By James A. Kushlan, author of Seeking the American Tropics: South Florida’s Early Naturalists
The Everglades has been a large part of my entire life, beginning when I was growing up on the Little River in postwar Miami, and becoming even more so when I began studying its biology in the 1970s. The more I discovered, the more I found myself looking backwards to the times before the onset of massive modern impacts. I slowly came to better appreciate those who had first come to study South Florida’s environment and how intriguing their stories were, stories that were scattered and little known. A result is this book.
I started off with the idea to focus on a few significant personages and tell their stories. It didn’t work out. There were too many whose stories deserved telling—explorers, pioneers, amateur naturalists, and scientists alike. It became a book about many dozens of naturalists and the unique contributions they made, and it became a book about historical context and a critical examination of those contributions. Much turned out to be unexpected.
History shows that South Florida has long intrigued those interested in natural history because it is a land apart from the rest of North America, a bit of the tropics. And for all but the last century or so, it was truly apart. Isolated by oceans and swamps, South Florida was essentially inaccessible. Despite Florida having been part of the western world for four centuries, including the great blossoming of natural history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the heyday of South Florida’s natural history explorations came surprisingly late, only after trains made access practical. By then many of the great findings in the field of natural history had been made; so however intriguing biogeographically, South Florida’s natural history was late into the game.
I was intrigued to realize that much of South Florida’s golden age of naturalist exploration at the beginning of the twentieth century was funded by private wealth, by the wintering industrial elite. Ironically, while these conservative moguls supported studying the environment, the concurrent progressive movement was trying to drain and develop that same environment. This led to one of the ironies discussed in the book. Nearly all of the still-famous early naturalists were advocates for invasive nonnative plants that were to cause environmental havoc, some were land developers themselves, and one introduced the rock plow, which decimated South Florida’s pine rocklands and hammocks.
Conserving South Florida fell not to these amateur naturalists and professional scientists, nearly all of whom were men, but to social activists, nearly all of whom were women. It was these activists who stopped plume hunting and saved one special hammock that became the nucleus for Everglades National Park. In retrospect, finding that South Florida’s history is ripe with irony should not have come as much of a surprise.
James A. Kushlan is the author of Seeking the American Tropics: South Florida’s Early Naturalists. Author of 10 books and over 250 articles, his writing shares his interests and perspectives on biology, conservation, natural and human history, and connections among them. He has written extensively on the natural history and history of South Florida including the books Attracting Birds to South Florida Gardens, Key Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas National Park. He has been a wildlife biologist, wildlife research center director, university professor, president of the American Ornithological Society, founder and chair of international conservation initiatives, and board member of numerous civic organizations including HistoryMiami Museum, Zoo Miami Foundation, and the Everglades Foundation.