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Marjory Stoneman Douglas, "Voice of the River"
Asked once how she would like to be remembered, Marjory Stoneman Douglas replied with a favorite quotation in the original Latin: "If you want to see his monument, look around you.''
Look around, indeed.
From the vast, subtle "river of grass'' her prose helped preserve, to the crystal tropical light her ceaseless activism kept clear, to the very way in which generations of Floridians look upon their land, the monument to Mrs. Douglas is all around us.
A woman whose life spanned a century as a pioneering feminist, journalist, playwright, environmental crusader and even soldier, Mrs. Douglas died quietly in her Coconut Grove home on May 4, 1998. She was 108.
Overstating her influence on Florida's environmental movement is difficult. The writings and campaigns of Mrs. Douglas, once likened to Mother Nature by President Clinton, first helped preserve the Florida Everglades as a national park then pushed it to the top of the national agenda.
"She was ahead of her time in many ways -- she told us what we should be doing and we're actually only getting around to it right now,'' said Sam Poole, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. The district observed a moment of silence at its board meeting on the day of her death.
Poole recalled the abuse that Mrs. Douglas overcame when she campaigned against very popular measures to develop the Everglades in Homestead in the early 1980s.
"She spoke against catcalls, she just stood her ground,'' Poole said. "That was a very hostile crowd. She was very diminutive but cast a giant shadow over the Everglades.
"One small person can make a difference. She made a huge difference.''
Mrs. Douglas founded the 6,000-member Friends of the Everglades, a group that successfully staved off a proposal to build a jetport in the fragile wetlands. In 1983, Mrs. Douglas helped persuade then-Gov. Bob Graham to begin a Save the Everglades campaign.
That led to the state Everglades Forever Act in 1994 and the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1996. The result is that the world's largest restoration project -- costing several billion dollars -- is now taking shape in South Florida.
Perhaps even more importantly, Mrs. Douglas' work changed the way people think about the environment. Long before terms like ecosystem and biodiversity, Mrs. Douglas recognized how a seemingly sullen marsh was actually a complex labyrinth of life.
That was the message of her classic book, The Everglades: River of Grass, considered to be the bible of the Florida environmental movement.
"Unless the people act, the fires will come again,'' Mrs. Douglas warned at the end of the book. "Overdraining will go on. The soil will shrink and burn and be wasted and destroyed, in a continuing ruin. The salt will lie in wait.
"Yet the springs of fine water had flowed again,'' she continued. "The balance still existed between the forces of life and of death. There is a balance in man also, one which has set against his greed and his inertia and his foolishness; his courage, his will, his ability slowly and painfully to learn, and to work together.
"Perhaps even in this last hour, in a new relation of usefulness and beauty, the vast, magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost.''
The book is not only an environmental call-to-arms but a classic of regional American literature, a work that long ago established Mrs. Douglas in a triumvirate whose other members are Florida writers Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. No male writers from Florida during this period approach either their scope or influence.
Unconventional, independent Mrs. Douglas was the last of a remarkable generation of women who came of age as the country barreled into the next century. The end of World War I, the women's suffrage movement and the industrial age with its time-saving marvels paved the way for women like her: unconventional, independent and determined to do whatever they pleased.
"We will remember them that way, fascinating women who came into adulthood at an interesting and dynamic time,'' said Valerie Rivers, park manager at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site at Cross Creek, near Gainesville.
Rivers finds many parallels between Mrs. Douglas and Rawlings, the Florida author who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Yearling in 1937, as well as artist Georgia O'Keeffe, whose painting career was taking off about the same time.
Mrs. Douglas and Rawlings were coming into their own as writers. All were born within a decade of each other and shunned traditional female roles. Instead, they lavished their love on the land.
Rivers never met Mrs. Douglas, "but I keenly appreciated her,'' she said. "I admired her willingness to take new paths. When an opportunity arose, she followed it.''
Simply a 'monist'
Marjory Stoneman Douglas was born on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minn. She was the daughter of Frank Bryant Stoneman of Minneapolis and Florence Lillian Trefethen of Providence, R.I. She counted among her ancestors a great-great uncle, Levi Coffin, who headed the Underground Railroad that spirited slaves to free states and safety.
Though her forebears included many Quakers, she was raised Episcopalian. In her later years she acknowledged no religion, simply describing herself as a "monist.''
Mrs. Douglas first accompanied her parents to Florida at age 4 when her father visited Tampa on business. Her early years, however, were spent in Providence, where financial difficulties plagued her parents' marriage and contributed to her mother's mental breakdowns.
The estrangement of her parents was bitter. She eventually was raised by her grandparents and a high-strung spinster aunt in Taunton, Mass.
After graduating from Wellesley College in 1912, she entered a training course for sales girls and later worked in a department store. After a year in St. Louis, the future writer moved to Newark, N.J., where she met her husband, Kenneth Douglas.
Kenneth Douglas, a newspaper reporter, "was about 6 feet tall, thin and intelligent looking, an ordinary dresser with good manners, and at least 30 years older than me,'' Mrs. Douglas recalled in her 1987 memoirs, Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River.
The husband drifted from job to job, taking his new bride as he stayed one move ahead of the rent collector. He was jailed for playing fast and loose with bank drafts.
Mrs. Douglas stuck by him until she was finally persuaded by an uncle, Ned, to walk away from the marriage and join her father in Florida. By 1915, Frank Stoneman had become an established newspaperman in far-flung Miami, a tiny Southern town. He was the editor and founder of the city's first morning newspaper, the News Record, which later evolved into The Miami Herald.
His daughter filed for divorce and went to work as first a cub reporter, then a society writer and later, society editor. She also embarked on her first crusade -- the effort to get women the vote for the first time in the nation's history.
Recruited by the wife of William Jennings Bryan, Mrs. Douglas and other women took a train to Tallahassee to meet with a joint committee of the "wool-hat boys'' at the capital.
"Talking to them was like talking to graven images,'' Mrs. Douglas recalled in her memoirs. "They never paid attention to us at all.'' Florida became the last state to ratify the amendment allowing women to vote.
With World War I raging in Europe in 1917, Mrs. Douglas was dispatched to do a story on the first woman in the state to enlist in the Naval Reserve. There was none, so she signed up.
Mrs. Douglas traveled to Europe and spent 15 months in France, Italy, Greece and the Balkans, first with the reserve, then with the American Red Cross doing publicity work. She returned to Miami in 1920 to become an assistant editor and columnist for the Herald.
It was as a columnist that Mrs. Douglas began to take an interest in the Everglades. It was also during this time that she claimed to have given up men for good. In her later years she frequently entertained audiences by lamenting that she last had sex in 1913.
When you're in love with a man, she wrote, "you are unconsciously dependent on him.'' Despite her celebrated celibacy, she was never lonely, she said.
"I've never been lonely, just alone,'' she once said. "I think people who can't stand being alone are silly. How do they know who they are or what they're like if they're never alone?''
By 1923, Mrs. Douglas was exhausted with the daily grind of newspaper work. She launched a freelance-writing career that over the next two decades landed her stories in some of the nation's most prestigious magazines. The work ranged from features to literary fiction to pulp mysteries published in the Black Mask, a magazine she shared with authors like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett.
She also wrote a prize-winning play, The Gallows Gate, that propelled a then-unknown actor named Joseph Cotten on the road to Hollywood stardom. At the time, Cotten was a Herald advertising employee.
Six months after starting work on a novel, Mrs. Douglas was approached by author Hervey Allen, who was editing a series of books on America's great rivers. Allen wanted her to write a book about the Miami River, which Mrs. Douglas dismissed as "only about an inch long.''
Mrs. Douglas had another idea: a book on the Everglades, an idea she had been toying with since the 1920s, when she had worked on a committee to establish Everglades National Park. Far more than a river, the Everglades was a vast ecosystem that stretches from the watershed north of Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of Florida.
It was "an idea that would consume me for the rest of my life,'' she later wrote.
A talented reporter and dogged researcher, Mrs. Douglas sought out a state geologist and expert on Florida groundwater named Garald Parker. It was Parker who gave Mrs. Douglas the defining image of her book when he explained that while the Everglades was swamp-like, it also featured an almost imperceptible flow of water from north to south.
That was how Mrs. Douglas hit upon the image of the "River of Grass.'' Taking nearly five years to research and write, The Everglades: River of Grass went on sale in November 1947. It sold out its first printing of 7,500 copies in two months, a strong showing for the time.
That same year the Everglades National Park was established, an event marked by a visit to Florida by President Harry Truman. The then-57-year-old Mrs. Douglas shared the wooden platform with Truman during the dedication.
Occurring in the same year, the two events established Mrs. Douglas as a spokeswoman and defender for a vast swamp that few Americans knew anything about. The book itself was a landmark, a mix of stellar prose and deep research at a time when evironmental writing was at best fringe work. It predated by two decades Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book that nationalized the environmental movement. What moved readers then and now is Carson's fiercely detailed prose. Fifty years later, no other work approaches River of Grass for its descriptions of the Everglades:
The water moves. The sawgrass, pale green to deep-brown ripeness, stands rigid. It is moved only in sluggish rollings by the vast push of the winds across it. Over its endless acres here and there the shadows of the dazzling clouds quicken and slide, purple-brown, plum-brown, mauve-brown, rust-brown, bronze. The bristling, blossoming tops do not bend easily like standing grain. They do not even in their own growth curve all one way but stand in edge clumps, curving against each other, all the massed curving blades making millions of fine arching lines that at a little distance merge to a huge expanse of brown wires, or bristles or, farther beyond, to deep-piled plush. At the horizon they become velvet. The line they make is an edge of velvet against the infinite blue, the blue-and-white, the clear fine primrose yellow, the burning brass and crimson, the molten silver, the deepening hyacinth sky ...
A term not yet coined
From the time River of Grass was published until the late 1960s, Mrs. Douglas remained as before: writer, occasional civic activist, but not an environmentalist. The term hadn't been coined yet.
But when the federal government began to consider plans for a massive international airport straddling the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp. In the late 1960s, activists including Joe Browder, a former radio reporter, and his friend Judy Brown organized to fight it.
One day Brown encountered Mrs. Douglas at the E-Z Kwik in Coconut Grove. The incident became famous among Florida environmentalists as "the grocery store story.''
"You and Joe and your friends are doing a wonderful job of trying to stop that horrible jetport,'' Mrs. Douglas told Brown.
"If you think we're doing such a good job, why don't you help us?'' Wilson asked.
A bit flustered, Mrs. Douglas replied: "I'll do anything I can.''
The next day, Browder recalls, he went to visit Mrs. Douglas, explaining the twists and turns of the jetport controversy. He said she could turn the tide.
"Oh, my dear,'' Mrs. Douglas replied, "I'm just one person. No one would pay any attention to me. People only listen to organizations.''
"Well,'' Browder replied, "Why don't you start an organization?''
A few days later, at the annual gathering at Fairchild Tropical Gardens, Mrs. Douglas approached environmentalist Michael Chenoweth. She wondered whether he thought people might join an organization to aid the Everglades if the dues were just $1 a year. Chenoweth responded by pulling out a dollar, and the Friends of the Everglades was born.
Though nearly blind and wearing thick glasses and a hearing aid in her later years, Mrs. Douglas put in six-hour days well into her second century. She was known for ending her word day with a stiff drink -- two fingers of scotch neat.
She never retreated from her responsibilities. Long after most people expire, she was appearing at rallies and entertaining a daunting number of visitors from around the world at her modest home in Miami.
Her book will never be surpassed as a description of the Everglades,'' said Browder, her longtime friend and fellow activist. "As a person, I'd want her to be remembered as a person who loved South Florida, not just the Everglades.
"She loved it when Miami became a Latin city,'' Browder added. "She thought that was right and appropriate and good. She talked to me about Miami being our country's bridge to Latin America at a time when most people of her sort of old Miami social standing were complaining about Latins moving in.''
She traveled to Argentina and England and continued to work on a book she described as a labor of love, a biography of 19th Century ornithologist and environmentalist W.H. Hudson. She spent more than two decades researching and rewriting, and she frequently told friends she was in no hurry to finish.
"I believe that life should be lived so vividly and so intensely that thoughts of another life, or a longer life, are not necessary,'' she wrote at the end of her memoir. If you want to see her monument, look around you.
Staff writers Diane Lade, Ray Lynch, Robert McClure, Neil Santaniello and Peter Bernard contributed to this story.