Giving the water and trees a voice at the table
Among the many mysteries of the swamp:
Cypress domes are usually not named.
That’s unusual because cypress domes are the swamp’s most iconic (or shall we say, trademark) feature by many accounts. They number in the hundreds of thousands, maybe more. But unlike lakes and bays, they remain nameless to this day. Think about it, even stars — however faint — get labeled with a number or a common name of some sort. In particularly, I’m thinking of Betelgeuse, Orion’s upper right shoulder, an orange-glowing red giant located 642 light years from earth.
Then there’s the case of the cypress strands. These are linear groves of cypress that carry the bulk of the swamp’s sheet flow. All of them are named, or all the major ones at least. In a landscape otherwise lacking geologic or topographic landmarks, strands stand out as major physiographic features that jump off the map. Major ones include Roberts Lakes, Gator Hook, Deep Lake, Cowbell, Barnes, Dayhoff and Garnett to name a few.
As good fortune would have it, the cartographers didn’t see them all, or see all of them fit to name. Or maybe in the years since the cartographers first drew up the maps the cypress grew back.
Whatever the case, it’s good to know there’s still some unnamed real estate out there in the swamp, that nobody’s ever named, and possibly never explored. A frontier then and a frontier now, the swamp is a boundless expanse that has interior regions still waiting to be defined.
Here’s to hoping they never are.
In the summer swamp, everything is green.
That gradually gives way in fall to a study in black and white.
Well, probably green and gray is a better way to describe it. Slash pine and cypress comprise the majority of the swamp, and in some places are pretty much all you see. While a connoisseur of the Big Cypress landscape can easily differentiate the cypress from the pines during the spring and summer half of the year (and for the more botanically inclined, all the other green-leafed trees, i.e. gumbo limbo, pop ash, willow and pond apple to name a few): It isn’t until mid October with the browning and then falling of the cypress needles that the boundary lines between cypress, pinelands, prairie and hammocks really start to pop.
While I may be biased, and don’t get me wrong I love the summer clouds — There’s just something super scenic about the cypress losing their needles and turning gray. Partly it’s the contrast to the perpetually green pines, but it also has something to do with the abundance of water still on the ground. October is high water season in the swamp.
Everyone raves about the fall foliage in the deciduous forest of the Northeast, but we can’t forget that cypress is a deciduous (albeit also a conifer) tree, too. South Florida may not have your traditional “leaf changing” season of multitudinous orange, yellows and reds. However, the cypress needles – by browning and falling – put on an autumnal show all their own. Better yet, it lasts quite a bit longer, too — for four months all the way to February.
But to see it in its most glorious form, you need to see it when the water is still up. Disclaimer: This may involve getting your feet wet. Water is shin to knee deep depending on where you walk in the swamp.
In sum, for me, if I had to chose: When it comes to the autumnal foliage event, I’d take the swamp’s “falling of the needles” over the continent’s “changing of the leaves” every time.
Full disclosure: My proximity to the swamp probably sways my opinion (to a degree).
The day humans discovered water …
We’ve been working to “try” to control it.
The catch? For every step forward there are usually two steps back. And lets face it, no matter how sophisticated we think we are, it’s usually been a trial and error approach. We don’t know what we have until we have it, and that usually means our initial plan needs more work.
I‘m reminded Tale of Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall Humpty Dumpty had a great fall All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty together again
So, whenever I drive anywhere in the Everglades and see a structure or other water management feature great and small, I imagine a wounded Humpty Dumpty crying for help, and a bunch of the “king’s horses and men” arriving on scene (or working behind the scenes) to figure out.
Or is there anyone there at all? The emergencies we manage are the emergencies we see, and usually they are only the ones that affect us the most, or are the topic of a public outcry that gains political traction.
But are politicians the best arbiters of our waters? And to what degree are they able to deliver on their promises, especially when the experts are sidelined. And what if the answers are too hard to implement — does that mean we just punt the problem down the road. Some problems are so large in size and scale that they exceed the next election cycle, or the appetite of anyone to solve.
It’s a wonderful thought to think their is a Wizard of Oz type deity that is calling all the shots and in one flip of the switch can fix water problems left and right. The harder truth is that solving water problems takes time, good science and a willingness to do the right thing.
To answer the question: We all control the water, but only so much. Don’t expect nature or water to wait around or behave while we figure it out.
I always like say:
“So goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp.”
Every square inch of the swamp’s flora and fauna depend on the right dosage and return interval of flood and fire to stay healthy.
Or so my usual mantra goes.
But really economics is the bigger driver.
Markets both create and solve problems.
Loving nature isn’t enough to save it. Getting the economics right is probably the best and only path to success. That means making sure we’re setting up an underlying economic structure (with eco-smart incentives) to move beyond talking about getting the flood and fire right, and actually doing it.
The swamp can’t talk, but if it could and if we did it would say thank you.
And maybe even give us a hug.
Yes, that’s right – trees hug back!
When big downpours let loose …
It’s often said “it’s raining cats and dogs.”
But that adage dates back to aegis of the industrial revolution in Europe when literally, after large rainfall events, stray cats and dogs ended up dead in the gutter.
Or at least that’s one explanation.
Why rake up old graves? Let’s let those poor strays rest in peace and replace that sad saying with an animal event that more accurately (and humanely) describes south Florida’s major weather events.
In quiz format, here’s my proposal:
Can you guess what major animal event best describes the rain storms in south Florida? (a) school of fish, (b) swarm of gnats, (c) stampede of horses, (d) 37-year cicada hatch, or (e) a super colony of wading birds?
Also check out recent rainfall numbers in The Water Room
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There’s the Lake Okeechobee we see …
And then the ghost of how it changed over time.
In our modern day view …
We tend to focus on Lake stage and quality.
But that misses the bigger picture why the perimeter dike was built and how it changed water management on both the inside and outside of the 143-mile long earthen hill.
How much has Lake stage changed?
For starters its 10 feet lower than its pre-drainage state (circa 1880) when it naturally flowed into the sawgrass plain and southward into the Everglades.
Summer in Florida gets a bum rap.
Too hot, too humid, too many mosquitoes.
And I’m not here to argue that it isn’t inordinately long compared to what anybody is used to up North.
Look at that beauty!
But I will put a plug in for Florida’s summer clouds.
They are by far the best of anyplace I’ve ever been.
Find out more in this podcast why summer is actually Florida’s seasonal gem.
Can we rely on technology …
To guarantee future water resources?
The S-12A helps deliver water into Everglades Nat’l Park
The answer is yes, but not an absolute yes of our forefather’s forefathers – rather it’s a tentatively stated and probabilistically defined, “let’s hope so.” At this point it would be pretty fool hearty to go back to the dousing rod or hand pump, and truly, why would anyone want to try.
Technology has become a double edged sword of sorts, in a way that makes me ask – “is it too late for technology, or is it too late for us because of our technology? We have it now, for good and for worse, as our answer and curse. It’s our fate and the facts, but we need it now more than ever, and I don’t think that is a hope misplaced. What haunts me is the question – “if we knew then what we know now, would the world and its waters be different today?”
I am buoyed by the prospect that technology, if properly harnessed, can save us heartache down the road. Ecosystems and water ways have been pillaged for economic gain, but would the calculations that created those messes – so long ago – have been different if our grandmother’s grandfathers had better technology at their fingertips? What if the original drainers of the Everglades didn’t “dig first, and ask questions later?” What if they had the tools to tell them what unintended consequences lay ahead? Unfortunately, the one thing that technology has never invented (despite a legion of prognosticators who claim its powers), is a crystal ball.
Pump grave yard, as see at John Stretch Park at the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. The Herbert Hoover Dike is visible in the background.
Thus, I can make no guarantees, only hope – on a wing and prayer – that technological solutions await, always in the nick of time.