Tears for the Magnificent and Shrinking Everglades, a ‘River of Grass’

By Nina Burleigh

In the imperiled Everglades, cormorants nest for the evening in Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove and shallow salt water off the coast of Everglades City.
In the imperiled Everglades, cormorants nest for the evening in Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove and shallow salt water off the coast of Everglades City.Credit...Erik Freeland for The New York Times

Florida’s freshwater wonder is threatened like never before with a rising sea level as restoration efforts lag.

In the imperiled Everglades, cormorants nest for the evening in Ten Thousand Islands, a maze of mangrove and shallow salt water off the coast of Everglades City.Credit...Erik Freeland for The New York Times

For years, whenever I found myself in Miami with an afternoon to spare, I sneaked off west to where a road abruptly separates the urban grid from the Everglades. Depending on time, I drove as deep into the saw grass void as I could, parked, got out and gazed up at tropical clouds racing unimpeded by tree or building.

Then, usually, I burst into tears.

Sky and grass. Nothing else. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that anything in Florida — with its postcard palms plastered against postcard sunsets, its coconut tanning oil and Lily Pulitzer pinks and greens, its schmaltz and buffoonery and hanging chads and “Florida Man,” with his love of Styrofoam, weapons and monster trucks — affects me this way. But it does.

“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,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote in her 1947 book, “The Everglades: River of Grass.” “The spears prick upward, tender green, glass green, bright green, darker green, to spread the blossoms and the fine seeds like brown lace,” she wrote. “The grass stays. The fresh river flows.”

Where it’s not diverted or blocked by human engineering, the water still trickles south at the rate of a quarter mile a day, as it has for millenniums. But it is profoundly imperiled by pollution, human schemes to drain and control it, animal and plant invasives and sea level rise. As salt water breaches the limestone bedrock around the Florida peninsula and enters the aquifer, this natural freshwater wonder is threatened like never before.

I’ve traveled far but never found a place where the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man are so palpable in one place. I am not alone. I know by the way eyes fill with tears when people get to talking about the glades. The Everglades were designated a national park in 1947, the same year that its most ardent fan, the environmentalist Douglas, published her book.

ImageSaw grass at sunset in the Everglades National Park.
Saw grass at sunset in the Everglades National Park.Credit...Erik Freeland for The New York Times

By then, dredging and pumping and draining of the sloughs — the technical term for the shallow, slow-moving water under the grasses — and species decimation was well underway.

If doubt remains that Eden and the Fall coexist here, consider that the name of the author who extolled the wonders of this paradise is affixed to a school — the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — forever associated with the 2018 school massacre that left 17 people dead.

In a series of trips to South Florida in the last year, I explored the interior of the River of Grass, the only subtropical wilderness in North America, plunging into microclimates and diminishing habitats, traversing slices of the Everglades National Park and its adjacent neighbor, Big Cypress National Preserve, by car, kayak, foot and even looking down from a small plane. Yet after almost two weeks I still barely scratched around the edges of more than a million acres of wetlands with nearly 300 species of fish and about 360 bird species and more than 700 kinds of plants.

Over the last year, with different family members as companions, I made several visits deeper into the Everglades than I’d ever been. We took kayaks and a skiff out into a maze of mangrove and shallow salt water called the Ten Thousand Islands, on Florida’s southwest edge. sometimes pulling ourselves through dense mangrove tunnels with our hands. These islands are historical hide-outs for pirates, hermits and criminals. Pot-smuggling on local boats was so common here through the 1980s that locals nicknamed the illicit cargo “square grouper.” Today, sport fishermen ply the waters for boasting rights to the Grand Slam — hooking one each of a redfish, snook, tarpon, trout and spotted sea trout in a single day.

Before dawn we drove in darkness to the bird-festooned Marsh Trail in the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Mysterious ploppings, splashings, groanings and crashings emanated from waters shrouded by the dense stands of palm and mangrove, and blue herons and great white egrets soared and settled again in the pink tinted vapor rising around us with the sun.

We hiked thigh-deep in cafe latte-colored water, slogging to explore the mysteries of the cypress domes. During the dry season, from December through April (when most tourists visit the glades because it is virtually bug-free), these stands of swamp cypress rise, leafless and bone white above the grass, visible for miles. They look to be on high ground but signal areas of deep water formed by dips in the limestone bedrock.

Getting into and out of these domes can be a nerve-pricking enterprise, not for the faint of heart. Of course we saw alligators. Lots of them. From afar and in the water, these dinosaur relics resemble half-submerged junked tires. At night, only their eyes glitter in the beam of a flashlight.

We got up close to them as they dozed dry and oblivious in the sun, alongside roads or paths. Even a large mama-gator surrounded by about a dozen babies, sprawled lazily by the cycling path at the National Park’s Shark Valley, as groups of tourists five feet away recorded the family on their iPhones.

I am here to attest that it is possible for a non-Floridian to get acclimated to alligators. The man to see for that is the Everglades guide Garl Harrold. Garl — as he prefers to be known — grew up in Michigan, went south several decades ago, doffed his shoes, walked into the swamp, and never looked back — or put his shoes back on for work. He picks up clients barefoot — in a 12-person Ford van in the parking lot of a fruit stand outside Homestead city limits.

He has silly nicknames for the monsters he claims lurk near his walks. “Sneaky, she’s around here somewhere.” “I saw Croc-zilla out here last week.” He is encyclopedic on the flora, pointing out plants like the lemon bacopa that the Calusa and Tequesta tribes used as mosquito repellent, and the saltwort, a pale green crunchy plant great as a snack or in a salad.

The cypress domes are worth the challenge. One, visible as a hump of trees from the main park road, is so cinematic on the inside that it is named “The Movie Dome.” It is a set-designer’s idea of a storybook tropical paradise: sunlight shafting in, white branches festooned with proliferations of flowering epiphytes or air flowers, including rare orchids like the ghost orchid, plumed birds beating their wings so close you can feel the air move, all of it mirrored and doubled in crystal water around our knees.

The experience can be transformative. Martha Calloway of San Antonio was touring the Everglades for a day while her husband fished in Key Largo. She said the slog was the high point of the day. “The dome felt otherworldly, calm and peaceful. The bromeliads in the trees and the variety of plant life was fascinating. I also thought about the animal life that we weren’t going to see because of the invasive species problem, and that humans are the worst invasive species of all. We have got to be more careful with the earth.” Her cousin Carrie LoBasso agreed: “When I told all my friends I slogged through a swamp, traveled with a python, and went hunting for ‘alligator eyes’ in the dark night, most of them called me crazy. But, I told them — and I really mean it — that experience will really stick with me.”

Two centuries ago, the great naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was the first to comprehend the interconnectedness of nature, and how human activity affected it. Humboldt never visited the Everglades, but it is surely one of the best places on earth to observe nature’s complex harmony up close.

Every few feet of elevation produces a discrete ecosystem with its own animals and plants that are not only adapted to but maintain the systems as well. It is the only place where both alligators and crocodiles coexist. The highest elevations in the Everglades are called pine rockland, and they are considered endangered habitat. Dry and high, prime real estate for mammals — of course man claimed it first. Most of the old pine woods are paved over with towns and apartment complexes and strip malls whose names — Pine Crest, Pine Heights, Pines — refer to what was there.

Slightly lower are the hardwood hammocks, just a few feet elevation above the river of grass but still in it. Hammocks are visible for miles on the flat grasses.

The mysterious cypress domes also tower above the grass, but they thrive just a few feet closer to sea level, or even in holes in the limestone below sea level. Viewed from above, they are teardrop shaped, narrow at the top and bulging at the bottom, marking the shape of the water flowing in and around the holes.

The Everglades formed 5,000 years ago. It once covered most of the peninsula of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee (the 10th largest fresh water lake in the United States) down to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Since 1845, when Florida became a state, man has been refashioning the glades, chiefly, to dry, build on, farm and make money off the land, some of the most fertile in the world. Two big sugar companies now control 500,000 acres; today, more than eight million people also depend upon the glades for their drinking water.

For 175 years, the drive to control the flow of water was planned, plotted and executed with devastating results for the native inhabitants — flora, fauna and human. Dredging, levee building, pumping water in and out, more than 2,100 miles of canals, 2,000 miles of levees and hundreds of floodgates, pump stations and other water-control structures, usually initiated with a blind zeal for progress and indifference to — or ignorance about — the fact that engineers were playing a game of Jenga on an interconnected fragile system.

All of New Jersey could have fit into the pre-drainage Everglades. But the ecosystem today is half the size it was before development. It is overrun by invasive plants and animals. As of 2015, in the Everglades, 60 plants were listed as endangered.

The state of mourning began at least as far back as the 1920s, when the botanist John Kunkel Small recorded his observations during an expedition, listing the Latin names of hundreds of plants and recording everywhere signs of their degradation and demise, from the “approaching extermination of native coral life” — which has come to pass around the Keys — to the ground itself “being drained and burned until it is unproductive.”

His panic is palpable in the exclamation points and capital letters he deployed in his report on the Lake Okeechobee area. “Here we were again very forcibly impressed with the terrible destruction which is returning Florida to its primitive geological condition, namely a barren desert. DRAINAGE and FIRE! The two processes are tending to eliminate all the native life from the state. … Thus the magnificent monument that took ages to construct has been wrecked within the fraction of a generation!”

What’s gone is gone, and what’s still there is threatened by invasives like the cattails and the ornamental plant Brazilian pepper that leapt from people’s manicured gardens and into the Everglades. The pepper is so endemic that the park service is mulching it and sequestering it in small mountains visible from above as bright green squares throughout the backcountry. Nonnative bamboo now chokes waterways and birding marshes throughout the park.

Along with the plants, the Burmese python is an unwelcome invader, probably introduced into the habitat first by pet owners when they got too big to keep in the condos. The snakes grow to tremendous length and weights — 15-foot 90 pounders have been found. They wiped out 99 percent of the marsh rabbit and the raccoons, decimated the otters and are now setting their sights on the birds. Researchers chip male pythons and track them to the nests of huge mother snakes, removing hundreds of eggs. In just two days, we saw two giants caught by the roadside in the area, and heard tell of a third. The state sponsors annual python-killing competitions. (The winner of the 2020 “Python Bowl” gets a truck.)

There are success stories. Alligators were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1960s but surged back after restrictions. So have the birds. The Victorian taste for big hats with plumage led to near extinction of the Everglades’ snowy egrets and other wading birds, with more than five million birds killed annually by 1900. Anti-plumage campaigns at the turn of the 20th century stopped that.

All over the Everglades, efforts to save something rare are underway. Panthers are collared and tracked near Big Cypress Preserve, but 21 were hit by cars last year, out of an estimated statewide population of only 150.

Sections of Tamiami Trail — the main east-west road connecting Miami and Naples — are being turned into bridges to allow water to flow back into the sloughs to the south, bringing back native vegetation for the first time in a century. At least one river, the Kissimee, straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers to benefit the northern farms, has been returned to its natural bed.

In 2000, the state and federal government agreed to a $4 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Twenty years on, a few of the major infrastructure projects have been built, but most are still on the drawing board, awaiting money. In a promising development, Congress just authorized $200 million to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Everglades restoration.

The Everglades Foundation is among many area nonprofits studying the effects of human activity on the fresh water flow, and advocating efforts to restore the ecosystem.

“We know what the consequences of inaction are, because we’ve already experienced it: polluted waterways, toxic algae, sea grass die-off, continued habitat loss, and even threats to imperiled species,” said Stephen Davis, a foundation scientist. “We simply cannot afford to wait any longer. Without Everglades restoration, Florida’s tourism-based economy is at risk.”

Paddling in Florida Bay one night at twilight, Garl trailed his hand in the warm salty water and pulled up some gray muck, let it drip back into the murk. “When I first came down, this water was clear, and I used to dip my hand in here and pull up a handful of sand and sea grass and find dozens of baby clams and tiny living shells,” he said. “It’s all gone. We’re in a dead zone now.” As he spoke, a full moon rose behind us and roseate spoonbills sailed in V-formation across pink cumulus clouds fading into periwinkle to the west.

I, as usual, choked back a sob.

Florida Bay has not recovered from a great sea grass die-off in 2015 because of unusual salinity caused by the man-made diversion of fresh water away from the bay. All Florida shores have also been plagued by a series of deadly red tides caused by fertilizer and other pollutants. Worse, as sea levels rise around Florida, increased salinity on the edges of the Everglades is killing the saw grass, setting off a cycle of damage to the sediment, allowing even more salty water farther inland.

Knowing all that, I wasn’t so bothered by the legendary Everglades mosquitoes that came out with the spectacular sunset (“You can set your watch to that,” locals say). As they pricked away at exposed skin and whined in my ears, I took it as proof that, for now anyway, the threatened glades biome lives on.

Nina Burleigh is a journalist and the author, most recently, of “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women,” due out in paperback later this year.