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Melissa Memory

The Everglades are wild. Designated a Wilderness Area in 1978, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area comprises the vast majority of Everglades National Park and is by far the largest Wilderness Area east of the Mississippi. However, it did not require an act of Congress to conjure up a sense of wildness in the popular imagination. Monster gators, giant snakes, and avian abundance have dominated the stories of the park and the greater Everglades ecosystem since the early-nineteenth century.

While predominant narratives feature South Florida’s swamp as the dark domain of unruly plants and animals, the Everglades have been inhabited by humans for at least 6,000 years — as long as they have been the Everglades. This human history is the topic of Laura A. Ogden’s book Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades (2011 University of Minnesota Press). Unlike the spiritual experience Howard Zahniser imagined when he penned the Wilderness Act, the “natural” in the Everglades is capable of a more aggressive physical consumption of the visitor. Expanding on William Cronin’s critique of wilderness philosophy and land management strategies, which in his view intentionally obscure human history, Ogden describes how these wild places can also, well, make us wild.

As if to underscore this potential, Ogden eschews the conventions of historiography and traditional ethnographic discourse, instead weaving biography and contemporary political philosophy into the human story of the swamp, which she imagines as a rhizome — literally and figuratively an entangled mangrove mass. As the daughter of esteemed Everglades ornithologist and restoration champion John Ogden, the author herself grew up and out of the Everglades; and as a leading ecological anthropologist, her work has focused on its gator hunters and unique culture for more than a decade.

As an experimental text working towards a greater understanding of the history of place, this book is a more than worthy read. However there is an urgent relevancy to the issues Ogden parses. Despite billions of dollars spent on ecological restoration in past decades, the Everglades today is recognized as a one of the most threatened environments globally. While it is not difficult to pinpoint many political and technical challenges that have impeded progress towards restoring its ecosystem, there may be a more fundamental issue. When separating culture from nature, people can’t imagine a more natural culture. Ogden shows us that if we are going to be able to adapt to the changes that environmental challenges will present us locally and globally, we must accept that we don’t simply need to protect the environment, we are the environment.