.  It is a river of grass.

      May it always be so...

      Kevin Peer has been a documentary filmmaker for twenty years.  His work has been seen by millions of people around the world and has garnered over 40 national and international film festival awards.  Kevin is a new EarthLight editorial advisor.  He teaches worshops around the country in creating Sacred Cinema through the documentary filmmaking medium.  He can be reached at kpeer@earthlink.net; (510) 486-1480.

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