'What Did You Do Today?'

It is difficult today to travel in Miami and not come into contact with Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ legacy. Her name adorns streets and schools. Many green spaces remain because she fought for them. Dylann Turffs, an environmental educator based in Miami, draws inspiration from Marjory’s ability to never lose faith in the power of people to protect the environment around them in this essay for Dispatches from a Sinking State.

Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state.

At the northern end of Key Biscayne, in the shallows off the beach, naturalists lead groups of students armed with dip nets. Miami’s skyline sprouts from the water behind the Biscayne Nature Center. They walk carefully, sweeping their net through the water column. Few people think of Miami as a hotspot for nature, but for these local students, that will soon change.

In 1971, Marjory Stoneman Douglas helped petition the school board for funding for the center. Marjory had a knack for getting locals involved in environmental advocacy, and by the early seventies, she was well known for her Everglades conservation effort. The idea for the nature center formed two years earlier when Mabel Miller, a local teacher, grew frustrated with the difficulty of teaching about ecosystems the students didn’t experience firsthand.

She thought Miami needed a center where teachers could bring their students. She chose Crandon Park due to its coastal hardwood hammocks, dunes, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows. The nature center initially opened as a summer camp run out of the back of Crandon Beach’s hot dog stand.Today, the center hosts 30,000 school children each year in a multi-million-dollar facility. It operates in partnership between the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department and the nonprofit Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center.

It is difficult today to travel in Miami and not come into contact with Marjory’s legacy. Her name adorns streets and schools. Many green spaces remain because she fought for them. She moved to Miami as a young woman and quickly witnessed its growth from a small community into a city of over 100,000. Her life was intertwined with the development of Miami and, though she initially lauded development as progress, she felt residents risked losing more than they gained. Upon learning about the Everglades ecosystem and the threats to it, she wrote “Everglades: River of Grass.” Published in 1947, the book galvanized politicians and the public to protect the Everglades from drainage and development.

Marjory famously opened her book with the line, “There are no other Everglades in the world.” She described the function of the ecosystem and its use to people in South Florida, but also appealed to her reader to see the beauty in the “vast, magnificent, subtle and unique region.”

Like Mabel Miller, Marjory felt strongly about educating students and protecting the environments that flanked either side of Miami: the ocean to the east, the Everglades to the west. She felt that if children did not have the opportunity to make a personal connection to these places, they would become disinterested adults who saw the verdant Everglades landscape as a canvas on which to paint their aspirations of wealth through development and agriculture. She saw the Biscayne Nature Center as a solution to that problem.

As a naturalist, I felt privy to a unique kind of magic. As we walked over the dune and took in the view of the glittering Atlantic, some students would ask, “is that the ocean?” Though they lived miles away, it was their first time seeing it. For many reasons, from poverty to lack of reliable public transit, the very things that draw visitors to Miami are inaccessible for many who live here.

On a lucky day a few years back, students caught four seahorses. While holding the viewer containing the sea horses, a student looked up. “I thought seahorses were fake,” he said. “Just like unicorns.” For participants of all ages, the opportunity to search through a seagrass meadow and meet its inhabitants is a fun and memorable day. For some participants, it is life changing.

Theodora Long joined the center as a volunteer after witnessing two of Marjory’s calls to action. Marjory often began her messages with a plea: “Ladies, I need your help.” Theodora felt compelled to act. Today, she’s the center’s executive director.

As her role grew, Theodora wanted to get to know Marjory better. At the time, Marjory was 102 and still actively advocating on behalf of environmental issues. But her eyesight was failing and she could no longer read. Theodora brought Audubon Magazine and Scientific American and selected articles to read aloud. Sometimes Marjory would interrupt her.

“I don’t find what you’re reading very interesting.”

Instead, she wanted updates on environmental campaigns, to hear the current status of the Florida panther, to learn what state politicians were doing in response.

“What did you do today?” Marjory once asked Theodora.

“Well, I did laundry and went to Publix…” Theodora replied.

Marjory cut her off.

“No! I mean what did you do today?”

She’d describe the plight of the panther and threats to pine rocklands, urging Theo to call the governor’s office and write local politicians. Well past age 100, Marjory continued to speak up for the state she loved. She lived until 1998, dying a month after her 108th birthday.

The Miami, Everglades and South Florida coastline I’ve come to know and love are so different from those Marjory knew. Even in the 8 years I’ve lived here, I’ve witnessed pristine hammock turned to subdivisions. Wetlands paved to accommodate shopping plazas. But due to her efforts, so much still remains.

In the face of today’s environmental threats, Floridians are still making their voices and values known. Students worldwide are marching to protest inaction on climate change. South Florida children are using the court system to compel state officials to develop a climate recovery plan. Marjory felt that it was imperative to connect students to the natural environment to establish a tradition of environmental stewardship. Indeed, it is students and young adults behind this recent push toward climate resilience.

When people took Marjory’s hand earnestly to thank her for saving the Everglades, she would scoff and list all of the threats it was facing at that moment. But despite understanding those threats, despite having witnessed so much lost, she never lost faith in the ability of people to change their ways and to learn to love and protect the environment around them. I choose each day to focus on what I can do. To educate children and forge a connection between them and the natural world.To limit my carbon footprint as much as I can. To think back to Marjory’s words: “What did you do today?”

Dylann Turffs is a naturalist and environmental educator based in Miami, Florida. She has a BA in psychology and writing from the University of Miami and is currently a graduate student pursuing an MS in Environmental Science and Policy through Johns Hopkins University. She has a passion for science communication and loves inspiring curiosity about the natural world and forging connections between Floridians and their wild home. She works as a naturalist, park ranger and python removal contractor and volunteers on research involving reptiles and sharks.

Photo Credits: Dylann Turffs