What can we learn from life in the Everglades?

By Autumn N. Bryan
2023 Karen Mashburn Environmental Scholar

Upon accepting my internship with Friends of the Everglades, I began to consider the prospect of the Everglades as an educator. I have so much to learn from the people here, and even more to unearth from the beautiful River of Grass that connects us. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas knew, though academically-educated, that school is not the only place you can find a teacher. All around you are opportunities for priceless lessons. For those that can recognize the beauty of the swamp, the Everglades are the perfect educator. Life in the Everglades provides countless instructions on how to coexist, adapt, and connect. I can only hope to transcribe some of what this library of grass has to impart. 

Balance and Connection

The greater Everglades ecosystem is a precious and crucial orchestra of biodiversity. The harmony of the sprawling wildlife that inhabits the River of Grass offers a lesson in connection. Plants and animals co-exist, feeding into one another and the land itself. Mangrove sanctuaries flourish throughout the brackish water; the tree hammocks provide homes to an array of animals; alligator holes foster life in the dry season. 

A balanced ecosystem once existed in the Everglades, a cycle of life, undisturbed. Now though, human development has upset the serenity of the historic Everglades, complicating these methods of connection. Man-made canals slash across the face of the habitat, diverting essential water, and critically impacting the native wildlife, endangering the Everglades ecosystem. Flocks of migrating birds find it harder to hunt for food. Manatees lessen in numbers each season with the destruction of the original water flow.

There is hope for restoration though. Every day, efforts are made to curb further development, protect current environmental measures, and support preservation. With the help of the community, compassionate policy-making, and indigenous knowledge, there is a possibility of restoring a balanced connection for all life that inhabits the Everglades.

How to Coexist

The grassy waters of the Everglades connect the diverse wildlife, the flora and fauna, and animals of the wetlands. Betty Osceola, a local historian and member of the Miccosukee Tribe, Panther Clan, reminds us, in Guardians of Our Troubled Waters, that “water is life. You cannot exist without water… We talk to the water. Just like we talk to the birds and other plants and the animals… The health of the water is important to the health of everything else on this planet.” These essential waters, flowing through the Everglades, ensure the continuance of sustained life-cycles for all. The river is a source of wisdom, carrying nutrients and insight along its currents, and connecting the community. Betty reminds us of the importance of taking care of the environment around us and coexisting with nature. 

Once forced into the depths of the Everglades, the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes thrived among the insects and the animals, the boundless green of Pahayokee. In stark contrast to the violent methods of modern overdevelopment and excessive water management at the expense of the Everglades, indigenous people coexisted within the harmonious cycle of nature. Living a nomadic lifestyle, they followed the seasons, harvested native fruits, hunted fish and animals, and used sustainable growing practices to survive. And though most indigenous people have had to adapt from subsistence living to store-bought foods due to an increase in mercury levels polluting the water, Betty Osceola and her family still live in a chickee hut, still cook over an open fire and venture into the swamp to harvest food.

The resilience and respect of indigenous peoples inspire passionate activists for the causes of environmental preservation and restoration. Their way of life echoes the ancient harmony found in the Everglades. To amplify the messages of our most generous educators – the plants and animals, the trees –  indigenous knowledge should inform the fight to protect the Everglades. Operating within the cycle of nature, indigenous people live in harmony with the diverse ecosystem, a lesson we would do well to learn.  

Adapt and Overcome

Dozens of endangered species, including the Florida Panther, the Leafwing Butterfly, the Snail Kite, and the West Indian Manatee, call the 50-mile wide river home. Species like the Florida Panther, decimated to almost-extinction, have fought back with the help of conservationists. Though they still struggle against human development, speeding vehicles, neurological disease, and climate change, their numbers continue to rise. Their return is evidence of the Everglades’ resilience.

A roseate spoonbill skirts the wetlands of Savannas Preserve State Park on Feb. 26, 2022, in St. Lucie County.

Animals like the Roseate Spoonbill have adapted to the climbing temperatures, migrating farther and farther north, painting the eastern coast with their brilliant pink. Native to the Everglades, the Ghost Orchid is an extremely rare flower that only grows in sensitive wetlands, sometimes flowering only once in sixteen years. The patience of their specter-white petals is a testament to endurance. Wherever you look in the Everglades are stories of perseverance.

With them comes another essential message: Be brave. The swamp can be harrowing; there are creeping and crawling creatures that call the sawgrass and cypress islands home. But within the grassy waters, where some may see a useless swamp, lives a luscious and rewarding ecosystem of vibrant biodiversity – flora and fauna unseen elsewhere in the world. Here, animals live alongside one another, that do so in no other habitat. Crocodiles and alligators, panthers and bears, ghost orchids that haunt the pond apple trees. Regardless, the cycle of diverse life does not escape the courageous struggle for survival. 

What We Still Have to Learn

Everglades National Park, despite its status, is encroached upon by ever-increasing industry and agriculture. More than half of the original Everglades has been destroyed. There are plants and animals, whose homes no longer exist, that will never return. But still, the glittering River of Grass provides, imparts its knowledge, reflects its lessons along the water, stretching for miles. Written among the meandering channels and currents of the Florida Everglades is a truth clear for anyone to see: compassion is the key to peace. 

We must be willing to listen to these teachings of connectivity and resilience, and be passionate in our communication of the wealth of knowledge. The Everglades is an essential ecosystem to thousands of species that need their voices echoed in our own lessons. Thank you for taking the time to hear them.