I went to Everglades City hoping to find a souvenir. I had first visited this outpost, once called “the last frontier” of the South, ten years ago when I was finishing my master’s thesis on the folk tales of Zora Neale Hurston. My father had just been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Anxious and adrift awaiting his treatment plan, I asked him to join me in tracing the author’s travels to Florida. My mom came too, anxious to make sure our curiosity didn’t get the better of us in gator country. We planned to start in Eatonville, Hurston’s hometown, then head to Tampa, hiking the Tamiami Trail to Everglades City before ending our trip in Belle Glade, a setting of his critically acclaimed book. Their eyes looked at God.
The Everglades seemed to us by turns stunning and strange. None of us had ever traveled this far south before, the landscapes of freshwater swamps, mangroves and sawgrass meadows dotted with hardwood hammocks to a world far removed from eastern redbuds and honey locusts that we knew. When we got to our hotel, my dad liked a coconut tree so much that he picked up a green coconut and put it in the car, intending to take it back to South Carolina. We got stronger when we saw crossing signs for black bears, bobcats and Florida panthers, and were awestruck by alligators listlessly sunning themselves just steps from the path leading to a tower. ‘observation. At places like the Museum of the Everglades and the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, we’ve heard stories of smugglers, square grouper smugglers (otherwise known as marijuana balls), and swamp angels who inhabited the mosquito-infested mangroves. One evening, as we waited for our food, we stood on a jetty next to the restaurant and watched the sun go down behind a bend in the Barron River.
We spent most of our time in Everglades National Park, learning the difference between a double-crested cormorant and an anhinga. We scoured creeks in search of purple gallinules, a highly prized species among us birdwatchers, their brightly colored plumage earning them the nickname “jewel of the swamp.” We didn’t know it then, but it was the last moment of normalcy for our family.
This time I rode the 750 miles to Everglades City alone, my dad dead and my mom no longer up for this type of adventure. I felt drawn there, but I wasn’t sure why – meditate, reflect, escape? My instinct told me to probe old memories, experiences I had already had. I took a boat trip with other bird watchers in the shallow waters of Chokoloskee Bay to get a better look at the wading birds. Through my binoculars I watched roseate spoonbills and tricolor herons fishing for their breakfast, then the whole boat was distracted by a pod of dolphins chasing fish in the shallows. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are social animals, the captain explained. If you ever see one, chances are something is wrong. I looked towards the horizon at some of the barely visible houses on Marco Island, trying to forget that unlike everyone else on the boat, I was alone.
Spanish colonizers exploring this place called it Ten Thousand Islands because they couldn’t keep up with the actual number: Countless clusters of mangroves sprout from the limestone bed below, forming small islands. Two small islands could grow together. An island would disappear under water. The concept of memory is similar: moments resurface, others sink, are submerged until an event resurrects them. I didn’t understand this until I boarded the Shark Valley Trolley Tour, an Everglades National Park excursion from Miami that my family preferred last time. I oh and aah with strangers, pointing to features they had trouble seeing, the ones my still sharp-eyed father once pointed out to me: the tail of a glass lizard, an anolis fleeing green, Liguus snails camouflaged against the trunk of a gumbo-limbo. I realized, sitting there, that I had become more like my father that way – as I spent the ten years since his death searching for meaning in my situation, desperate for signs, I developed the patience which I missed before to stay still and look deeply.
Large-scale events can erase the arbitrary line between humans and wildlife. A hurricane is one of them. An unnamed storm hit Everglades City in 1926, then Hurricane Donna in 1960, then Hurricane Irma in 2017. Irma hit so hard that changes in the landscape could be seen from space, and the destruction blurred my memory card. There are so many things that don’t come back. The suite where we slept at the Ivey House hotel is now just an open space. The coconut tree dad loved is little more than a stump.
But the extreme weather conditions that occur every year now are not the only problem. Habitat destruction and hydrological changes due to human development appear to be accelerating faster than the Everglades and its people can adapt. Due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, more and more of what was once land is now under water, reshaping shorelines and affecting the fate of the intertwined species that inhabit the habitat. As the quote popularized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, journalist, conservationist and wetlands advocate says, “The Everglades are a test. If we pull it off, we might be able to keep the planet.
For over a hundred years, men toiled in mud and mud here, losing their lives to the plagues of the swamps as they attempted to build roads through the desert, chopping down what were then cypress trees and virgin pines. They dredged, dyked and drained what they saw as worthless wetlands, unable to see the fragile ecosystem they were altering.
I leaned my elbow on the frame of the tram door, and it hit me: trying to enter an image to which I no longer had access, in this landscape so transformed by the trauma, I ended up haunting me. It left me alone. Memories of things past were chafing, like a shirt that didn’t quite fit – too tight shoulders, short sleeves, gaping buttons – unable to contain my experience of this place any longer.
But history proves that a fragile ecosystem can recover, if given the chance. By the 1880s, hunters were killing five million Everglades birds a year, using plumage in fashionable headgear and leaving many species threatened, endangered, and in danger of extinction. Thanks to federal conservation legislation, many of these populations have managed to rebound. As I drove into the sunset at Flamingo Marina, splashes of white crowned the road: ibises and egrets slowly weaved their way through the mud in search of a bite, the native spider lilies opened and bowed to the sun.
The next morning I tried something new that we hadn’t done together as a family: a backcountry boat trip along the Buttonwood Channel through Coot Bay, to Tarpon Creek and finally Whitewater Bay. We passed a thirteen foot crocodile named Freddy who has lived in the area for as long as anyone can remember. From the boat, we studied cardinal air plants and other epiphytes clinging to the mangroves. Halloween pennant dragonflies circled around our heads, chasing the mosquitoes that feasted on us, a fragment of the life cycle unfolding before our eyes in this sanctuary of still water. The captain cut the engine and we started to drift into the bay.
These signs of hope were also born out of Irma’s destruction and chaos. Torn holes in the forest canopy gave way to new growth as a result of his wrath. Sunlight is now hitting different places, a rare opportunity for something new to emerge. It has persisted as the history of this landscape for millennia, changing, advancing, evolving. The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes apparently understood this philosophy, as did the Calusa and Tequesta tribes before them: the storm has passed; it’s time to accept and face it. The sunlight is there and with it, an unwavering honesty about what remains.