National Geographic : 1930 Jan
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE gion is not and never was the dark, equa torial swamp, with boa constrictors dan gling from trees to grab at passing animals, so graphically shown in woodcuts which illuminated early geographies. Yet, with its vast, trackless water wil derness, its almost impenetrable saw grass tangles, its hummocks and wild life, it truly ranks as one of America's natural wonders. Running from the southernmost tip of Florida north for 170 miles, to Lake Okee chobee, and measuring about 70 miles east and west, extends a rock-bottomed, shal low basin. Its rim is a few feet above mean low tide in Biscayne Bay. This watery area forms the famous Everglades. It is really a lake and not a mammoth stagnant swamp, as is often supposed; yet no surface water flows into it. Heavy rainfall and subterranean streams keep it clear, fresh, and in motion, for it has many outlets. Besides drainage canals dug in recent times, it is drained into the Gulf of Mexico by the Shark River, the Harney, and others, and from its eastern shore by the Miami, the New, and the Little rivers. An odd aspect of the water is its constant movement, in currents and cross-currents, seemingly caused by down ward escape here and there through holes in its rocky bottom to subterranean outlets. Sharp-edged saw grass, tough as bam boo, is the enemy of all who seek to wade through it. Growing under water, it is pale green, but it turns to a dull yellow as it emerges into sunlight. Winding lanes open through it here and there, but old settlers around the Everglades say only the Seminoles can really "get where they're going" through these crooked liquid avenues. A NATURALIST'S DELIGHT Islands abound. Some are outcrops of the rock basin, overlaid with rich mold, forming sizable cultivable areas. Virgin forests cover many of the islands, with bay, live oak, prickly-ash, papayas, cus tard-apple, wild rubber, and other trees in profusion. The "strangler fig" vine (the Florida strangler), the morning-glory, and honeysuckle attain great size. There is the coontie plant, too, from which the Seminole extracts flour and starch, and often the pine, and the cabbage palmetto. Giant ferns, with fronds o1 feet long, gorgeous orchids, many kinds of air plants and waterlilies, are among the wide va riety of wild flowers. A unique flora, indeed, with no doubt many plants as yet unclassified. Though vandal plume-hunters in years gone by ravaged the bird life, egrets and the roseate spoonbill still breed here. To day the naturalist who scans the ground and sky sees the migratory duck, an occa sional heron, the bittern, coot, cormorant, Everglades kite, crane and other waders; or, following a big storm at sea, tens of thousands of seabirds resting and quarrel ing, anxious to be gone upon their lawful occasions! Bear, deer, panther, and otter were once abundant. Though these are passing, Seminoles still have a regular hunting season, bringing to market well over $500, ooo worth of raccoon, alligator, snake, wild cat, and other skins in a season. But the ancient happy hunting ground is shrink ing before the machinery of road-makers and ditch-diggers. Of snakes, a skin hunter told me, there is no lack. "I can put one ad in a Miami paper," he said, "and get all the snake skins I want for 7 or 8 cents a running foot." But it isn't alone the Everglades scenery nor wild life that intrigues the Florida farmer of to-day. What he wants, and must have to serve the Nation, is more dikes and ditches, more reclaimed "muck" land for growing sugar cane, tomatoes, and marketable vegetables that will change themselves into dollars upon arrival in northern markets. This "muck" is a physiographic marvel. It is a loose, black soil of decomposed plant life that is exposed after drainage. In spots it is so soft that mules some times wear a snowshoelike gear to keep from bogging down. Sometimes tractors used in muck must be equipped with extra broad treads. When one of these machines "slipped" its treads, it sank out of sight and was recovered only by a drag line anchored to near-by trees. If allowed to get too dry, muck burns like peat-burns for weeks, smoldering many feet deep. If too wet, crops drown. The problem is to dike a field, and then, with big pumps, hold the water table just where it is wanted by pumping in or out-a simple engineer ing problem.