On yesterday’s hike along the Econlockhatchee River, I felt a palatable, positive, sense of place, as deeply rooted as the trees themselves. This was a place new to me, yet familiar in spirit. Oaks of enormous girth provided their own platforms for an abundant canopy, hosting innumerable resurrection ferns and bromeliads. Giant air plants looked like pineapple tops high above. The delicate yellow blossoms of greenfly orchids dangled on wiry stems, bouncing in the breeze. Beyond the oaks, cabbage palms grew thickly. Watermarks from this floodplain river’s inevitable ebb and flow were in evidence several feet up on the trees.
It was a good place, a natural place, barely touched by the hand of man. A place that lifted the spirits by its very existence, by the fact you could immerse yourself in it, by the reality that it had survived so much of Florida history and remained intact.
In the evening, I had a long talk with JK. His past week in South Florida is the longest he’s ever been in that part of the state, and he was feeling a bit out of sorts about his surroundings. “This isn’t like anywhere else I’ve been,” he said, “and it doesn’t feel good.” I thought about it, and recalled my own journey between Big Cypress and Lake Okeechobee, more than a decade ago.
One word jumped to mind: sadness.
More than a hundred years ago, decisions were put in motion that would change the face of South Florida forever. Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, running on a platform of “Save the Everglades,” commissioned developer Hamilton Disston to drain the vast wetlands of Florida to open up land for agriculture. When you travel through South Florida today, even in the vast central rural expanses, very little of what you experience is Florida’s original landscape. Ditched and dredged, diked and drained, enormous swaths of square mileage have been altered forever, with no chance of ever again being what they once were.
This dissonance of the landscape is most strong along the Seminole section of the Florida Trail and around the southern side of Lake Okeechobee, where there are hints of a former grandeur. A lone pond apple is a sad reminder of an impenetrable forest of pond apple stretching from Lake Okeechobee to the Big Cypress Swamp. Rising tall above the sugar cane fields, clusters of royal palms speak to tree islands in a sea of sawgrass.
To interpret these modern landscapes, one of my most treasured finds is a book, “In Lower Florida Wilds,” published just after the destruction of these landscapes, written and photographed by Charles Torrey Simpson, a naturalist who recorded the natural beauty of South Florida before its demise. He shared his thoughts on the rapid changes around him:
“There is something very distressing in the gradual passing of the wilds, the destruction of the forests, the draining of the swamps and lowlands, the transforming of the prairies with their wonderful wealth of bloom and beauty…
We shall proudly point some day to the Everglade country and say: ‘Only a few years ago this was a worthless swamp; to-day it is an empire.’ But I sometimes wonder quite seriously if the world is any better off because we have destroyed the wilds and filled the land with countless human beings.”
A hundred years later, we are promised Everglades Restoration, the project lost in a swirl of politics and Federal funding. It is a myth. Even if a sheet flow of water is restored to nourish the dying river of grass that remains south of Alligator Alley, it will do nothing for the Everglades lost, fed by the ebb and flow of Lake Okeechobee spilling over its rim. It will not refill the broken limestone channels of creeks half-buried in subdivisions and farms, their water stolen by drainage canals. They will never return.
A sadness hangs heavy over these unnatural landscapes, the former Everglades, and it was that broken spirit that JK found, and felt, truly a paradise lost.