Friends Shirley and Wayne discovered a Florida Humanities Council program on the Everglades and suggested we join them for the 4-day affair- What an adventure!! Officially called a “Gathering…”, the program is one of several through which the FHC engages both scholars and local cultural/civic leaders to provide participants with an in-depth exploration of the cultural history, landscape, and identity of a particular community, area or region of the state. During this “Gathering in Everglades City,” we experienced an intense, multi-layered, and absolutely fascinating introduction to the Everglades. From anthropologists, cultural historians, and local residents, we heard about Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, the area’s early native inhabitants, as well as about the “Pioneers,” i.e., the first white settlers in the area, and the contemporary “Gladesmen,” whose traditional livelihood is threatened by the current movement to save at least portions of the Everglades’ ecological and water systems and land- and seascapes. From a politician and an engineer, we learned much about those revitalization efforts as well as why they are necessary, i.e., how 19th and 20th century attempts to drain and develop the Everglades were almost successful in accomplishing the total destruction of the natural ecology of the region.
We didn’t simply sit and listen; the program provided great opportunities to actually explore and experience first-hand three major terrains, habitats and ecological regions encompassed by the Everglades. Guided by a park ranger, we trekked through a swamp in the Fakahatchee Preserve. Naively we thought the “swamp walk” would include only a short period of actually walking IN the swamp- Not so! During our 3-hour excursion in knee- to thigh-deep water, we gained an up-close and personal introduction to the swamp’s flora, fauna and ambiance. We saw several different kinds of bromeliads and orchids as well- even one orchid in bloom, but not the famed Ghost orchid — darn!! Not on the agenda but equally impressive was the torrential rainstorm that hit about 30 minutes before we exited the swamp! “Wet to the core” has an entirely different meaning to us now!
Later, we travelled by air boat through the Everglades “river of grass” which is also the Miccosukee Indian ancestral homeland, and while there, we visited a traditional settlement built on a hammock (a slightly raised and thus dry area in the midst of a sea of saw grass). Buffalo Tiger, a tribal elder, owns the air boat concession, and we had a great opportunity to talk with his son Lee about the Miccosukee’s history and current life in the area. We also took a boat tour of the Thousand Islands, yet another, clearly distinct region, the one that constitutes the southwest end of the Everglades, and discovered we might be able to bring Sojourner there next fall on our way to the Keys. We also visited Everglades City Museum housed in what was originally the city laundry house, and on Chocoloskee Island, we toured the historic Smallwood Store, originally a trading post and now a museum. On the last evening, we enjoyed a traditional Chocoloskee fish fry hosted by a descendent of the original owner of Smallwood Store and held under an historic Chickee (thatch roofed pavilion) while listening to regional folk tales and music offered by local artists. All in all, it was an incredibly powerful and equally enjoyable experience that left us much more knowledgeable about an area that is truly a unique and priceless national natural resource and with a much deepened appreciation for the complexity and diversity of “life in the Glades”. Hopefully the Everglades picture set on Flickr provides at least some sense of this strange, isloated, intriquing and enchanting place…..