Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Florida Everglades: A land of alligators, outlaws and so much swampy, cinematic excess


BY LAURA A. OGDEN
Associate professor of anthropology at Florida International University


This movie poster from the film Shark River manages to cram almost every single Everglades-related stereotype into one “vivid color” tableau. It is really quite remarkable, reflecting, in particular, the racial binaries common to American landscape politics in the early 1950s. Here, we see, a generic looking “Indian,” wearing a headdress and face paint that surely no person ever wore in the Everglades, standing in proud opposition to gun-toting white people who are trudging through the swamp. In this Everglades, indigenous people are naturalized as “of the swamp,” (a process that glosses over Seminole and Miccosukee peoples’ lived histories of war, resistance, and ongoing disputes about the Everglades’ future and management). On the other hand, whites are simply outlaws who are “out of place,” endangered by alligators, mosquitoes, malarial vapors, you name it. As for the blonde “white goddess” staring off into space . . .

Of course, Shark River seems too easy a target. The film came out in 1953, the same year Eisenhower became President, Marilyn Monroe graced the first issue of Playboy, and color television entered our homes. That America feels sepia-toned and remote to those of us, like myself, who were born after the Age of Aquarius. Moreover, the film was hardly a blockbuster or critical success.

That said, the images and tropes that Shark River depends on continue to shape popular ideas about the Everglades. For many of us, the Everglades represents all that we think of as nature at its most uncultivated: an icon infested with frightening reptiles, botanical excess, swarms of mosquitoes, and unforgiving heat. This is the alien and impenetrable Everglades that stymied the attempts of early surveyors and settlers and continues to provide dramatic flair to countless novels, films, and other accounts of swampland exploration. This swampy morass can only be home to the cinematic simplifications of the dangerous outlaw and the generic Hollywood Indian.

Shark River
came out only six years after Everglades National Park was established. Without the park’s creation, I have little doubt that much of this landscape would now look like the rest of southern Florida—an endless expanse of gated communities, strip malls, and restaurant chains. I have a personal and deep connection to the Everglades. My parents, who both worked at the park, brought me home from the hospital to live in park employee housing. “Everglades National Park” is printed on my birth certificate. While I am exceedingly grateful for the environmental protection that the park has afforded, there is something about American national parks that is
Laura Ogden and her daughter, Eva, walk on the Anhinga Trail
in Everglades National Park. Ogden's research focuses on reimagining
the Everglades as a human experience.
unnatural—by which I mean they often become living dioramas of places without people, history, politics or home.

My book Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades is an effort to rethink the Everglades as a humanized landscape. Swamplife is based on a decade of interviews I conducted with alligator hunters in the Everglades. Most of the men I interviewed recall an Everglades prior to the establishment of the national park, allowing us to see the landscape of Shark River in another light. This research has allowed me to reimagine the Everglades as a human experience, one that comes into being through complicated relationships among hunters, animals and plants. In Swamplife, I do not ignore the power of Everglades mythology, and, instead, throughout the book I contrast the stories of the Everglades most famous outlaws, the Ashley Gang, to the gritty realities of the hunter’s landscape.

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Laura A. Ogden is author of Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, which is a Quadrant book.

"Tangled swamps; alligator hunters; outlaws: Here is a multi-species ethnography that is really fun to read. The book just asks to be taught."
—Anna Tsing, author of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

"Swamplife is thoroughly compelling. It works at the cutting edge of theory without straying far from an extremely grounded, rich, and page-turning narrative style. There are few books like it in political ecology."
—Paul Robbins, author of Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction

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