In the midst of a tragedy, Who was Marjory Stoneman Douglas?

By Kenneth D. MacHarg

It should not be surprising in the light of the events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that most of us missed the irony of the tragedy occurring at that facility.

The school was named after an outstanding writer and social activist who is given much of the credit for establishing the Everglades National Park and saving the vast “river of grass” from development and destruction. In fact, the school is located less than two miles from the park boundary.

On the park’s website Mrs. Douglas is described as being “ahead of her time” in recognizing the value of preserving the Everglades. Many have compared the influence of her book, The Everglades: River of Glass, to that of Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring which warned of the dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT.

Douglas worked at the Miami Herald, first as a society reporter, then as an editorial page columnist. Later she took on the fight for feminism, racial justice, and conservation long before those causes became popular.

Her book, published in 1947 — the year Everglades National Park was established, developed public awareness of the natural and touristic value of the area.  A revised edition was published in 1987 to draw attention to the continuing threats to the vast waterway even though it had become a national park.

Although she herself found the Everglades “too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable” for frequent visits, she soon became the public voice of the effort.

Following the development of a complex system of canals, levees, dams, and pump stations to provide protection from seasonal flooding in former marsh land that was being used for agriculture and real estate development, Mrs. Douglas criticized officials for destroying wetlands, eliminating the sheetflow of water, and upsetting the natural cycles upon which the entire system depends.

Mrs. Douglas taught that the Everglades was more than just a swamp, but instead was a vast, grassy river through which water from Lake Okeechobee flowed through a wide swath of southern Florida stretching from the western suburbs of Miami to the outskirts of Naples and Fort Myers. Some scientists say that water leaving Lake Okeechobee may require months or years to reach its final destination, Florida Bay.

“There are no other Everglades in the world,” she wrote. “they are unique…in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida.”

Today the park is home to 120 different types of trees, 100 seed bearings plants, and a plethora of animal and bird life including alligators and crocodiles, raccoons, skunks, opossums, bobcats, foxes, white-tail deer and panthers.

In her book, Douglas described the historic nature of the Everglades: “The shores that surround the Everglades were the first on this continent known to white men. The interior was almost the last.”

Her work did not end with the creation of Everglades National Park. She continued to fight against efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to divert the natural flow of the waters and in 1970, she founded Friends of the Everglades to broaden the constituency for its protection.

After the Stoneman Douglas schools were named for Mrs. Douglas, officials chose wildlife from the Everglades as mascots The Anhinga as was chosen as the mascot of the elementary school while the Eagle became the symbol of the high school.

The Bald Eagle can be found in virtually any kind of American wetland habitat including seacoasts, rivers, large lakes or marshes and other open bodies of water. Meanwhile, the Anhinga is a freshwater bird, sometimes called the “snake bird” in that it has the ability to swim with its body submerged so that only its long neck protrudes out of the water, looking like a snake.

Douglas lived to 108, working until nearly the end of her life for Everglades restoration. Upon her death, an obituary in The Independent in London stated, “In the history of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures than Marjory Stoneman Douglas.”

Her ashes were spread in the Everglades National Park.

In the light of the spontaneous activism in the wake of the mass shooting it is altogether appropriate for students from her namesake high school to exhibit the same type of civic engagement in response to this current tragedy.

This article was published in the Times-Georgian newspaper of Carrollton, GA.

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