The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

Writing Novels Through Our Actions

Cristina Clark-Cuadrado
IDH 4007
Fall Semester 2004

   I went to do my Thanksgiving shopping on Monday. I figured that if I bought the turkey, turkey stuffing, and pumpkin pie at the beginning of the week, I would avoid the long lines that build up in supermarkets the day before Thanksgiving, while not having to freeze and unfreeze the turkey. I was in aisle 4, trying to decide whether my family would prefer microwaveable Stove Top stuffing or the kind you actually insert into the turkey's insides when I remembered that I also had to get canned cranberry sauce... my favorite! I quickly grabbed the Stove Top and headed to another aisle when, right next to the coconut milk, eagerly waiting for me to notice them, were six cans of tamarind nectar. I just had to grab the 12-ounce cans to read the words: "Excellent source of Vitamin C!" It is amazing how I had never noticed the tamarind nectar cans, yet every time I go to the supermarket I see the coconut milk. I know that if Dr. Graham had never pointed out the Tamarind tree in class, the tamarind nectar cans would have never popped out at me.

   My mind wandered off to last Friday, when I stuffed an unripe tamarind seed in my mouth. It tasted like hard lime candy and I did not like it. How easy it is, I wondered, to go to a supermarket where everything is ripe and ready for you to buy! Even the water comes pre-packaged in attractive bottles. Living on a mangrove island in the Ten-Thousand Islands must have been frustrating. The water had to be collected, drop by drop, in a high-maintenance cistern, the fruit and vegetables had to be gathered after they had taken their time to get ripe, even the sugar had to be grown in canes, collected, and then made into syrup: it did not come in convenient 1-lb or 5-lbs bags. Just imagine how labor intensive a meal such as the one in Thanksgiving would have been! I can just imagine Mister Watson working the land where the sugar cane is growing, while Netta scrapes the salt off the Black Mangrove leaves to flavor the mashed potatoes, and the Frenchman gathers some Agave plants to make tequila. Meanwhile, turkeys brought from Key West are running wild, waiting for their death in a few months.

   It is no wonder that Mister Watson was very well respected when it came to growing crops. According to his neighbors, he could make anything grow from the ground. At a time when preservatives were not used to transport foods for long distances, locally-grown foods were a necessity. Mister Watson could provide for these... especially for the sugar syrup. Many times, as I was reading the novel, I admired Mister Watson for this talent. He would work hard alongside his employees, making sure the plants grew plentiful. However, who should really take credit for Mr. Watson's success were the Calusa Indians. By piling up shells for centuries, they were able to raise the land. Mangroves settled on these higher grounds... and soil built up for plants to grow some more.

   It is astonishing how the hard efforts of the Calusa Indians are still being appreciated today. Even last Friday's class made use of them on Friday. We were walking on the shells Calusas thoughtfully piled up many generations ago. What would the West coast of Florida, especially the Ten Thousand Island area look like had the Calusa Indians not inhabited that area? We would not have had the same field trip on Friday: we probably would have had to visit a different place. I would not have tried the tamarind, and never noticed those tamarind nectar cans, sitting patiently, waiting for someone to notice them in aisle 4. Every single shell under my feet was hundreds of years old. Every shell had once been a living being, and was probably put there by a Calusa Indian. Then the oysters had given part of themselves (nutrients, support) to help other organisms grow: other insects, other plants, and the animals living off those plants. The town of Chokoloskee would not even exist! And the Frenchman in Killing Mister Watson would not have had anything to look for. Those shell mounds with treasures he was desperately trying to discover would have never existed. The Calusa Indians, without their knowledge or consent, made the story of Mister Watson simply by creating mounds of oyster shells.

   When I look at it this way, I have no choice but to accept how influential humans are on the environment and the future of other beings. As the Calusa Indians changed their environment by piling up oyster shells in order to survive, we are changing the environment of the Everglades by taking over much of it and changing it into houses and buildings. We are adding nutrients to the water because we need to fertilize our food. We are blocking off the natural water flow. When the Calusa Indians made their shell mounds, they were not considered to be destroying their environment. They were considered to be adapting to their environment. Are we not, also, adapting to our environment? Aren't we creating novels thanks to our actions on the environment? Carl Hiaasen, for example, uses phosphorus contamination in the water of the Everglades as a very important factor in one of his novels. It is as if every change humans make to the environment is creating a piece of history by changing the future. After all, if things were left the same way forever, there would be nothing new to talk about.

   Those shell mounds left many years ago by Native Americans changed the way I looked at a can of nectar last Monday. How will my actions change someone's perspective a hundred years from today?

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