November 29, 2021

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River of Grass

Marjory Stoneman Douglas helped transform the image of the Everglades from a maligned swamp into America's most beloved wetland. Read an excerpt from Jack E. Davis’ new book, 'An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Envir

| 2/1/2009

Lalita Booth
Jack E. Davis
An Everglades Providence:
Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century
By Jack E. Davis
» Coming Feb. 15 from the University of Georgia Press. See Amazon listing.

In the late 1960s, the Dade County Port Authority began bulldozing a swath of the Everglades to build what was to be the largest airport in the world. Dubbed the Everglades jetport, the facility drew angry criticism from around the country and stirred local environmentalists into organized protest. It also turned a petite, grey-haired woman, who with faux-pearl necklace and a wide-brim sun hat looked like everyone’s grandmother transplanted to south Florida, into a full-time activist.

Lalita Booth
Marjory Stoneman Douglas eventually leaped into the national consciousness as the most vivid spokesperson for Everglades protection. She became one of the more important environmentalists of the late twentieth century and surely the longest living (she died in 1998 at age 108). Her sympathies for the beleaguered wetland dated to the 1920s, when she was part of a local committee lobbying for the creation of Everglades National Park, and she masterfully articulated those sympathies in her "The Everglades: River of Grass," published in 1947, one month before the park’s dedication. But more than two decades would elapse before she would commit herself as an activist. Many of her friends got involved in the early 1960s, when the modern environmental movement was taking root, but her first love and profession had always been writing, and she was hesitant to put down her pen and join the struggles. Finally, in 1969, Joe Browder, the southeastern representative of the national Audubon Society and leader of the ground-level fight against the jetport, came literally knocking at her door. She was seventy-nine years old when she founded Friends of the Everglades to stop the jetport, which she, Browder, and others managed to do, and she remained a full-time activist until she retired as president of her organization at age 100.

Excerpt from Chapter 31, “The Conversion.”

Lalita Booth
Joe Browder was a principal strategist for efforts to protect Everglades National Park. He led campaigns to secure a permanent water supply for the park, to prevent development of a destructive commercial airport in the Everglades and add more than a million acres of Everglades and Biscayne Bay lands, and waters to the National Parks system.
The story has become legendary, a part of the irreducible public persona that came to be the woman of the Everglades, told countless times in newspapers, magazines, speeches, and interviews. No one remembers the exact date of the event other than that it occurred sometime in 1969, but the other essential facts are clear. One evening around 11:00, sometime in 1969, Douglas was shopping at a Coconut Grove convenience mart, the Quick & Easy Food Store, when someone called her name. It was Judy Wilson, Joe Browder’s assistant at the regional Audubon office. Amid the night-owl customers straggling in to buy cigarettes, milk, and other piecemeal shopping items, both women were there for cat food. They paused for a quick chat.

Douglas was connected well enough through the daily news and civic-minded friends to be fully aware of Audubon’s decisive role in the environmental campaigns of recent years. The proposed oil refinery in Biscayne Bay and the jetport under construction in the Everglades impressed her as tragically stupid and grotesque. If someone had been challenged to propose the best way to destroy a place’s rootstock of beauty and unique character these two projects would have taken top prize. . . . She found comfort in the labors of others to instill in small-minded government and industry leaders the value of environmental civility. She most admired the stamina of activists, especially Joe Browder, the good soldier of nature who stood on the front lines of each successive battle. When she saw Wilson in the grocery store, she offered an elder’s approval. “What a good job you are doing,” she said.1

Wilson had known Douglas for many years and admired her tremendously. They had met at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Julie and Henry Field. . . . The Fields spent part of their year at the Coconut Grove estate of Henry’s mother, an old friend of Douglas, and were members of the local crowd whose intellectualism was the boiling cauldron of enlightening political thought, sometimes turned to action. Wilson had worked as the Fields’ assistant, and after being introduced to the writer from Florida, whom she found smart and irresistibly mirthful, Wilson borrowed the Fields’ copy of "River of Grass." She saw Douglas again in 1966 at the annual meeting of the Florida Audubon Society, which was presenting her with its Special Award of Merit. The Fields moved to Coconut Grove permanently the same year, and Wilson came along with them. Under the imprint of the Field Research Projects, Henry published "Adventures in a Green World," Douglas’s book about David Fairchild and Barbour Lathrop, Field’s great uncle. Douglas was a regular dinner guest . . . and her infectious humor and keen intellect made an impression on everyone, including the Fields’ daughter Juliana, who volunteered in Audubon activities that Wilson often supervised.2

On that night in the convenience store, Wilson asked Douglas what she was doing to contribute. “But dear,” Wilson remembered Douglas saying in the mien of a torchbearer, “I did. I wrote the book.” Wilson pressed: “But what have you done lately.” Douglas was nonplussed. She was past her seventy-ninth birthday, part of a retiring generation that should be stepping back and passing the flame to a new generation. There, with cat food in hand and a friend waiting in the parking lot to drive her home, Douglas took her leave with a polite, “Call me if I can do anything.”3

Wilson accepted the response as an invitation to press on. When she told Browder about the encounter, they agreed that Douglas possessed practical assets that could benefit the campaign against the jetport. Her ties to the area were longstanding and extensive, and she seemed to know people everywhere. There was “a clarity of vision” in her public speaking that would help others understand the full depth of the crisis. Equally important, Wilson remembered, “she carried the authority” to urge upon the public the necessity for taking action. Hers would be an appeal to peoples’ emotional and intellectual sides. “She knew with her heart and knew with her head.”4

The day after Wilson’s chance encounter, the phone rang on high volume at Douglas’s house. Browder was calling
from his office to ask if he could come over to talk. They had previously met at literary and social events. . . . He liked her from the start. She was no-nonsense but witty, a font of local and state history who spoke with energy and grace and wisdom. And he saw how others reacted to her. Audubon’s Charles Lee had first met her at a Tropical Audubon meeting in 1967, when she was the evening’s guest speaker, talking about [her biography of] William Henry Hudson. She was “an extremely immense person,” he recalled, immersed in a “broad spectrum of ideas. She was a renaissance woman . . . an intellectual force of tremendous breadth. You got that feeling when you were around her.” . . . Public events were made for her. She enjoyed speaking and making new acquaintances, and she was good at both. But along with the public side, Browder knew was a private one that many writers guarded closely.5

He got a glimpse of hers when he drove over to [her home on] Stewart Avenue. He pulled Audubon’s lumbering 1968 Chevrolet station wagon to the edge of her lawn [where no driveway existed because she never drove a car]. . . . He walked across the grassy way to the curious little house that befit the village setting in Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput. At the door, he was met by a crisp cultured greeting, backed by a bantam, white-haired woman. Invited inside, he stood in the big workroom/livingroom, where yellow light entered through casement windows and beamed from a floor lamp’s 100-watt bulb. The room seemed decorated mainly with books. Weighing down handmade, shoulder-high book cases were well-worn copies of writings by Henry James, Willa Cather, Anthony Trollope, William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, plus all twenty volumes of Charles Dickens, each of which Douglas read once a year. Stacked on a settee immediately inside the door, on side tables and chairs, and on her dueling desk, and tumbling to the floor were other books, borrowed from friends and the library, books from which she was working. Some project was clearly in the making.6

She offered Browder a cup of tea as he brought her up to date on his own project. Construction had gotten underway on the jetport’s first runway, and training flights were scheduled to begin sometime before year’s end. He was concerned that the Big Cypress Swamp would be incorporated into the artificial hydrology that regulated the eastern Everglades and the national park. The “airport,” he told her, “was just an indicator of other pressures to come.” The campaign to confront it was accruing national support, but it needed a resident voice of authority and experience to target Floridians “who cared about civic virtue and community values.” Many adversaries saw him as little more than a shrill “butterfly chaser”; Port Authority director Alan Stewart had in fact said exactly that about Browder and the others. Douglas, by contrast, would be held in higher regard. She was part of a pre-World War II (World War I in her case) coterie . . . that valued Miami not as a slice of real estate but as a place in which to sink roots and enjoy life. Her more than fifty-year relationship with the community, combined with her breadth of knowledge and elocution skills and the imprimatur of her book, gave her a gravitas with area civic and women’s clubs that few people could equal. Straddled between the wild and urban worlds, her consciousness might benefit the campaign by demonstrating to others, people who paid little attention to things beyond the urban realm, the gravity of their connection to the Everglades. Indeed, as she simply put it: “Every time it rains, we know the Everglades are there."7

Douglas listened attentively to Browder’s proposal. Although sympathetic, she had two concerns, neither of which was age. First, she was entrenched in her work on the Hudson biography, and in fact had only recently returned from a research trip to Argentina. Having obtained grants to pay for such trips, she wanted to follow through with her project. Second, she questioned the effectiveness of one person. Browder’s answer to both concerns was for her to start an organization that would both assist her and “legitimize her voice.” This organization would be free from the entanglements of a national organization and would concentrate its energies on the jetport issue, allowing her to manage her time between political and intellectual endeavors. . . . For the scrupulous Browder, the issue of any campaign was not about taking down the big guy, as it was for some other activists, for the swaggering show of doing so. It was a matter of the big guy and everyone else doing what is right. It was a matter of social and environmental ethics. She had always felt the same way, and promised to get back to him.8

A few weeks later she called and asked to be driven out to the jetport construction site. It was a hopeful sign, and Browder obliged. They drove nearly an hour through Miami traffic and out along Tamiami Trail.9

. . . When Browder and Douglas arrived at the construction site, it was surrounded by an eight-foot chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire. Next to the entrance gate, a sign with oversized aviation wings read: “Ground was broken Sept. 18, 1968 for the world’s first all-new jetport for the supersonic age.” The bulldozed landscape created a scar the likes of a clear-cut mountaintop, except that the runway and auxiliary roads taking shape revealed the clean-edged architectural straightness of a planned environment. As Browder and Douglas got out, she quietly studied the scene. The jetport—the motives behind it, its physical placement in the Everglades, and its implications for future growth in the area—ran contrary to her regionalist perspective. One might just as well plant a tasteless enclosed shopping mall with a barren asphalt parking lot in the middle of Coconut Grove. The jetport, however, was larger than a neighborhood affliction. On the drive back, Browder and Douglas discussed the type of organization she might create. Her leadership skills, dating back to 1916 and the Miami’s Business Women’s League, were rusty, but Browder again assured her that plenty of competent people would help run the organization, and the Hudson book would not have to be neglected. The impending environmentalist was moving closer to giving herself over to the movement.10

She did so at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, a personally appropriate place. She had served on the Garden’s board since its founding in 1938 . . . . Not long after Browder showed Douglas the jetport, she attended the Ramble, Fairchild’s fall garden festival, to sign copies of her books. She sat at a table in the shade of a ficus tree. One interested browser was a young man with a military haircut and glasses. They struck up a conversation. His name was Michael Chenoweth, and he was freshly discharged from active service in the Army Corps of Engineers and was now a reservist. As a Corps insider, he took a sympathetic view of the agency, “knowing the political realities that they have to live with”; yet his environmental sensibilities ran strong. He thought the jetport was ill-conceived, and had written letters to the Port Authority saying so. Douglas asked him how the jetport might be stopped. It was a “big problem,” he recalled telling her, and he had no answer. “‘Well,’” she said, “‘Joe Browder says I should start an organization.’” The name Friends of the Everglades had come to mind, and she asked Chenoweth what she should charge for membership dues. He thought $15 or $20. She thought not. “I want schoolchildren to be able to join. We’ll make it a dollar.” Chenoweth took a bill from his wallet and handed it across the table. “You’re my first one,” she said to her new member.

Jack E. Davis is an associate professor of environmental history at the University of Florida. His "Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930" was awarded the Charles S. Sydnor Prize. He is the editor or co-editor of books on the civil rights movement, female activism in Florida and the environmental history of Florida.

1. Joe Browder, and Judy Wilson Lawrence interviews; MSD, "The Long Frontier", 281, 283; MSD, "Voice of the River", 224-25; "MH", 6 April 1975.

2. Joe Browder e-mails, 29, 30, 31 August, 1 September 2005; Interview with Juliana Field; Interview with Julia Allen Field; Judy Wilson Lawrence interview; E-mail from Juliana Field to author, 1 November 2005; "The Florida Naturalist" 39 (April 1966): 49; Henry Field, "The Track of Man: Adventures of an Anthropologist" (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953).

3. Judy Wilson Lawrence interview; "MH", 6 April 1975.

4. Judy Wilson Lawrence interview.

5. Robert Kelley, Charles Lee, and Juanita Greene interviews.

6. Rosner, “MSD, A House of My Own.”

7. "Gainesville"" ""Sun", 26 February 1989.

8. Joe Browder, and Judy Wilson Lawrence interviews; (Lakeland) "The Ledger", 24 March 1996.

9. "NYT", 6 November 1966, 7 January 1968, 9 March, 3 August, 29 December 1969.

10. Joe Browder interview; Munzer, “The Everglades and a Few Friends,” 11-12; Judith Bauer Stamper, "Save the ""Everglades" (Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1993), 31-36.

Tags: Southeast, Environment


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