30 December 2006

River of Grass

I finished this book in November the day before the safari. Like Some Kind of Paradise, this is a book about Florida history—at least to some degree. Published in 1947, this is really the original Florida history, the first important popular book about Florida to attempt any decent coverage of the pre-Columbian period. And it set the tone, in many ways, for every Florida history that was to follow, by drawing its narrative around the state's ecology.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas was for many years after this book's publication regarded as the foremost Everglades scholar, historian, and protector, and she fought for Everglades restoration until her death a few years ago. River of Grass was not so much the end of a long studied interest in the Glades as it was the start of a career. The book also started a lot of other careers, got a lot of people in South Florida and elsewhere interested in the unique patch of ground we have at the end of this state and have been trying to destroy for two hundred years. For that alone the book deserves high honor.

But it was written in the 40's. New scholarship and new ideas have changed the way we think about some parts of the state's early history, and this can be jarring if you're up to date on what we now think about Ponce and the Calusa and everything else. But Douglas was the first writer to say in any popular format that Ponce de Leon was not, in fact, looking for the Fountain of Youth, and indeed may not have even known the myth. It was added later by Spanish romantics looking to idealize what was a brutal and difficult conquest (and one that didn't exactly pay off for Spain).

The first few chapters are about Glades ecology, and here it is clear Mrs. Douglas really knew and loved the Glades, had spent time in it and talked to the people who'd lived in it. And it's clear how important it was to her to make the Glades seem like more than some God-forsaken swamp at the end of the Earth, which for most people at that time it still was. Occasionally the prose is a bit florid, the description just a mite too romantic to be entirely real, but it's still wonderfully evocative.

After the first five chapters, Mrs. Douglas settles down into a linear narrative, something Some Kind of Paradise could have used a bit more of. She is a gifted storyteller, and that is the key requisite for a popular historian. Though River of Grass covered much of the same material I'd read just a few months earlier, I found this book a faster read, more like a story, less a witty retelling of facts than a gripping old-fashioned yarn. That's what popular history should be.

The book focuses exclusively on south Florida, south of Lake Okeechobee for the most part with occasional notes about goings on elsewhere in the state but nothing in-depth. For this reason it's not the best available history of the state, if that's what you're looking for. But it is hard to beat River of Grass for a good historical adventure, and you'll get a great insight for the Glades and the people who've sought to tame them.

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