City & Shore Magazine
I was nervous to ask Marjory Stoneman Douglas my question.
I’d heard she could be tough on newspeople. That she had no time for “stupid’’ questions. That you’d better have done your homework before stepping into an interview with the “Grandmother of the ’Glades.”
But my newspaper had organized a symposium on issues facing South Florida, and our editor had asked the author of The Everglades: River of Grass to come up to Broward, talk about her work and take a few of our questions.
She was about 95 then – deaf and nearly blind – and, famously, did not drive. But she agreed to come if somebody picked her up in Coconut Grove and took her back home again.
“She seemed pleased that people still wanted to hear from her,’’ said Tim Swarens, the editorial page editor who drove Mrs. Douglas. “I had no idea at the time what a huge privilege it was to spend the day with her.”
I remember the hush as Tim escorted Mrs. Douglas slowly up on stage. I’d heard she always dressed up for these occasions – maybe not what you’d expect from a figure so associated with the gritty mash of the Everglades – and, in her pearls and white gloves, she did not disappoint. She took a regal seat and peered down at us through thick lenses set in dark-frame glasses, her floppy straw hat dipped low across her craggy face from right to left.
After a while, the hush turned into an awkward silence, as Mrs. Douglas continued to sit and stare back at us. Maybe she hadn’t understood we’d come to learn from her. Maybe we were all too nervous we’d ask a “stupid’’ question to get things going.
So we just sat and gazed at each other. A river of impasse.
Finally, Tim stepped back up and gently invited Mrs. Douglas to share a few words about her work, and what she thought we needed to do to protect the Everglades.
Which she proceeded to do, at great length and sharp detail, her voice rising and falling like an Everglade snail kite on a summer breeze.
She reminded us that the Everglades is a vast river, not a swamp. That it may look forbidding, but it’s actually fragile. That the Army Corps of Engineers had blundered when it straightened the Kissimmee River, strangling the shallow flow of fresh water that sustains it.
That we all depend on that great river of grass, too. Without it, she said, we would have no water, no home, no life.
Then she stopped, and we all sat and stared at each other again. Maybe she couldn’t hear or see us so well – but as we’d listened, we’d seen her clearly for what she was.
After a while, Tim gently broke the hush again and asked if we had any questions.
This was it.
“Mrs. Douglas,” I said (nervously). “I wonder if you have a favorite place to visit in the Everglades?”
I thought it was a good question. I thought it would give her a chance to play tour guide.
“Young man,’’ she said, the snail kite rising, “you can’t VISIT the Everglades!”
We all sat and stared at each other again.
Years later, reading her Voice of the River, I began to understand what she’d meant that day: The Everglades isn’t so much a place to visit as it is a place in mind.
“To be a friend of the Everglades is not necessarily to spend time wandering around out there,” she wrote. “It’s too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable.”
It was enough, she said, just to know that it was there.
Mrs. Douglas, who died 20 years ago this May at the age of 108, was a tireless crusader, beyond her environmental work. She was honored for her “campaigns against slum-lords for improved housing conditions, for free milk for babies whose parents needed aid and for the ratification of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment” when she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In the sad days after the massacre at the school named for her, I couldn’t help thinking back to that moment with her – one of our greatest teachers. How it’s enough to know her spirit is still out there, in the voices of children crusading for change.
In our culture we don’t seek wisdom often enough from our elders, and I wished I could ask Mrs. Douglas now where she placed all of this in her mind, what lessons we could learn, whether we’re doing enough to stop our own threats – environmental, and otherwise – on the ragged edges of her beloved Everglades.
I hoped so.
But I would be nervous to ask.