Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Defender of the Everglades
“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them…”
These opening words from Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ immortal book The Everglades: River of Grass crystallize the uniqueness of the Everglades. These words could also be used to describe Marjory herself, who was as rare and unique as the Everglades she worked so hard to protect.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, born April 7, 1890 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, graduated from Wellesley with straight A’s with the elected honor of “Class Orator.” That title proved to be prophetic.
In 1915, following a brief and calamitous marriage, she arrived in Miami to live with her father, the founder and editor of the Miami Herald. Before long her father asked her to fill in temporarily for the society editor. Marjory soon took over the job full-time, much to her delight. A year later she began to write editorials and stories. During this time she met Carl Fisher, George Merrick, William Jennings Bryan, Cyrus H.K.Curtis, Henry Flagler and John Sewell, among others.
World War I
It was 1917and the First World War was raging in Europe. The Navy had sent a ship from Key West to Miami to enlist men and women into the Naval Reserve. Marjory went to cover the story of a local woman she heard about, who was to be the first woman to enlist. As it turned out, Marjory herself was the first woman to enlist. She joined the Navy, became a yeoman first class, and was stationed in Miami. After a year, she was discharged, joined the American Red Cross and went to Paris.The war ended, but Marjory stayed on in Paris. She traveled around Europe and wrote stories about the turning over of Red Cross clinics to the local authorities. As the Red Cross was closing down in Paris, her father cabled to offer her a job as an assistant editor of the Miami Herald.
The Miami Herald
Marjory arrived back in Miami in January, 1920. She worked on the editorial page and had a column called “’The Galley” for three years. She wrote poetry at the head of every column. It was in her column that she began to talk about Florida as landscape and as geography, to investigate it and to explore it.
Toward the end of 1923 Marjory was feeling the pressure of friction between her and the publisher, disagreements with her father, and the demands of writing stories and her column. She began to experience blackouts. She was diagnosed with nerve fatigue. She left the Herald and lived at her father’s new home. She recovered by being quiet, sleeping late and by beginning to write short stories. The Saturday Evening Post published her early stories, along with those of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. This was the beginning of her independence from the newspaper. As she said, writing fiction was the perfect job for her. She hadn’t been a good employee, she hadn’t liked regular hours, or being told what to do, or working for other people. She was a loner. She wanted to be an individual rather than an employee or merely a female.
House on Stewart Avenue
In 1926 Marjory, with some help from her friends, designed and built the cottage in which she lived for the rest of her life. It was a great influence on her life. Here, Marjory took on the fight for feminism, racial justice, and conservation long before these causes became popular. Her social life blossomed during these years. She loved to swim, and would frequent Tahaiti Beach, and later Matheson Hammock, in the big lagoon. During this time also, Marjory had another breakdown. She was treated with the wrong drugs, and almost died. A new doctor, Dr. P.L. Dodge was brought in. He took her off the medications and she began to recover.
Everglades National Park
One project that Marjory supported in print and by serving on the committee was the creation of Everglades National Park. Mr. Ernest F. Coe was the moving force behind this idea. David Fairchild, John Oliver LaGorce of National Geographic magazine and other notables served on this committee. She visited the Everglades often. In the Ten Thousand islands at the edge of the Everglades, she saw “”great flocks of birds, amazing flights of 30,000 to 40,000 in one swoop…” In 1934 the park was designated by Congress. It took another 13 years to acquire land and secure funding. The park officially opened in 1947.
The Everglades: River of Grass
One of Marjory’s long-time friends, Hervey Allen, dropped by her house to see her. He was the editor, for Rinehart and Company, of its Rivers of America series. He asked Marjory to write a book about the Miami River. She asked him if she could write about the Everglades as being connected to the Miami River. He agreed. Thus began Marjory’s research into the Everglades ecosystem. The book took five years. It was published the same year Everglades National Park was dedicated, 1947. The Everglades: River of Grass has become the definitive description of the natural treasure she fought so hard to protect. After several reprints, the revised edition was published in 1987, to draw attention to the continuing threats — unresolved — to “her river.”
In 1948 Marjory began to get money from her book. During this time she traveled, spent a little money and wrote. She corresponded with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and they became friends. Marjory was asked by Rinehart Publishers to write another book, this one about hurricanes. It was published in 1958. Other books followed. At the age of 77 Marjory embarked on research to write a biography of W.H.Hudson. She traveled and wrote, but her eyesight failed, and it was given to an editor.
Friends of the Everglades
In the 1950s, in a major construction program, a complex system of canals, levees, dams, and pump stations was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to provide protection from seasonal flooding to former marsh land — now being used for agriculture and real estate development. Long before scientists became alarmed about the effects on the natural ecosystems of south Florida, Mrs. Douglas was railing at officials for destroying wetlands, eliminating sheet flow of water, and upsetting the natural cycles upon which the entire system depends.
Early on, she recognized that the Everglades is a system which depends not only on the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee into the park, but also upon the Kissimmee River which feeds the lake. In 1969 she formed Friends of the Everglades. She was 79 years old and due to her failed eyesight, wore dark glasses. When Marjory started Friends of the Everglades dues were $1.00. Her purpose was to create awareness of the potential destruction of a large portion of the Everglades by a huge jetport being built in the fragile wetlands. Marjory, a born advocate, said “I’ll do whatever I can” to stop the jetport. The jetport was stopped after one runway was built. The runway still exists in the Big Cypress.
As Marjory explains in her autobiography Voice of the River, Art Marshall taught that much of the rainfall on which South Florida counts, comes from evaporation in the Everglades. The Everglades evaporate, the moisture goes up into the clouds, the clouds are blown to the north, and the rain comes down over the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee. Lake Okeechobee is fed by these rains. The lake fills up, and the excess water drains down the Caloosahatchee River into the Gulf of Mexico to the west, or through the St. Lucie River and into the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The remainder spills over the southern rim of the lake into the great arc of the Everglades.
Marjory spent the rest of her life defending the Everglades. She expanded Friends of the Everglades into Broward, Palm Beach, Lee, St. Lucie, Osceola, Hendry, Glades, and Monroe Counties. She believed that the people who pollute the Everglades should clean it up.
In his introduction to her autobiography Voice of the River (1987), John Rothchild describes her appearance in 1973 at a public meeting in Everglades City: “Mrs. Douglas was half the size of her fellow speakers and she wore huge dark glasses, which along with the huge floppy hat made her look like Scarlet O’Hara as played by Igor Stravinsky. When she spoke, everybody stopped slapping [mosquitoes] and more or less came to order. She reminded us all of our responsibility to nature and I don’t remember what else. Her voice had the sobering effect of a one-room schoolmarm’s. The tone itself seemed to tame the rowdiest of the local stone crabbers, plus the developers, and the lawyers on both sides. I wonder if it didn’t also intimidate the mosquitoes. . . . The request for a Corps of Engineers permit was eventually turned down. This was no surprise to those of us who’d heard her speak.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Marjory received many awards and tributes for her work. We draw special attention to two. In 1977 she received a Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Award. And in 1993, at the age of 103, she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom . Its citation said, “An extraordinary woman who has devoted her long life to protecting the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades, and to the cause of equal rights for all Americans, Marjory Stoneman Douglas personifies passionate commitment. Her crusade to preserve and restore the Everglades has enhanced our Nation’s respect for our precious environment, reminding all of us of nature’s delicate balance. Grateful Americans honor the “Grandmother of the Glades” by following her splendid example in safeguarding America’s beauty and splendor for generations to come.” Mrs. Douglas donated her Medal of Freedom to Wellesley College.
Awarding Mrs. Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993, President Clinton recognized her achievements. Upon her death in 1998 at the age of 108, President Clinton said: “Long before there was an Earth Day, Mrs. Douglas was a passionate steward of our nation’s natural resources, and particularly her Florida Everglades.”
In recognition of her tireless and successful struggle, the state of Florida named the headquarters of its Department of Natural Resources after her.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas died in 1998 at the age or 108. Her ashes were scattered in the Everglades she worked so tirelessly to preserve. Her memorial and legacy will be our preservation of her dream – for us and our children and our children’s children.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame on October 7, 2000.
Originally published in The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature Volume 8, 1997, 55-73.
By Rosalie E. Leposky , Ampersand Communications, Miami, Florida