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Review: 'An Everglades Providence' by Jack E. Davis hails the queen of Florida environmentalism, Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Jack E. Davis, a University of Florida historian, has written a wonderful biography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who put the Everglades on the map with a famous book and spent the next half-century as an environmental activist. She was Florida's Rachel Carson, our Susan B. Anthony. She delighted in speaking truth to power. • When she encountered Reubin Askew in 1971, she felt the need to remind the popular new governor that "your predecessors gave Florida land away like drunken sailors.'' Askew may have enjoyed a pro-environment reputation with voters, but by God, she wanted him to know he was on probation with her. • She scared governors, senators, developers, sugar farmers, scientists and, without a doubt, journalists. "Oh, mercy me!'' she exploded the time I'd asked a mealy-mouthed question about her favorite subject, the Everglades. Mrs. Douglas valued clarity, and I must have come across like a bumbling Lt. Columbo. • She was 102 at the time. She was tiny with snow-white hair and wore a bathrobe and a string of pearls. After the tempest passed, we toasted sunset with a stiff belt of her favorite beverage, Desmond and Duff. It was my first and last experience with Scotch, but I wasn't going to say no to a drink with Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Davis never met Douglas, but he has given her the serious biography she deserves, capturing her cantankerous personality and brilliant mind, while at the same time providing the historical context necessary to fully appreciate her amazing life. It's a tour de force.

Listen: Douglas was born in 1890 and lived for 108 years. She was a Victorian who wrote her best-known book, The Everglades: River of Grass, in fountain pen in 1947 while sitting on her patio next to a poinciana tree — yet she lived long enough to know that her followers were spreading the word by e-mail.

For many Americans, the Everglades was a snake-infested, malarial swamp, worthy of contempt, before Douglas told them otherwise. Floridians had spent a century trying to drain it.

Douglas didn't start out as an expert. She was a journalist and magazine writer. She didn't hike, paddle, hunt or fish. She didn't like to sweat, in fact. But her curiosity had no bounds. She spent five years learning about the Everglades before publishing.

"There are no other Everglades in the world,'' was the first sentence in her book.

Douglas "combined history, science and stories never before strung together in a story-teller's voice,'' Davis writes. To her, the Everglades was more than a swamp. It was wide and shallow, and it flowed. It was alive. It was a river of grass. In her pages readers discovered a world treasure worth their respect and care.

The book marked the birth of the modern environmental movement in Florida. There would be no "Everglades Restoration Project'' without Douglas.

She was a complicated person, and Davis has given us a complicated book, a history of the Everglades as well as a biography. A ferocious researcher, Davis spares no detail in his book's 759 honking pages.

Douglas weighed 12 pounds at birth. Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and never recovered. Her father took off. Raised by her beautiful but cold aunts, young Marjory considered herself a "greasy fat girl with one crossed eye.''

Men appreciated her brains and wit. She lobbied for the vote for women and insisted on having a career. That said, an otherwise strong woman with a father complex fell in love with a handsome man 30 years older. He turned out to be a con man, and they divorced within a year.

In 1915, she arrived in South Florida to write for her daddy's newspaper, the Miami Herald. "Although she had other brief flirtations,'' Davis writes, "she jealously guarded her independence, fearing men's domineering nature despite her strong will.''

She may have been wary, but she loved to dance. She often selected old men who had lost interest in romance or young gay men as dancing partners. In old age, she told people she never experienced sex after her divorce.

She loved dining out — for reasons that included the lack of a stove in her kitchen. If she had to cook, she used a hot plate. She loved reading, valued intellectual conversation, admired someone who would argue a point to death.

She never learned to drive. She survived Florida summers in a house without air conditioning. The house, by the way, was small, 943 square feet, and I can almost imagine Davis walking off those feet to get his facts right.

As her vision failed, Davis reports, Douglas read her collection of Dickens novels through an eight-power magnifying glass. As she aged, she ate what her friends prepared, the notorious white diet. Her nightly supper of turkey breast, mashed potatoes and vanilla ice cream proved to be enough to fuel her passion: protecting the Everglades no matter what.

When she was 94, she attended a crowded, controversial public hearing about a development proposed for the edge of the Everglades. When she rose to her feet in the sticky gym, all 4 feet 10 inches of her, somebody yelled "Go back to Russia, Granny.'' After the catcalls subsided she said, "Look. I'm an old lady. I've been here since 8 o'clock. It's now eleven. I've got all night, and I'm used to the heat.'' She said her piece, and the county commissioners voted her way, against the development.

She believed that work and thinking kept a person young; at age 100, she continued researching a new book, a biography of Henry Hudson, whose Green Mansions she had long admired. She couldn't see well enough to write, but she thought clearly enough to dictate to secretaries. She never finished the book.

She passed the last three years of her life in a miserable fog, mostly sleeping, but occasionally waking to make a comment or answer a question.

"How do you feel?'' a friend wanted to know one day.

"Like a caged bird, my dear,'' she said.

She never prayed. She believed in no god. "She approached life as an explorer and inquisitor,'' Davis writes. "In knowledge gained through personal experience and education and possessed within the inner self, she found the animating force of life. What she sought in the world — knowledge — brought her closer to all living things.''

She passed away in her sleep on May 14, 1998. Her ashes were scattered in a secret place in Everglades National Park. A flock of blackbirds sang the requiem.

Jeff Klinkenberg writes about Florida culture for the St. Petersburg Times. His latest book collection of essays is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."

An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century

By Jack E. Davis

University of Georgia Press,

759 pages, $34.95

Meet the author

Jack Davis will talk about and sign his book at 7 p.m. Monday at the Poynter Institute, 801 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. A reception will follow at 8:30 at Williams House, on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus at 511 Second St. S.

Review: 'An Everglades Providence' by Jack E. Davis hails the queen of Florida environmentalism, Marjory Stoneman Douglas 04/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 1:56pm]
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