This essay was first published in early 2018, the day after the Parkland massacre in South Florida. A young man returned to his high school –named after Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, the author of River of Grass, a scientific love song to the Florida Everglades. He then proceeded to open fire, killing seventeen students.
With all the chants of “Drain the Swamp,” and the cozy relationship of the current president with the National Rifle Association, I have chosen to include a reminder of this ever-present threat of violence, and its costs, in my Sixty Days series.
Whether you call it gun control or protecting our second Amendment freedoms, this debate has served to divide us into opposing camps, each furiously doing nothing about it.
Meanwhile, we watch the number of victims inexorably rise, much like the deficit clock. Ironic, that the school’s namesake is heralded as a founding member of the environmental movement. Which our president seems equally to despise.
This is a reminder that we want our leadership to preserve and nurture all our natural resources, whether they be water, plant, animal, or human.
I first read Margory Stoneman Douglas’ book, The Everglades: River of Grass (1947), in my late twenties, while working in South Florida. My husband and I, and, eventually, our first-born girl, lived outside Fort Lauderdale, in one of the western suburbs. Hugging the Everglades, itself, on our western flank. Coral Springs was just a few miles north, and near to it, an area called Parkland.
The book, as I recall, was slim and very readable, and extremely motivating to a brand-new lawyer like me, interested in environmental issues. At the time, there was the threat of off-shore oil drilling, and I remember going to a rally to protest such an abomination, long before Deep Water Horizon turned our worst fears into reality.
That was my only environmental protest, unless you count the time I tagged along, in the mid-eighties, to protest against nuclear weapons stored there, on a U.S. military base in Heilbronn, Germany. That could only be called “environmental” to the extent that the potential was there, with missiles pointing from both the West and the East, to destroy the entire environment known as Europe.
The Cold War was a scary time, to be sure, although the permafrost was already thawing by the time I had any awareness of the threat. A popular song of the era was Sting’s song about impending nuclear war, “Russians.” Its chorus intoned, “I hope the Russians love their children too.”
Turning a Frog into a Prince
Wikipedia’s entry on Marjory Stoneman Douglas says her book “redefined the popular conception of the Everglades as a treasured river instead of a worthless swamp.” Unlike many states, which have mostly dry land, a large amount of Florida prior to the twentieth century was swampy wetlands. The “river” she talked about started in Lake Okeechobee and flowed south, ever widening, to engulf most of South Florida in a soggy, grassy soup.
Many who have lived in Florida have made the trek across Alligator Alley, the road connecting the Southeast Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, with the West Coast cities of Naples, Fort Meyers and further north, Tampa/St. Pete. In the eighties, you drove for miles and miles, and there was nothing around you but a flat wasteland of waving swamp grass.
The attitude toward the environment, early on in the twentieth century, was much like our current President’s attitude, regarding the federal government. Calls to “Drain the Swamp!” caused Florida endless environmental indignities. Suburbs and even cities were built on wet ground with tons of fill dirt, development slowly crept westward from the east coast, and eastward from the west, rubbing elbows at last with the most intractable stretches of the Everglades. The Florida Barge Canal, a proposed clear-cut canal across Florida, was started, but thankfully, eventually abandoned.
Many people in Florida, myself included, live on what is probably reclaimed swampland. My daughter, the gardener, is always complaining about the poor quality of the soil: nothing grows in fill dirt.
Living On the Edge
When you look at the map of South Florida, of Fort Lauderdale and its western suburbs, including Parkland, you see a green patch to the west. That is the Everglades. That is how close to the wild this school’s location is. Being new, these western suburbs tend to be desirable. In fact, it appears from Parkland’s website, that they are still building new developments.
Newness. Suburbia. These are usually concepts we associate with safety.
Florida now has the dubious distinction of having had two mass shootings in the space of two years. The Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016, was abhorrent enough, when seen from a distance. But close-up, it had special resonance for me. My daughter was in Orlando that day, not far from the night club, just hours before the shooting occurred. When I heard about the shooting, I did not know if she was safe or not. A phone call later, and I learned she was already on her way home. So, I cannot claim to have had any significant worry that stemmed from the incident. But even experiencing just a moment of that…a moment, spent contemplating the worst…
Yesterday’s incident, taking place so close to what was once our home, and near to where many of our friends from that time still reside, strikes a deeper chord. Perhaps because children—children the age of my high schoolers—children in a place we generally consider safe, a high school—were targeted. By a man who was barely more than a child himself.
Making Sense of Madness
I felt the same way after the San Bernardino shooting: the target was so inconceivable in its innocence—why shoot during a gathering for those with developmental disabilities? As if murder were rational. It is no more rational to plan a shooting based on religious extremism, racial prejudice, or homophobia. But because we have had previous experience with these terrible motives, we nod our heads and think we understand.
When we look at these incidents, as horrified bystanders, we want to make sense of what we see. What are the factors at play? Hatred? Mental illness? Easily accessible weapons? A search for fame, or infamy? None of it makes any sense.
And we court danger by putting too much emphasis on any one factor. Each interest group seems to have their pet peeve. Gun control advocates seem to disregard the role of personal responsibility in the shootings. Those who would blame mental illness paint all the mentally ill with a broad brush. Mental illness does not, as a rule, beget violence. So we fight about the probable cause and wave away the conversation, saying it is too soon, too soon. Too soon to speak of such things.
Columbine, Newtown, and now Parkland. Not a travel itinerary, but a roster of death. All of these neighborhoods and communities have been scarred, irretrievably, and now will be forever connected with a senseless killing. And in each town, children are the ones who paid the price.
Freedom Isn’t Free
Floridians cannot be surprised at our inclusion in the ranks of communities that are suffering this kind of loss. We live in the land of the free, with a free market, and many personal freedoms. We freely move from one place to another within our state and nation. We are not required to show our “papers”, nor do we have to enter or exit checkpoints and submit to a search.
Most of the time, this is a blessing, not a curse. But freedom isn’t free, as they say.
Still, a child’s life seems a bit too much to pay for any freedom. Much less seventeen lives.
River or Swamp?
In Florida, we have pushed forward and progressed, to ever greater, ever more comfortable, ever more convenient, and ever more numerous homes and businesses. We have cut taxes and made schools bear the brunt of it. We have chosen business over the sickly environment, and prosperity over the mental health needs of our children. We have turned our heads away, and failed to act when action was required. Expecting nature and our children to somehow fend for themselves.
Schools, the province of our children, are not swampland to be cleared, so that a suburb may be built over it. We must treat our children, and the schools to which many of us entrust them, not as a worthless swamp, but as a treasured river. A river of grass, where each tiny blade, dancing in a sea of fresh water, is precious and essential. A natural resource which will ensure a bright future. Unless, of course, we fail to protect it from those who seek to plunder it.
I hope that Congress loves their children too.