The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

From Brazilian Pepper to American Maple

Olga Santiago
IDH 4007
Spring Semester 2007

   The sun was blinding my eyes as I lay on the soft cozy grass enjoying its fine fragrance and warmness during the last Everglades' class. For a minute, I opened my eyes and I saw a tiger butterfly flying by and heard the wind blowing and the swaying of the grass. A feeling of peace and joy came upon me. I closed my eyes again and felt sleepy. Suddenly, someone asked me "Olga, what are you thinking about?" I found it difficult to describe the whole complexity and deepness of my thoughts and I simply said: "I see the sun." In reality, I thought a little bit of everything... I thought of my home, my childhood, the days when my friend Natasha and I used to collect motherwort, mint, and coltsfoot. Back then, we just got lost in the woods and spent all day trying to get as many of these herbs as possible. I thought that grass in the Everglades smelled the same way like the one at home; the wind sounded the same way too. In several minutes, a mellow music piece came to my mind and afterwards all my memories, the smells, the whispers of the wind, and music came to one. Suddenly, my focus point changed. I found myself thinking of the Everglades, about the damage that has been done. "Wow, I thought people were trying to improve what was already perfect." Then, I thought how their sense of perfection was much different from nature's. Suddenly, the wall of useless, impassable Brazilian peppers, which we just saw on the other side of the road, stood up in front of my eyes. At first, Brazilian pepper was introduced as a Christmas decorative plant because it had red berries around Christmas time; however, it adapted very fast to the Florida climate and soon overgrew other native species of the Everglades. In fact, it was so dense; it seemed that even the Florida sun could not penetrate it. "What an uncontrollable decoration we have here," I thought. "There is a lot of work ahead."

   Yes, spending those ten or fifteen minutes in the grass was great for me. I thought over a few things. For certain reasons the Brazilian pepper situation in the Everglades reminds me of a similar disaster we had back in the Ukraine. Somewhere in the mid 1980's, someone brought Acer negundo, a maple species native to North America as a decoration. They are also known as American maple. At first, one could see them growing in public parks and gardens. However, little by little, the American maple spread, since these carefree trees adapted very quickly to the environment and grew faster than other species. Soon, it turned into a disaster because the maple started to replace native trees such as red oak, and birch, as well as cherry, apple, apricot, and lime trees. Presently, one of my uncles works with the "American Maple Control Center." Last time I spoke with him, he told me that the company has tried many different methods to eradicate the American maple, so far nothing has been successful. So, when the rangers showed the class the progress they had achieved cleaning up the Brazilian peppers in the Everglades, I thought that they had done a great job so far. Their effort has been enormous and there is still a lot to go. I believe that if people continue doing the right thing their efforts will be compensated. Unfortunately, it doesn't always happen that way. At this point a Laurence J. Peter's quote comes to mind: "Cleaning anything involves making something else dirty, but anything can get dirty without something else getting clean."

   Another amazing thing during the last class was our visit to the military base where missiles were kept during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I shared a bit of my grandfather's history, having been in Germany during this period of time and working with ballistic missiles, preparing to attack the United States if necessary. In fact, these events have affected him very much. Long after the Cold War ended, and the peace treaty was signed he still imagined that danger existed. At the end of his life, he lost trust in people and the only remedy that he found was nature. After his parent's death, he moved to their house and lived there till the end of his life, spending time planting fruit gardens, growing vegetables, and taking care of birds. My grandfather's life is just one example. In reality, for some people, who went through a tragic experience in life and lost trust in other humans, nature becomes the only remedy. So, even though it is not always seen immediately, people need nature more than they realize because it cures not only physical wounds but also emotional and psychological. Michael Grunwald in his book The Swamp describes a battle between environmentalists and politicians over the construction of a jet airport in the Everglades. The author said that it was already a done deal. However, the airport was never built. So, if they could impede the airport construction, money does not always talk. Everglades's recovery still has a chance. However, people have to agree on doing the right thing because there is only one Everglades, only one nature and we do not have another.

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