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Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Restoring the River of Grass

"I would be very sad if I had not fought. I'd have a guilty conscience if I had been here and watched all this happen to the environment and not been on the right side," said Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Peine, 2002, p. 14.) In the course of her long life, Douglas saw the population of Florida explode before her eyes, and lent her voice towards the protection of the dwindling wild places in Florida.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who became known as "The Mother of the Everglades" was born and grew up far from the wilds of Florida. Douglas was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 7, 1890, and moved with her parents, Frank and Lillian Stoneman, to Providence, Rhode Island in 1893. Lillian suffered from sporadic mental illness and in 1896, left Frank and took Marjory to live with her own parents in Taunton, Massachusetts. Marjory did not see her father again until she was twenty-five.

Marjory grew up happily in Taunton. Along with her mother and maternal grandparents she had an aunt and uncle nearby. She enjoyed reading and school, and was influenced by the legion of well-educated women who taught her. When she graduated from Taunton High School in 1908, Marjory's talents as a writer were already evident and she was asked to compose and recite a poem at graduation.

Partially because she wanted to remain close to her mother and family, Marjory enrolled at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She majored in English and contributed to and edited the college literary magazine. Although she had chosen Wellesley because it was close to home, Marjory had moved out of her grandparents' home and her mother's health deteriorated while Marjory was in college. Lillian died of breast cancer in 1912, the same year that Marjory graduated from Wellesley.

Despite the literary promise that Marjory had shown both in high school and as a college student, upon graduating she worked in various department stores in St. Louis, Missouri and Newark, New Jersey. In 1913 she married Kenneth Douglas who was thirty years older than Marjory. He was also an alcoholic and spent six months of their marriage in prison for various forging and theft crimes. Their marriage didn't last and in September 1915, Marjory went to Miami to rejoin her father and obtain a divorce. She never remarried.

Since his wife had left him and taken their daughter with them, Frank Stoneman had gone to law school, moved to Florida, and started The News Record, Miami's first daily paper in 1906. Frank had made a name for himself writing editorials that opposed Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward's plan to drain the Everglades. This did not make Frank Stoneman's newspaper popular -- he reorganized the paper and renamed it The Miami Herald in 1910 -- but it did provide a good forum for Marjory to learn about pressing environmental issues. Florida was already developing at an alarming rate when Douglas arrived in 1915. Miami was a frontier town with 5,000 people, and Broward's plan to drain the Everglades for development and agriculture had attracted all manner of prospectors, like any other community with an undeveloped wilderness at its doorstep.

Douglas began working as a reporter at the Herald; "a job she freely admits was given to her out of pure nepotism," (Peine, p. 18). Because she was the only woman working at the paper, and because it was 1915, Douglas covered the society pages. Soon though, she began to weave environmental concerns into her reports of garden parties and luncheons.

Through her job, Douglas became the first Floridian woman to enlist in the Navy. She worked a desk job for the Navy and in 1918 joined the Red Cross and went to Europe as a nurse with war relief efforts. In 1920, Douglas came home to Miami and a new job as the assistant editor at the Herald. For her new position, Douglas wrote a daily column called "The Galley" which came to focus more and more on her growing appreciation for and awareness of Florida's rich human and natural history. Douglas used the word "regionalism" long before that word and term were common to environmentalists, before even the term environmentalist was common.

Because Douglas was herself a transplant to the Florida landscape, she knew first-hand how unfamiliar the land could seem. She took it upon herself through her column and other writings to introduce her readers to their new geography in everyway possible.

While Douglas is primarily known for her work on the preservation of the Everglades, she took on many smaller environmental and social justice projects in her column and status as a writer. As Douglas presented it, it was more than just the land that needed to be cared for and looked out for. She wrote about the need for running water and sewage treatment in the burgeoning frontier city, for equal treatment and services in the African American sections of Miami, for infant and child nutrition, for city parks that preserved native plants as well as open space. As she wrote in November of 1922:
"'We want civilization for south Florida. And when we say that we do not mean electric lights and running hot and cold water, as you know. We want a place where the individual can be as free as possible, where the life of the community is rich and full and beautiful, where all the people, unhandicapped by misery, can go forward together to those ends which man dimly guessed for himself. Because we are pioneers we have dared to dream that south Florida can be that sort of place, if we all want it badly enough,'" (Peine, 2002, p. 20-21).
In 1924, the stress of writing a daily column led to Douglas having a nervous breakdown. She recovered, and began writing short stories and sold them to the leading magazines of the era. She was able to buy a house in Coconut Grove in 1926 and lived there the rest of her life. Her stories were predominantly about life in south Florida. She wrote about pioneers, newcomers, and homesteaders living in the frontier of the Everglades, with hurricanes, with real-estate sharks, and all the rest that made up the south Florida that Douglas had come to love.

She fictionalized real events, hurricanes and fires and frosts and murders. The story that Douglas told in "Plumes," was a fictional, dramatized version of the real murder of Guy Bradley in 1905. Bradley was an Audubon warden who had been guarding egrets from hunters who collected the birds' plumage for women's hats. In "Plumes," the warden is killed after he tells a group of officials on a houseboat that hunters are planning to kill the egrets once the officials leave.

Between the fiction and reality, Everglades National Park was born. In 1928, Douglas was on an exploratory trip to the Everglades with Ernest Coe, National Park Service (NPS) director Horace Albright, assistant director Arno Cammerer, Audubon Society president Gilbert Pearson, Yellowstone National Park superintendent Roger Toll, botanist David Fairchild, and U.S. Representative Ruth Owen (Peine, 2002, p. 29). The expedition was meant to determine the feasibility of protecting the Everglades as a National Park. While the group was staying aboard a houseboat in the Everglades, a man rowed up to say that, as soon as the committee left, all the egrets would be killed. The members of the committee went directly to the hunters, but as soon as the committee left, the adult birds were killed and the young left to die in the Florida heat. "'I think that it was the death of those birds that most convinced the commission that this area must be protected as a national park,'" Douglas had said (Peine, 2002, p. 30.).

It would be nearly twenty years before the Everglades became a National Park, and before Douglas began to be seen as an environmentalist. She was working on a novel in 1941 when an editor approached her asking if she would be interested in writing a book on the Everglades. One of the hallmarks of her fiction writing had been her vivid descriptions of the natural world, and with the legislation to create the Everglades National Park, it seemed natural to have a book solely dedicated to the natural beauty and threats to the region. Douglas accepted the idea, and The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947. The book dealt largely with the construction of the Tamiami Trail, the main highway that was built around and through the Everglades in Douglas's time. The same year as the book was published, the Everglades were made a National Park. The book came out in November and sold out by Christmas-its immediate popularity catapulted Douglas into her new, and lifelong, role as a spokeswoman for the Everglades, (Holmes, 2004, p. 88).

The Everglades: River of Grass was published when Douglas was 57 years old. Her second career as an activist, spokeswoman and grande dame of conservation spanned the next 51 years. Her name was well-known first in Florida conservation circles and then nationally. She continued to write even as her eyesight failed, and became a sought-after speaker on conservation issues. She helped defeat proposals to build an airstrip in the middle of the Everglades, to further redirect the water that flowed through the grasslands, and helped work towards the restoration of the natural ecosystem.

Douglas founded Friends of the Everglades in 1969. She founded the group because she felt that her opinions on conservation, restoration and preservation would have more weight if they came from a group, rather than from her individual person. However, it was predominantly her forceful personality that supporters and government officials responded to. "'I'm an old lady. I've got white hair, I've been around here forever, and no one can afford to be rude to me. And don't think I don't take advantage of that. I say outrageous things and get away with it,'" Douglas once said (Peine, 2002, p. 42).

Through all of her work, Douglas intensified regional, national, and international understanding of the singularity of the south Florida ecosystem. In her lifetime, it went from a wilderness on the brink of irreparable development, to a National Park, a Wetland of International Significance, an International Biosphere Preserve, and a legislatively designated wilderness area (Breton, 1998, p. 243). Douglas herself maintained certain wild and untamable qualities that she shared with her beloved region.
"Those who crossed Douglas did so at their peril; former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nathaniel Reed called her, 'that tiny, slim, perfectly dressed, utterly ferocious grande dame who can make a redneck shake in his boots.' He continued, 'When Marjory bites you, you bleed.' Or, as she more curtly stated to a reporter, 'They call me a nice old woman, but I'm not.'" (Peine, 2002, p. 47).
Nice or not, Douglas put the Everglades on the map, in terms of conservation. Her fierce dedication to the land brought her great satisfaction and renown. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 1993, saying:
"'Beyond Florida, Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a mentor for all who desire to preserve what we southerners affectionately call 'a sense of place.' And, Mrs. Douglas, the next time I hear someone mention the timeless wonders and powers of Mother Nature, I'll be thinking of you,'" (Peine, 2002, p. 13).
Douglas lived to be 108. Her spirit and tenacity helped to salvage the Everglades from the near certain destruction they faced when Douglas stepped off a train in Miami in 1915. Her life and work also inspired others to look for the wild places in their own backyards and bioregions and to fight for their preservation and restoration. As she said:
"'Be a nuisance where it counts, but don't be a bore at any time….Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action….Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics-but never give up.'" (Breton, 1998, p. 244).
Douglas never gave up the good fight, to the great benefit of all those who enjoy public lands and wild places in all the would-be forgotten corners of the country.

References:
Breton, Mary Joy, Women Pioneers for the Environment, Northeastern University Press: Boston, 1998

Holmes, Madelyn, American Women Conservationists: Twelve Profiles, McFarland ∓ Company, Inc: Jefferson, North Carolina, 2004

Peine, Mary Anne, Women for the Wild: Douglas, Edge, Murie and the American Conservationist Movement, University of Montana, Masters Thesis, 2002



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