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Swamped by Beauty

If you're not familiar with Marjory Stoneman Douglas — and if you're living in South Florida and don't know the name, shame on you, because you should — then head over to the Old Fort Lauderdale Museum of History for a crash course. The museum is located in the historic New River Inn, which was built in 1905 and later became the first Broward County property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's one of a handful of buildings maintained by the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society as "Old Fort Lauderdale," and it's currently hosting "Marjory Stoneman Douglas: One Woman, the Everglades & the Rest Is History."

This small but lovely (and loving) exhibit provides an overview of the woman who devoted half a century of her long life to calling attention to the plight of the Everglades and trying to ensure its survival. Does that make her an artist? Maybe. What one dictionary dryly defines as "a subtropical swamp area of S FL" Douglas saw as a living work of art as well as an essential ecosystem. I think she was right on both counts.

Although she founded Friends of the Everglades at the end of the 1960s, Douglas rightly recognized, "To be a friend to the Everglades is not necessarily to spend time wandering around out there. It's too buggy, too wet. I suppose we have the kind of friendship that doesn't depend on constant physical contact." The exhibit, housed in two small second-floor rooms and featuring perhaps 30 items, chronicles her friendship with the Everglades from both far and near.

The show consists primarily of enlarged photographic reproductions from Douglas' life, all but one in black and white or sepia. A borderline-cheesy limited-edition color print by Phil Fisher, from 1997, commemorates Douglas' 107th birthday as well as the 50th anniversary of Everglades National Park. (She died the next year.) Two or three banners display quotes from her writings.

There are also a few actual artifacts. A case in one room holds one of the big, floppy hats to which Douglas was partial, along with two other favored items of attire: long white gloves and a single strand of pearls. Too bad the selection doesn't include a pair of the increasingly thick-lensed eyeglasses or oversized sunglasses she also typically wore.

The corresponding case in the other room holds Douglas' name badge from the First Annual Conference of the Friends of the Everglades Coalition in the early 1980s and a copy of a 1928 chapbook she co-wrote with Mabel White Dorn called The Book of Twelve for South Florida Gardens.

But the real treasure here could be seen as the definitive object from the life of the woman Bill Clinton called the "Grandmother of the Glades" when he bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on her in 1993. It's a tattered but intact copy of her book The Everglades: River of Grass, in which Douglas took the daring step of insisting that the Everglades was not just a swamp or a marsh but an actual river. The book was an installment in publisher Rinehart & Co.'s Rivers of America series, which was otherwise devoted to traditional rivers; these days, a signed, first-edition copy goes for $1,000 or more online.

The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947, and such was its immediate impact that by the end of that year, Harry Truman had, not without considerable opposition, set aside 2 million acres of Florida as Everglades National Park. The consensus up to this point had apparently been that the Everglades was more or less a nuisance, a watery obstacle to the development that would transform South Florida into a subtropical paradise.

Many of us now know better, of course. Douglas knew better then and set out to do something about it. The photo reproductions here chronicle some of her efforts. We see the activist at her Coconut Grove home and in the field, researching her 1958 book Hurricane at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on the Outer Banks of North Carolina; in her college years at Wellesley, around 1915; at a 1947 book signing at a Burdines; in a baby picture (she was probably 4) around the time of her family's first trip to Florida; and at a ceremony with then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham and other state officials presenting her with a resolution on her 95th birthday.

Clearly, the woman got around. Born in Minneapolis, she was an only child whose one and only early marriage was short-lived, after which she became the first female reporter for her father's newspaper, the Miami Herald. She also wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, among other publications. Along the way, she picked up at least four honorary degrees, from the University of Miami (1952), Florida Atlantic University (1979), Rollins College (1986), and the University of Florida (1988).

My favorite two images of Douglas from this little exhibit portray her in the habitat she sought to save. The show's single color photograph finds Douglas in a dug-out canoe piloted by Eefalahatchee, a Miccosukee Indian. She wears a traditional conical Chinese sun hat and her trademark oversized sunglasses. The ride was short, since the water was only four inches deep. She was 93.

The other shot, by Kent Barker, was taken in 1989, when Douglas was 99. She sits in an Adirondack chair in the middle of the Everglades, as if it might be her living room. The cloudy backdrop has the feel of the work of photographer Clyde Butcher, another Everglades champion. No doubt, Douglas appreciated the resonance.

The first lines of The Everglades: River of Grass are perhaps the most famous words written about the subject, but they bear repeating: "There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them." For the developers who still seek to infringe on these wetlands, their loss would just be the price of progress. For Douglas, they were a living work of art whose loss would be irrevocable. Alas, the struggle between those two points of view continues nearly a decade after her death.

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Michael Mills