People and Place: Finding Meaning in the Everglades

Dwarf Bald Cypress Trees and an Expansive Sky in Big Cypress National Preserve
Photo courtesy of author
What does an iconic place like the Everglades mean to people, and how does this shape their perspectives on how it should be stewarded? This is one of the questions I explore in my dissertation research on the Big Cypress National Preserve in the southern Everglades. My work documents the contemporary debates and discussions between environmentalists, the government and local people about how this stunning natural and cultural landscape of cypress strands and freshwater sloughs should be managed and protected. As part of my research, I examine how these groups’ different perspectives are tied to the ways they uniquely know the Everglades. 

The Everglades has a rich human history dating back nearly 10,000 years, which makes it a culturally as well as naturally significant place. Not only has the Everglades been shaped by the cultural practices of early white settlers and Native Americans, including shell mound construction by the Calusa, it continues to be an important source of meaning, identity, and value for contemporary communities of people. Today, Seminole peoples, Miccosukee peoples, outdoorsmen and women, hikers, kayakers and birdwatchers frequent and find meaning in its prairies, cypress domes, coastal rivers and estuarine reaches. 

Part of my dissertation research focuses on the stories and experiences of white outdoorsmen in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and what the Preserve landscape means to them. I have spent much of the past year out in the field with them, systematically recording their oral histories - or personal stories -about the Big Cypress Swamp's landscape history and their experiences in it; learning about their attachments to this place; and documenting their ideas about how its land and waters should be protected (For more about oral history and how to do it, click here). I have accompanied outdoorsmen on foot, in their airboats and on their swamp buggies, which they use to traverse the Everglades terrain. 

The author on a swamp buggy in the Big Cypress National PreservePhoto courtesy of author
For these outdoorsmen and women - who often call themselves "gladesmen" to signify their strong personal ties to the Everglades - the Big Cypress backcountry emerges as a storied cultural landscape, with personal and broader social significance. It reverberates with tales of community, hardship, survival, and meaning – and many of these stories transport the listener to an outdoorsman's backcountry camp. 

Interviewing in the FieldPhoto courtesy of author
In fact, the Big Cypress backcountry is home to a rich variety of camps, both rustic and relatively modern, constructed by outdoorsmen on the higher ground of tree islands and pinelands. These backcountry camps – some with histories that date back to the 1940s - are important touchstones for outdoorsmen. They serve as stopover and jumping off points for hunting trips, sites for community and family events, shelters during intense lightning storms and places where larger-than-life stories about swamp life are told and retold. Importantly, these camps have helped to maintain a sense of community among a group of people who value their connection to the Everglades within a rapidly urbanizing southern Florida.
A Backcountry Camp in the Big Cypress National Preserve
Photo courtesy of author

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