evergladesOur book today is a towering classic of ecological literature: The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the book she wrote in 1947 in protest to a whole slate of proposed (and encroaching) drainage and construction projects designed to “improve” the vast waterlands of the Everglades. Douglas was a pint-sized force of nature, an utterly uncompromising advocate of the Everglades, a carping Cato in a big straw hat, and her book, complete with its famous opening line (“There are no other Everglades in the world”), sparked an entire conservation movement in much the same way Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring did, only on a much broader stage.

So immense was the impact of The Everglades: River of Grass as an ecological stoneman3wake-up call, in fact, that its many wonders as a book have always been in danger of being overshadowed. I was reminded of those many wonders just recently, when I found a copy of the book’s revised 1988 edition at the Brattle and gave it a careful re-reading. That clarion-call opening line, for example, was known and quoted throughout the conservation movement of a generation ago, but it’s followed by a lovely bit of general description:

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. They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass 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.

stoneman2That kind of soaring prose fills the book and, I like to think, would have guaranteed it a place on the shelf of great works of natural history even if an ecological movement hadn’t grown up around it. The book – with black-and-white illustrations by Martin Fink – is passionate but also lovely, uncompromising but also full of wonder.

This 1988 revised edition ends with “Forty More Years of Crisis,” a doomsaying new chapter Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote with Miami Herald writer Randy Lee Loftis, in which readers leaving the book are left with no doubt that the work of saving the Everglades was accomplished – or ever would be. Loftis ticks off all the ongoing catastrophes, including the surest bellwetherstoneman1 of all:

Nowhere has the continuing crisis of the Everglades become more apparent than in the disappearance of entire populations of animals. The Everglades mink, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and the Miami blackheaded snake are pushed to lines of last defense. The snail kite, an agile hunter that seeks so specialized a prey – the apple snale, no bigger than a quarter – has stabilized after many years of decline, yet the stabilization comes at a low number, perhaps 700 birds scattered around the emergent marshes and open sloughs where they feed.

Even a generation ago, there were cynical critics who wondered if The Everglades: River of Grass might actually out-last the embattled ecosystem it champions. I certainly hope not (though I’ve never had an experience in the Everglades that wasn’t thoroughly miserable in every way), but re-reading this great book certainly reminded me of all the reasons it’s stayed in print for so long.

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