David McCally. The Everglades: An Environmental History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. xxii + 240 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-1827-0.
Reviewed by Elizabeth D. Blum (Assistant Professor of History, Troy State University)
Published on H-Florida (April, 2002)
David McCally, a history professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, describes his book The Everglades: An Environmental History as "a biography of the Everglades" (p. 1). He writes with several goals in mind, mainly to correct the dominant picture of the Everglades popularized by a 1947 Marjory Stoneman Douglas book entitled, The Everglades: River of Grass. McCally states emphatically that the "dominance of this metaphor [of the Everglades as simply a river of grass] is unfortunate and hinders restoration of the complex wetlands system it so imperfectly describes" (p. 180). His work, then, chronicles the immense changes wrought by both nature and man as well as the diversity of vegetation and wildlife in an attempt to convince activists, and especially Florida voters, of the importance of the area's restoration to a "sustainable" system.
McCally begins his book with a detailed description of the geological processes which created the Everglades only approximately 5000 years ago. He moves on to discuss early Native American and Spanish colonial interaction with the area, as well as describe the characteristics of the "unaltered" Everglades. From that background, McCally continues with a discussion of the main thrust of his book: the huge alterations brought by white Americans from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century. McCally develops the story of incredibly short-sighted, and single-minded, planning for the Everglades as white Americans plowed forward with their idea of turning the area into "useful" farmland. Often lacking the financial resources to complete the job, Florida's boosters and politicians press forward with drainage solutions that create far more problems than they solve. Only with the consolidation of land holdings, use of fertilizers, drainage and the emergence of commercial agriculture, specifically sugar, do whites establish a flourishing market. McCally concludes with a description of the modern-day Everglades, and provides his opinion of possibilities for solutions to the deterioration of the Everglades.
Although McCally describes The Everglades as an environmental biography, it falls short of that moniker in several important respects. However, the book remains a useful, if partially limited, study of aspects of the Everglades' lifetime. McCally's descriptions of long-term change in the area are noteworthy, as he incorporates many varied sources. In addition, to his credit, he uses an interdisciplinary approach to his material, with information gleaned from the fields of geography, geology, anthropology as well as history to weave his story. Detailed maps, diagrams and illustrations guide the reader through the material. McCally also makes his story stronger by incorporating the visions and experiences of different races and classes of people. For example, he discusses Native American lifestyles and culture in the area, as well as the experiences of poor, hardscrabble farmers lured with promises of easy profits and also the black laborers trapped in systems of peonage by sugar corporations in the twentieth century. Although each of these points constitute strengths of the book, The Everglades is most convincing and useful in its description of the single-minded process of very determined white Americans to turn the Everglades into farmland at any economic or environmental cost.
Although the book contains useful elements in the life cycle of the area, it also is limited by several factors. First and foremost, the book contains less than four pages on the developments of the Everglades from the 1950s forward. McCally compounds this lack of recent developments and history with absolutely no mention of the development of part of the Everglades into a national park beginning in the late 1930s. Perhaps McCally's point was that the park fades to insignificance next to the agricultural development of the area, but without that data, the reader goes away with a much more one-sided impression of human thinking about the Everglades than might otherwise be the case. Going along with this criticism, McCally makes little attempt to engage his work with the classic works within the field of environmental history. Other than brief mentions of Progressive Era conservation efforts, he gives the reader little background to fit the actions in the Everglades within the context of other areas or to the development of ecology and the environmental movement.
A final criticism involves McCally's philosophy of environmental history and activism, rather that the book's details. McCally seems to follow early twentieth-century scientists like Frederick Clements and Aldo Leopold, and many early environmental historians in several, possibly problematic ways. He accepts uncritically the idea of a "mature" ecological system and he places man outside that system of nature, as an interloper and destructive element only. After describing hundreds of millions of years of changes in the South Florida area, McCally posits that the Everglades that emerged 5000 years ago was the "pristine" system. It is to this state, he advocates, that humans should try to return the area, or be responsible for its death. He only sees "bad" changes as those wrought by humans, specifically white Americans in their undying quest for riches through agriculture. He certainly attributes no such value judgements on glaciers for bringing the land out from under the sea, fire for wiping out species of plants, or for plants for contributing to the change of the ecosystem by adding soil and bacteria.
McCally advocates returning an area to "wilderness" or its "original" state as a way to negate the changes humans have implanted in the world. William Cronon, in an essay in Out of the Woods (1997) entitled, "The Trouble With Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature," describes the problem inherent in these views. Cronon states that the "flight from history that is very nearly the core of wilderness represents the false hope of an escape from responsibility, the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the tabula rasa that supposedly existed before we began to leave our marks on the world...worse,...we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead" (40). In short, and said far more eloquently by Cronon, humans cannot be outside of nature, or the "evildoers" to nature and yet also be a solution to the problem. Humans must find a way to think of themselves as a part of nature without attempting to ahistorically turn the clock back to some time before human intervention. Perhaps this criticism is somewhat unfair to McCally, who admits that the sugar cane growers must be allowed room in the system without dominating it, but his idea of returning the Everglades to some fictional static place implies as much human interaction with nature as the process that changed it.
In summary, this book contains much thoughtful information for students of the Everglades and environmental history, especially those interested in agricultural developments of the area. However, it also presents an incomplete picture of the area and human interaction within southern Florida.
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Elizabeth D. Blum. Review of McCally, David, The Everglades: An Environmental History.
H-Florida, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.