A fan of non-fiction books, particularly those with a natural history bent, I figured The Swamp by Michael Grunwald would be a perfect match for my interests. After all, as the subtitle pointed out, this book focuses on "The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise."
I thought that within the covers of The Swamp's 370 pages (not counting additional pages of notes, acknowledgments, and index), I'd come away with a deeper understanding of how Everglades National Park came to be.
Oh, I realized going into the text that the book was more than just a history of the park. But while many others have found The Swamp fascinating, I found the going ponderous and at times numbing.
There's no doubt that Grunwald is a fine researcher and solid writer. Indeed, he's done an incredible job of piecing together the political history that surrounds the Everglades and the many attempts to dry it out. But perhaps his undoing was in trying to be so meticulous in his research that he ran out of room in his book.
After relatively quickly dispatching with the military efforts to run the Seminole tribes out of Florida, Grunwald turns his sights on the many characters who thought they knew the key to draining the Everglades and turning the vast river of grass into productive agricultural, and later residential, lands.
So many surface that the author seemingly doesn't have enough space in his 370 pages to truly bring them to life. Indeed, he seems to have encountered the same problem when describing the Everglades' flora and fauna and so, in one spot, resorts to a list:
"The Everglades was the only place on earth where alligators (broad snout, fresh water, darker skin) and crocodiles (pointy snout, salt water, toothy grin) lived side by side. It was the only home of the Everglades mink, Okeechobee gourd, and Big Cypress fox squirrel. It had carnivorous plants, amphibious birds, oysters that grew on trees, cacti that grew in water, lizards that changed colors, and fish that changed genders. It had 1,100 species of trees and plants, 350 birds, and 52 varieties of porcelain-smooth, candy-striped tree snails. It had bottlenose dolphins, marsh rabbits, ghost orchids, moray eels, bald eagles, and countless other species that didn't seem to belong on the same continent, much less in the same ecosystem."
Now, the entire book isn't like that. There are places where Grunwald elaborates, albeit briefly -- "Take the golden-brown Everglades goop known as periphyton. It was easy to overlook, clumped around aquatic plants like slimy oatmeal sweaters, floating in sloughs like discolored papier-mache, crumbling into a snowy powder during droughts. But it was the dominant life-form in much of the Everglades, measured by biomass. It was also the base of the Everglades food chain, providing grazing pastures for small fish, prawns, insects, and snails, which became prey for larger fish and birds. Today, microscopes reveal periphyton mats as action-packed worlds unto themselves, teeming with bacteria, diatoms, and single-cell organisms shaped like candles, spaghetti, bricks, nets, tissues and tunnels -- swimming, splitting, and swallowing one another whole."
These snippets are too short, in my opinion. Indeed, he speeds, admittedly, through "The First 300 Million Years (Abridged)" of the landscape's evolution, discarding in two pages what the late James Michener might have embraced for two or more chapters.
The Swamp is a good chronology of the politics that surround the Everglades. But to me it lacks the depth and drama that this geologic and human stew surely can provide.
The Everglades was once reviled as a liquid wasteland, and Americans dreamed of draining it. Now it is revered as a national treasure, and Americans have launched the largest environmental project in history to try to save it. The Swamp is the stunning story of the destruction and possible resurrection of the Everglades, the saga of man's abuse of nature in southern Florida and his unprecedented efforts to make amends. Michael Grunwald, a prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, takes readers on a riveting journey from the Ice Ages to the present, illuminating the natural, social and political history of one of America's most beguiling but least understood patches of land.
The Everglades was America's last frontier, a wild country long after the West was won. Grunwald chronicles how a series of visionaries tried to drain and "reclaim" it, and how Mother Nature refused to bend to their will; in the most harrowing tale, a 1928 hurricane drowned 2,500 people in the Everglades. But the Army Corps of Engineers finally tamed the beast with levees and canals, converting half the Everglades into sprawling suburbs and sugar plantations. And though the southern Everglades was preserved as a national park, it soon deteriorated into an ecological mess. The River of Grass stopped flowing, and 90 percent of its wading birds vanished.
Now America wants its swamp back. Grunwald shows how a new breed of visionaries transformed Everglades politics, producing the $8 billion rescue plan. That plan is already the blueprint for a new worldwide era of ecosystem restoration. And this book is a cautionary tale for that era. Through gripping narrative and dogged reporting, Grunwald shows how the Everglades is still threatened by the same hubris, greed and well-intentioned folly that led to its decline.
Michael Grunwald is a reporter at The Washington Post. He has won the George Polk Award for national reporting, the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting, and many other awards. He lives in Miami with his wife, Cristina Dominguez.
Visit his website at www.michaelgrunwald.com.