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The Everglades was more than a river of grass, and it contained more than swarming bugs, slithering reptiles, and lacerating annoyances.
The river of grass was only the most distinctive link of an interconnected ecosystem that once blanketed almost all of south Florida, from its headwatchers atop the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes near modern-day Orlando down to the coral reefs of the Keys, an area twice the size of New Jersey. The ecosystem was a watery labyrinth of lakes and lagoons, creeks and ponds, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks. It encompassed Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay, the St. Lucie and Miami Rivers.
And in addition to its extensive marshlands, it included genuine swamps, most notably the Big Cypress Swamp, a Delaware-sized mosaic of pinelands, prairies, and blackwater bogs just west of the sawgrass Everglades. Sawgrass could be as uninviting to wildlife as it was to people, but the diverse habitats of the broader Florida ecosystem—also known as the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades or south Florida ecosystem—supported an astonishing variety of life, from black bears to barracudas, turkey vultures to vase sponges, zebra butterflies to fuzzy-wuzzy air plants that looked like hairy psychedelic squid. The Everglades had prehistoric storks that snapped their beaks shut in three milliseconds, sausage-shaped manatees that devoured 100 pounds of plants a day, mullet that ran in schools three miles long, and four-foot-tall dwarf cypress trees that looked like skeletal bonsai.
The Everglades was the only place where alligators (broad snout, fresh water, darker skin) and crocodiles (pointy snout, salt water, toothy grin) lived side by side. It was the only home of the Everglades mink, Okeechobee gourd, and Big Cypress fox squirrel. It had carnivorous plants, amphibious birds, oysters that grew on trees, cacti that grew in water, lizards that changed colors, and fish that changed genders.
It had 1,100 species of trees and plants, 350 birds, and 52 species of porcelain-smooth, candy-striped tree snails. It had bottlenose dolphins, marsh rabbits, ghost orchids, moray eels, bald eagles, and countless other species that didn't seem to belong on the same continent, much less in the same ecosystem."
—Michael Grunwald in The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise (2006, Simon & Schuster)