The Swamp

The Swamp is a well-researched, convincing argument for saving a rich and diverse ecosystem. The history of the destruction and partial restoration of the Everglades comes alive through the portrayals of the colorful characters who took part in the saga.

Beyond chronicling the events that affected the Everglades and south Florida, the book puts the events in the context of changing attitudes toward the environment and evolving definitions of conservation. Grunwald’s placement of his topic in the context of a broader social history lends his argument wider appeal and relevance.

The introduction describes, through anecdotes, the current prevailing attitude toward the Evergladesas a national treasure so valuable that politicians across the spectrum can agree it needs protection. The story Grunwald uses to highlight this unity toward Everglades restoration is the signing of a $7.8 billion bill to restore the ecosystem. It was the most expensive and extensive ecosystem restoration project in history. As the Supreme Court considered arguments over the Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election, the bill signing took place at the White House. The event was attended by the most liberal Democrats of the Clinton administration, by Florida governor Jeb Bush, and by New Hampshire senator Robert Smith, among others. Smith, one of the most conservative senators, had fought for the bill’s passage. During one of the most acrimonious conflicts in American political history, restoring the Everglades, even at an enormous cost, was not controversial.

For much of the time that nonnative people explored and made plans for the Everglades, their attitude was that the area was a worthless swamp that might be improved and made into valuable and productive land. That attitude led to expensive projects intended to drain the ecosystem. These were never wholly successful in keeping the land dry, but they did cause extensive damage to the environment.

Grunwald’s explanation of how the Everglades formed and how the ecosystem functioned before human interference prefaces his explanation of why attempts to drain the Everglades were both unsuccessful and damaging to the areas that remained wet. Water begins flowing south in central Florida near present-day Orlando. Before the interruption of canals or the present dam on the southern side of Lake Okeechobee, the water moved down to the tip of the Florida peninsula like a broad, shallow, and very slow-moving river. “The story of the Everglades, in sum, is the story of that water’s journey, and man’s efforts to reroute it,” states Grunwald.

Grunwald notes that, technically, the Everglades is a marsh rather than a swamp. He does not elaborate on his reasons for naming the book The Swamp. However, much of the book describes decisions made and plans pursued based on misconceptions about the ecosystem, so naming the book after one of the most basic of those misunderstandings stands to reason.

Before Europeans arrived in Florida, small tribes of American Indians inhabited south Florida. Small colonies were founded by Spanish, and later U.S. settlers, but most of south Florida remained unsettled and largely uncharted until late in the nineteenth century. Grunwald notes that even the Seminole Indians, who are generally thought of as native to the Everglades, have a short history in the area. Originally from Georgia, they fled into the Everglades to escape being sent west to reservations.

Led by Osceola, the Seminoles took advantage of the Everglades’ terrain to resist the higher manpower and greater gunpower of the U.S. forces sent to capture them. While Grunwald’s language is a bit heavy-handed in portraying the destruction of the Everglades at the hand of the “white man,” his terminology seems accurate. His evidence that Indians did not harm the ecosystem when they were...

(The entire section is 1593 words.)