A century ago, most Floridians viewed the Everglades as menacing wastelands. As a professor at Rollins College, Leslie Kemp Poole has found that nothing helps her students — and people overall — know and care about the Everglades more than to visit it themselves.

Editor’s Note: Leslie Kemp Poole pens Lessons from the Marjories, a column meditating on the legacies of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Marjorie Harris Carr, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

A century ago, most Floridians viewed the Everglades as menacing wastelands. All that water and sawgrass were preventing South Florida from becoming a lucrative agricultural paradise.

In the 21st century we live with the wounds created by that hubris. The technology employed to transform this enormous system to answer those “dreams” has wrought environmental damage of a scale rarely equaled and has inspired the planet’s largest restoration program. 

In a remarkable turnaround, many people have come to love the Everglades, and there are plenty of reasons to do so: the national park that is visited by tourists from around the world; the incredible biodiversity of flora and fauna; its impact on the weather system and water supplies for the lower portion of the state. 

I have found, however, that nothing makes people care more than a visit. You can talk and read about it but stepping into it is like entering an alternative reality.

As part of a semester-long class on the Everglades, students visit Shark Valley. Photo courtesy Andrés Torré 

“There are no other Everglades in the world,” famously wrote Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her classic 1947 book “The Everglades: River of Grass.” With that line and the book’s title, she taught the world a new way to view the ecosystem – not as a malignant, stagnant place of malaise but as a wonderful hydrological network where fresh water moved from the Orlando area to the tip of the peninsula.

Although I was born in Florida, I didn’t experience the Everglades until I was in my 30s. I was on a road trip with my family, and we spent a day driving through the park and strolling along boardwalks to see the vast stands of sawgrass and the nature it supports. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve since returned, but I find it fascinating how few Floridians have ventured there. Even Douglas admitted she didn’t go often. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas canoeing with a Miccosukee man at the Miccosukee Cultural Center in the Everglades, circa 1983. Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

“To be a friend of the Everglades is not necessarily to spend time wandering around out there. It’s too buggy, too wet, too generally inhospitable for camping or hiking or the other outdoors activities which naturalists in other places can routinely enjoy,” she wrote in her autobiography “Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River.” “I can’t say I’ve spent many years and months communing with the Everglades, though I’ve driven across it from time to time. I know it’s out there, and I know its importance. I suppose you could say the Everglades and I have the kind of friendship that doesn’t depend on constant physical contact.” 

That said, Douglas still understood the impact of experiencing the Everglades, of how a single visit can change one’s perspective and soul.

As an environmental studies professor at Rollins College, I use a similar tactic with my students, believing that the best way to know and care about the Everglades is to go there. 

One brilliant tactic employed by supporters of the then-proposed national park in 1930 was to bring Washington, D.C., to the Everglades. There had been much debate about the project in Congress—now it was time to show the country’s leaders what the talk was all about. Douglas was among a group of locals that met the delegation on a beautiful January day. During the next two days they flew over the Everglades in a blimp and boated into Florida Bay where they were overwhelmed by the number and variety of birds. That trip, along with a similar excursion by U.S. senators later in the year, went a long way to establishing the national park, dedicated in 1947.

As an environmental studies professor at Rollins College, I use a similar tactic with my students, believing that the best way to know and care about the Everglades is to go there. 

Every two years, I co-teach a semester-long class on the Everglades that is followed up with a week-long field study in which we “follow the water” – from south of Orlando all the way through the lengthy system to the tip of the peninsula at Florida Bay. The other professor is an ecologist who worked and studied in the Everglades. We offer our students much instruction, but it all really comes to life once we hit the road. 

By the time we load up the vans, the students already have seen the Disney Wilderness Preserve, a central Florida restoration project headed by The Nature Conservancy. Under shady cypress trees at the edge of Lake Russell, students realize they are standing near the headwaters of the Everglades – and the water they dribble through their fingers will make it to through the entire system during the next three to five years. 

We head to Lake Okeechobee and drive its perimeter, talking about how its colossal dike was built to contain and control the lake. The students’ reactions are always the same – despite having studied photos of the lake, its massive size and control systems must be seen to be believed. 

We gasped when an endangered Everglades snail kite flew by our airboat, carrying a large snail for a mid-morning snack.

During the week we visit the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, slog in knee-deep water through the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve while learning about endangered orchids, and ride an airboat through miles of sawgrass to a Miccosukee Indian island. We go inside the national park for two days, always stopping at the Anhinga Trail, a visitor favorite for alligator and bird watching. The trail is located at what once was Royal Palm State Park, the first state park in Florida, thanks to the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs that doggedly fought for its 1916 establishment even before its members could vote.

Douglas knew it well.

“I used to go down to Royal Palm Park and watch birds. In those days, birds were around everywhere. You could stand on the old roadway and look back toward a little bridge and see white ibis and wood stork sitting on the railings. You could walk over very quietly and watch the heron fishing. Owls in the trees would ask: ‘Who cooks for yooou?’ Way off in the distance, others would answer: ‘I cooks for myself,’” she wrote in “Voice.” “In the Ten Thousand Islands at the edge of the Everglades, I saw great flocks of birds, amazing flights of 30,000 to 40,000 in one swoop, either coming from the sandy coasts to their rookeries or going from the rookeries to the sand coasts where there weren’t any predators.”

While we’ve seen countless alligators (particularly during cold snaps when the reptiles sun along water banks), we’ve never seen the bird population that Douglas encountered. There are 350 species, but their numbers are down 90 percent because of development that drained and replaced natural habitats and water flows that now are manipulated by technology. 

What a pity that we’ll never see them darken the sky. 

And yet, there is still so much beauty to enjoy.

We gasped when an endangered Everglades snail kite flew by our airboat, carrying a large snail for a mid-morning snack. We watched endangered crocodiles and manatees hanging around the small marina at the park’s southern end. We boated near the islands in Florida Bay where Audubon warden Guy Bradley lost his life in 1905 trying to protect bird rookeries from plume hunters.

Lake Russell’s lake shore at The Disney Wilderness Preserve is a mostly undeveloped lake at the headwaters of the Everglades system — the purest Everglades water Poole’s class would see. Photo courtesy Leslie Kemp Poole

And these are just a few of our expeditions. By the end of the week, students are energized, exhausted, and educated with first-hand experiences. They understand that “There are no other Everglades in the world,” and they deserve protection. As a result, several students have gone on to hold internships focused on preserving and improving the system.

Douglas would be proud. Although we lost her in 1998, she is still teaching us today.  

Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century” and former executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Poole is an editor of the recently released book “The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature.”

Cover image courtesy Andrés Torré