The Florida Everglades possesses a unique mystery in
more ways than one. One aspect of the nature of mystery is that it is a
kind of subtle reality that is not readily accessible. In this reflection,
my intention is not to discuss my inaugural, first-hand account of the
Everglades in scientific terms, or in relation to fact versus fiction, but
how the River of Grass affected me on a personal level. The airboat tour in
the Everglades produced a sense of wonder that is challenging to recount,
and paradoxically it was both a question and an answer. I will explore this
paradox in relation to the travel to Coopertown, our experience with
Scooter, and my perspective as an English major as a witness to the River
Tamiami Trail, or Southwest 8th Street, is a familiar
road. I have used it on most days of the week when coming and going from
school, my grandmother's house, or other activities. It is part of a routine,
and my familiarity with it makes it commonplace and nothing of special
significance. The assumption underlying the previous sentence is that there
is a correlation between familiarity and commonality, or assigning
insignificance. While this may be human nature, it is of course not
necessarily justifiable. Whether or not humans create the significance of
something is beyond the scope of this paper, but certainly significance
transcends what we consider familiar.
This ingrained familiarity with Tamiami Trail was
called into question when I crossed Krome Avenue in a westerly direction.
Practically speaking, there is typically no need to go this way, and there
is always I-75 as a preferred alternate. However, this is much closer to
home and it is unfamiliar territory. While I had seen the River of Grass
many times, albeit from a safe distance, Tamiami Trail suddenly became a
very untamed place. The wetlands of the Everglades appeared to encroach
nearly on the edges of the road almost immediately after passing a suburban
housing development. Crossing Krome Avenue was like crossing a border into
a different country.
It was a bit of a shock to be reminded how close the
Everglades are to my life of routine. It was never a question of knowing
whether the Everglades were near, but rather appreciating its proximity,
its role as a life-giving resource, and its history in relation to
transformation over time. The sharp ecotone separating human development
and the Everglades made this journey into the River of Grass a kind of
sudden leap into mystery.
After a short drive on Tamiami Trail, I arrived at the
Coopertown outpost. With a population of "008" this was certainly no longer
Sweetwater. Generally speaking, the further west one drives in either
Miami-Dade, Broward, or Palm Beach Counties the newer the development.
However, this rickety outpost for airboat tours had been in business since
1945. After some waiting at the outpost, our airboat and guide were ready
to take us through the wet prairie.
Upon jumping in the airboat, our guide introduced
himself without, at first, even saying his name. Scooter, as he later
called himself, communicated ruggedness, and a deep-rooted, experiential
familiarity with the Everglades. Without saying anything as such, his
composure and Deep Southern accent gave the impression that he was a kind
of caricature of an Everglades airboat tour guide.
Scooter's stories and sound bites about the history of
the Everglades, its flora, and fauna was clearly shaped to appeal to the
ears of tourists, but this did not seem to hinder the inherent mystery of
the Everglades. Scooter's "faulty" airboat engine, references to Native
American folklore, and poisonous pond apple all emphasized an element of
danger, but this was not what gave the Everglades its mystery. The element
of danger, and the unknown, that Scooter talked about was rather a result
of the mystery that the Everglades already possessed. Therefore, while
Scooter's tailored version of the Everglades partially revealed the nature
of the River of Grass, there was also the sense that the place had much
greater significance than what was portrayed. In the case of Scooter, while
he seemed to answer some questions about the Everglades, the proceeding
group discussion regarding the airboat tour revealed exaggerations,
questions about the accuracy of what we were told, and standards for who
decides what is accurate or trustworthy.
As an English major, I naturally look for metaphors,
imagery, and themes hidden between the lines, and this can also be applied
to my experience as a witness to the Everglades. Words or phrases in
literature might contain multiple layers of meaning, and as a result,
enriches the body of a work. In one sense, the Everglades is like a
tapestry of metaphors and images. These include the variety of insects
behind each sawgrass, the alligators beneath the dark water, and the
Purple Gallinule chicks hidden in a thicket. These threads of the tapestry
are within arms-length, but are still inaccessible.
This inaccessibility is one way of describing the
mystery of the Everglades. It is a mystery because we know there is
something there, yet it is not completely within reach. While science is
invaluable for giving us a better understanding of the Everglades, and
thereby giving us a kind of access, it is still only part of the tapestry.
The mystery of the Everglades is part of the
attraction. Of course, with more study and expeditions my knowledge of
this place will be greatly augmented. In this sense, many initial
questions about the Everglades will be answered and a greater
understanding will result. At the same time, these answers will likely
prompt new and more complex questions. I anticipate that the mystery and
mystique of the Everglades will remain, but it will be from an informed
perspective rather than one of ignorance.