I went to Everglades City in the hopes of recovering a memory. I had first made my way to this outpost, once known as “the Last Frontier” of the South, a decade ago, as I was finishing my master’s thesis on Zora Neale Hurston’s folktales. My father had just received his kidney cancer diagnosis. Anxious and adrift while waiting on his treatment plan, I asked him to join me as I retraced the author’s travels around Florida. My mother came along, too, intent on making sure our curiosity didn’t get the better of us in alligator country. We planned to start in Eatonville, Hurston’s hometown, then to make our way toward Tampa, traveling the Tamiami Trail into Everglades City before ending our trip in Belle Glade, a setting in her critically acclaimed book Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The Everglades seemed to us at turns stunning and strange. None of us had ever traveled that far south before, the landscapes of freshwater marsh, mangrove swamps, and saw-grass prairies dotted with hardwood hammocks a world away from the eastern redbuds and honey locusts we knew. When we made it to our hotel, a coconut palm there so enamored my father that he picked up a green coconut and put it in the car, intent on carrying it back to South Carolina. We steeled ourselves when we saw crossing signs for black bears, bobcats, and Florida panthers, and gawked at gators listlessly sunning a few steps from the path to an observation tower. In places like the Museum of the Everglades and the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, we heard stories about the bootleggers, smugglers of square grouper (otherwise known as bales of marijuana), and swamp angels who have inhabited the mosquito-infested mangroves. One night while we waited for our food, we stood on a pier alongside the restaurant and watched the sun sink behind a bend of the Barron River.
We spent most of our time in Everglades National Park, learning the difference between a double-crested cormorant and an anhinga. We trekked through creeks in search of purple gallinules, highly prized species among us amateur bird-watchers, their brightly colored plumage earning them the sobriquet “jewel of the marsh.” We didn’t know it then, but this was our family’s last bit of normalcy.
This time I journeyed the 750 miles to Everglades City alone, my father dead and my mother no longer up for this type of adventure. I felt pulled there, but I wasn’t quite sure why—to meditate, to reflect, to escape? My instinct told me to plumb old memories, experiences I’d already had. I went on a boat excursion with fellow birdwatchers through the shallow waters of Chokoloskee Bay to get a better look at wading birds. Through my binoculars I peered at roseate spoonbills and tricolored herons fishing for their breakfast, and then the entire boat got distracted by a pod of dolphins chasing fish into the shallows. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are social animals, the captain explained. If you ever see one out on its own, there’s a good chance something is wrong. I peered out toward the horizon at some of the homes faintly visible on Marco Island, trying to forget that unlike everybody else on the boat, I was alone.
Spanish colonizers exploring this place called it Ten Thousand Islands because they couldn’t keep up with the actual number: Countless mangrove clusters crop up from the bed of limestone below, forming small islands. Two small islands might grow together. An island would disappear beneath the water. The concept of memory is similar—moments resurfacing, others sinking, submerged until some event raises them again. I didn’t understand this before I boarded the Shark Valley tram tour, an Everglades National Park excursion leaving out of Miami that my family loved best the last time. I oohed and aahed with strangers, pointing out features they struggled to see, ones my always keen-eyed father had once pointed out to me: the tail of a glass lizard, a green anole scampering away, Liguus tree snails camouflaged against the trunk of a gumbo-limbo. I realized sitting there that I had become more like my father in that way—as I’ve spent the ten years since his death searching for meaning in my circumstances, desperate for signs, I’ve developed the patience I lacked before to stay still and look deeply.
Large-scale events can erase the arbitrary line between humans and wildlife. A hurricane is one of them. An unnamed storm hit Everglades City in 1926, then Hurricane Donna in 1960, and then Hurricane Irma in 2017. Irma packed such a punch that the changes to the landscape could be seen from space, and the destruction scrambled my memory map. There are so many things that aren’t coming back. The suite where we slept at the Ivey House hotel is now just open space. The coconut tree Daddy loved is little more than a stump.
But the extreme weather that pops up annually now is not the only problem. Habitat destruction and hydrologic changes due to human development seem to be accelerating faster than the Everglades and its inhabitants can adapt. Due to sea level rise and coastal erosion, more and more of what was once land is now underwater, reshaping shorelines and affecting the fates of the entwined species that call the habitat home. As the quote popularized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a journalist, conservationist, and advocate for the wetlands, goes, “The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet.”
For more than a hundred years, men have toiled in the muck and mire here, losing their lives to the scourges of the swamps as they attempted to build roads through the wilderness, chopping down what were then virgin cypresses and pines. They dredged, dammed, and drained what they deemed to be worthless wetlands, unable to see the fragile ecosystem they were altering.
I propped my elbow up on the tram’s doorframe, and it struck me: In trying to enter a picture I no longer had access to, in this landscape so transformed by trauma, I had wound up haunting myself. It left me lonely. The recollections of things past chafed, like a button-down that did not quite fit—shoulders too tight, sleeves short, buttons gaping—unable to contain my experience of this place anymore.
But history proves a fragile ecosystem can recover, if given the chance. In the 1880s, hunters killed five million Everglades birds a year, using the plumage in high-fashion headwear and leaving many species threatened, endangered, and at risk of extinction. Thanks to federal conservation legislation, many of those populations have managed to bounce back. When I drove toward the sunset in Flamingo Marina, pops of white wreathed the road: ibis and egrets slowly picking their way through the mud in search of a morsel, the native spider lilies open and tilted toward the sun.
The next morning, I tried something new that we hadn’t done together as a family: a backcountry boat tour along the Buttonwood Canal through Coot Bay, on to Tarpon Creek and at last Whitewater Bay. We motored past a thirteen-foot crocodile named Freddy that has lived in the area for as long as anyone can remember. From the boat we studied cardinal air plants and other epiphytes clinging to the mangroves. Halloween pennant dragonflies circled our heads, chasing the mosquitoes feasting on us, a sliver of the life cycle playing out before our eyes in this standing water sanctuary. The captain killed the engine, and we began to drift into the bay.
These signs of hope budded from Irma’s destruction and chaos, too. Holes torn in the forest canopy left room for new growth in the wake of her wrath. The sunlight hits different spots now, a rare opportunity for something new to emerge. That has persisted as the story of this landscape for millennia, shifting, ever advancing, evolving. The Seminole and Miccosukee tribes seemingly understood this philosophy, like the Calusa and Tequesta tribes before them: The storm is over; it is time to accept, and to cope. The sunlight is here and with it, unflinching honesty about what remains.