Friday, November 24, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Swamp"

Michael Grunwald is a reporter for the Washington Post. He has won the George Polk Award for national reporting, the Worth Bingham Award for investigative reporting, and numerous other awards, including the Society of Environmental Journalists award for his reporting on the Everglades.

He is the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.

I asked Mike to apply the "page 69 test" to his book; here is what he reported:
The Swamp is a narrative history of the Florida Everglades, the saga of man and nature in America’s last frontier. The Everglades was once reviled as a pestilential wasteland; now it’s revered as an ecological treasure. For years, Americans dreamed of draining it; now we’ve launched the largest environmental project in history to try to restore it.

Page 69 is part of The Swamp’s most unusual chapter, the story of a generation when nothing really happened to the Everglades. Wait! Don’t click away! There were fascinating reasons why nothing happened, and a fascinating Florida character making sure nothing happened. His name was David Levy Yulee, and he’s celebrated as the father of Florida statehood and America’s first Jewish senator. The history books don’t mention that he was also a rapacious hypocrite, or that he accidentally helped preserve the Everglades.

If there was a typical path to power in 19th-century America, Yulee’s wasn’t it. His grandfather was the grand vizier of Morocco before getting burned alive in a palace revolt; his father was a West Indies lumber baron before creating a utopian colony for persecuted Jews in North Florida. David made his name as a fiery populist, opposed “from the very innermost depths of my soul” to “the frauds and oppressions of CORPORATE PRIVILEGE.” His big idea was to use federal land grants to finance a cross-Florida railroad that would attract development and immigration to the peninsula. And at a time when Abraham Lincoln was demanding 2.6 million acres in grants for the Illinois Central, he insisted that Florida’s railroad must be state-owned, to avoid the “impositions and exactions which a private chartered monopoly would impose.” His case for a state-owned railroad carried Florida into the Union, and Yulee into the Senate.

But then he got a better idea: A Yulee-owned railroad. He chartered the Florida Railroad, and used his office to snag land grants, surveys, contracts, and rights-of-way for his line. And in 1848, he scuttled legislation that would have given the Everglades to Florida, as long as the land grant was “sacredly and exclusively” used for drainage.

This was shocking. Wetlands were still considered wastelands, and the first U.S. government report on the Everglades had just described it as a God-forsaken hellhole, “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles.” The report had also suggested that draining the swamp would create a balmy paradise, transforming a worthless wilderness into a productive hub for farming, logging and “the making of salt by solar evaporation,” extending civilization from sea to shining sea.

So why did Yulee block this Manifest Destiny project? He thought Congress should give Florida all its swampland, not just the Everglades. And he wanted Florida to give that swampland to railroads—one in particular—not drainage companies.

Thanks to Yulee, that’s exactly what happened. He got Congress to give Florida 20 million acres of wetlands, and he got Florida to set up a fund that used those wetlands to finance railroads. The plan worked brilliantly, except that Yulee’s railroad was completed just as the Civil War was starting. At the top of page 69, Yulee is filing lawsuits and writing letters to try to stop Robert E. Lee from seizing his rails, arguing that the war was not enough of an emergency to suspend property rights: “I humbly trust I may not be wanting at any time in necessary & dutiful sacrifice & contribution to the great cause in which all citizens are engaged. But I have not the right to make myself free with the property of others.” By page’s end, the Civil War was over, Florida’s railroads were bankrupt, and Yulee—after serving time for treason—was joining forces with Reconstruction-era carpetbaggers to loot what was left of the state wetland fund: “Florida nearly gave itself away completely before the wild run skidded to a halt.”

It’s an ugly story, and it gives a sense of the greed, opportunism, and constant desperation for immigration and development that have been the constant themes of Florida history. But by keeping Florida’s wetlands away from drainage companies, Yulee helped save the Everglades for posterity, and helped postpone immigration and development for another generation. In the 1880 census, South Florida’s population was a grand total of 257. So much for farming, logging, and “the making of salt by solar evaporation.”

The larger point of page 69—and my book—is about unintended consequences. Yulee’s bad intentions helped save the Everglades. In later generations, the good intentions of progressives who wanted to drain the swamp for the benefit of humanity helped destroy the Everglades. In every chapter of The Swamp, you’ll find someone proclaiming something with absolute certainty that turns out to be absolutely wrong.

That 1848 report, for example, declared that $500,000 would “beyond question” be enough to drain the entire Everglades. Ultimately, America would spend more than $1 billion on that effort, which fortunately wasn’t enough to finish the job. Now we’re spending $11 billion to try to undo our mistakes. But it’s still not at all clear whether we’ll do the job right. Our attitudes towards nature have changed, but our hubris hasn’t.
Many thanks to Mike for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Swamp. There is another excerpt here, accompanied by some beautiful B&W photographs.

For access to a long list of positive reviews, click here.

Click here to watch an E&E News clip of Grunwald talking about The Swamp, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Hurricane Katrina.

Terry Gross interviewed Mike on Fresh Air: click here to listen to their conversation.

There is a Q & A with US News and World Report here, and another with the Daily Kos here. Click here for Emily Gertz's Grist interview with Mike.

The Arthur Marshall Foundation works to develop, promote and deliver education and public outreach programs that are central to the restoration of the Everglades. Click here to learn more about their work.

In addition to his usual reporting, Mike writes the informative and entertaining weekly "Zeitgeist Checklist" that appears in the Washington Post and Slate.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue