One of the most fragile and damaged ecosystems in our country is the Florida Everglades. This is a large watershed that begins with the Kissimmee River, near Orlando, runs to the shallow Lake Okeechobee, and, in the wet season, becomes a wide 100 mile long river that flows over limestone to the Florida Bay at the southern tip of Florida. The native Americans called this area Pa-Hay-Okee, translated as “grassy river”, and writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas coined the term “River of Grass”. Both of these names describe the delicate balance between water and vegetation, the complex relationships between the sawgrass marshes, the mangrove forests, the cypress swamps, thousands of “islands”, the hardwoods and pines and marine life sustained by this environment.
American Indians and early European settlers adapted to the Everglades with little impact on the ecosystem itself. However, by the late 19th century, the Everglades were being drained to establish sugar plantations. By early 20th century, canals were being built, encouraging land development, a significant element in Florida’s economy. In 1947, Congress formed the Central Florida and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, resulting 1,400 miles of canals, levees and other hydro management structures. Cities, particularly Miami, grew exponentially, diverting water from the everglades. Agriculture took over large areas of the Everglades, not only altering the natural water flow but introducing toxic chemicals into the water itself. Currently, almost half of the original Everglades have been converted into farms or urban areas.
By the 1970’s, the degradation of the Everglade environment gained national and international attention, with UNESCO designating the area as a “Wetland of Global Importance”. Conservation and environmental groups have made significant strides in recognizing and altering the deterioration of the area. In 2000, congress approved the “Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan”, the most expensive environmental restoration project ever attempted. However, implementation has faced numerous political complications, the damage is so massive it is difficult to make an impact and progress has been very slow.
We have a number of friends who winter in Florida and they suggested this may be a locale pertinent to my series, and in a sense it does fit. However, it is so huge, I wasn’t sure how to approach it. Rather than focusing on one of the many projects being conducted, some with significant success, I simply want to use color and stitch to share the beauty of the Everglades as named by the Indians – Pa-Hay-Okee – “grassy river”.