The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

Lost Sounds

Cristina Clark-Cuadrado
IDH 4007
Fall Semester 2004

   At first, it was a little awkward, but after I got accustomed to keeping my eyes closed in front of the whole class, I could relax and just listen. The many times I had previously visited the Everglades, it had never occurred to me that one very important aspect of the Everglades is the calming sounds it produces. I then remembered that many people come to the Everglades not to learn about it or enjoy its views, but to get away from the chaos of the city. With my eyes closed and my classmates quiet, I felt I was by myself. Nothing could come between me and the nature surrounding me. I heard a little bird in the distance, its chirp muffled by the leaves fiercely rustling in the wind; it reminded me of one of those CDs that people buy to relax or fall asleep. This "CD," though, would never be heard again: in my mind I had captured the unique music made by nature at that precise moment. When I got home, I locked myself in the bathroom, turned the light off, and closed my eyes once more. I wanted to see if I could remember those sounds: I knew they would make me eager to return to class in two weeks. My experiment was a success.

   I can only imagine the feelings of the first explorers of the Everglades when they got to these majestic lands. Native Americans had already been living there for millennia when the Everglades was "discovered," and had grown accustomed to the music it made. Yet, the new explorers probably had not seen or heard anything similar in their lives. When they closed their eyes, they would have heard nature yet untouched by the hands of humankind: hundreds, maybe even thousands, of birds calling each other, alligators bellowing under a cool shade, frogs imitating crickets and pigs, and, of course, the soft wind making waves on the sawgrass and then softly cooling their faces. It must have been glorious! Most of these things can still be heard today, but less frequently. As people hunted down animals, drained the Everglades, and developed cities, they took away many key elements of this ecosystem. Some, like the birds, are still struggling to achieve stable numbers of population that would guarantee the survival of future generations of their species.

   When Audubon set foot in South Florida to study the different species of birds he observed "great flocks of wading birds flying overhead toward their evening roosts .... They appeared in such numbers to actually block out the light from the sun for some time 1." It seems unimaginable nowadays that the number of birds would eclipse the sun in such a way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wearing bird's feathers on hats became very fashionable. Of course, in order to acquire these feathers, hunters would have to kill the birds, pluck the feathers out, and (as we learned in Killing Mister Watson) very often leave the birds' corpses rotting on the ground. This business became very profitable: In the first half of the 20th century certain types of feathers were worth more than their weight in gold. The more beautiful plumes are always acquired during the birds' mating season. By displaying exquisite, delicate plumes, males would attract females and keep their species going. It is not surprising to discover that this season was also the bird hunter's favorite. Upon acquiring the feathers of adult, mating birds, these hunters not only killed the adults, but left the chicks to starve to death. Very often, vultures would get to the chicks before they could die and ate them alive, piece by piece. Obviously, most of the wealthy women displaying these feathers on their hats could not even imagine the damage they were causing to an entire ecosystem. Thankfully, fashions changed and plume-wearing decreased. The Everglades, though, had already suffered so many losses of its birds and habitats, that even today one cannot hope to see or hear but less than ten percent of the number of birds there existed at the beginning of the 1900s. The mellifluous music I heard on Friday while closing my eyes was devoid of many bird songs that would have been around me had humans never tampered with this fragile ecosystem.

   Other animals have suffered similar fates. Alligators, for example, were hunted for decades not only for their meat, but for their pelts. The thick skin from their bodies made excellent and durable purses, boots, and belts. Baby alligators were very often skinned and used whole, head and all, to adorn purses. Their eyes replaced by little glass balls so as not to show their pain and suffering. Fortunately, alligator hunting was eventually banned when the Everglades National Park was established. What would have been the future of these regal reptiles without the Park? Sixty years ago alligators were extremely rare. Even scientists, researching the Everglades would have trouble finding them. Daniel Beard, in his accounts, wrote that in a year and a half of constant research in the Everglades, he only found four adult alligators. Nowadays, alligators are considered the rare success story of the Everglades since there are more than a million living. Yet, people still do not seem to understand that animals need their skins to exist. We do not have the right to take an indispensable part of the body to luxuriate ourselves. Fur coats, crocodile shoes, and leather purses are still being made and sold. It might change some minds if, along with the purchase, the customer had to take home the offspring of the animals killed to care for them or the bloody remains of the skinned corpses. Maybe then people would see the harsh reality of using nature to meet our wants.

   It is disheartening to think of all the damage that humans have caused to the Everglades. Couldn't Governor Broward, for example, put profits aside and for a moment close his eyes to listen to the sounds around him? Maybe if he had, he would have discovered that those sounds would never be replicated out of the Everglades once the Everglades were gone. Maybe someone else would have ruined the ecosystem anyway. We always try to manipulate nature not only to serve our needs, but mostly our wants. It seems very hard for many people to let nature take its course. I wonder oftentimes if my children will ever get to enjoy the little that is left of the Everglades. Will they, one day, come to the same spot I was standing, close their eyes, and listen to nature as it was intended to be?

  1 Proby, Kathryn Hall. Audubon in Florida. With Selections from the Writings of John James Audubon.University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL. 1974

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