Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades From Its Friends, Foes, and Florida, by W. Hodding Carter. Atria. 288 pages. $24.
In 1928, a hurricane raged across the Everglades, sending Lake Okeechobee flooding into West Palm Beach County and killing 2,400 people. In an attempt to tame what many regarded as a savage waterway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers imported thousands of hardy melaleuca trees from Australia, hoping their roots would stabilize the lake's shores and help to dry out the swamp.
But then Floridians changed their minds about the value of preserving the Everglades in their natural state. They tried to poison and burn down the alien trees they'd brought in, disturbed that the nearly indestructible non-native species had spread to conquer 20 percent of the state's wetlands. Finally, the federal government began unleashing more alien species into the Everglades -- Australian weevils and bugs -- in an attempt to control the aliens that were supposed to control the wetlands.
Ironies like this cling as thick as leeches in W. Hodding Carter's book. It's a funny, literate combination of travel writing and Florida history that will appeal to everyone who gets angry hearing jet skis as they try to escape into the wild this summer.
Carter is a freelance journalist whose work has been published in Outside, Esquire and other magazines. In a series of chapters that read like magazine articles, he often makes the reader laugh by describing his failed attempts to conquer the Everglades.
At one point, he tries to canoe a 99-mile waterway on the western border of Everglades National Park without any food, determined to survive only on the fish he catches. He intends to use his body as a monitor of the dangerously high mercury levels in the waters, testing his blood at the beginning and end of the journey. But he's forced to give up his plan -- in part because he can't find enough living fish to poison himself.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Floridians saw draining the "abominable, pestilence-ridden swamp" as a near-religious obligation. In 1905, the suitably named Napoleon Bonaparte Broward was elected governor on a pledge to bomb the swamp, and he proceeded to dynamite rapids and dig dozens of canals that opened the doors for development. Since the 1970s, however, politicians have won office by giving the appearance of trying to preserve what little remains of the Everglades.
Carter does a good job of explaining how the "Big Sugar" industry that consumes much of the land in the Everglades wouldn't exist if it weren't for government price supports and lobbying muscle.
One disappointment is that the author fails to ask enough hard questions of political leaders in the state. And he bores the reader at times by failing to explain the bureaucratic jargon in a much-touted, but largely meaningless, Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
Despite these flaws, the book is worth reading. Carter is a highly entertaining adventure companion, whose description of accidentally eating panther dung while foraging for food in the saw grass will keep your mind off the jet skis for a while.
Tom Pelton covers the environmental beat for The Sun. In his more than seven years at the paper, he's also covered politics, medicine and economic development, and has won awards for investigative reporting and business writing.