color photograph, overhead shot of a shallow river in the Everglades. an airboat is moving through the water and a small wake trails behind it as it passes a wood-plank dock
TOPSHOT - An airboat is seen hovering over Everglades wetland in Everglades National Park, Florida, on Sept. 30, 2021. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

When Rev. Houston Cypress is out in the sawgrass of the Everglades, there’s a moment when the boundaries separating the sky from the water are erased; on a clear day, sunlight reflects blue sky in the shallow sheets of water. On an airboat ride (which uses an above-water propeller that makes it possible to navigate shallow waters and wetlands) with the Love the Everglades Movement, which Cypress co-founded in 2012, it can feel as if you’re gliding through the sky. Throughout the day, participants become absorbed into the ecosystem’s natural edges and realize that the borders between mangrove forest, prairie lands, shallow wetlands, and brackish waters blend into each other in sophisticated, unboastful ways. For Cypress, the Everglades is spiritual.

But for others, many of whom hold sway over public policy and private industries, the Everglades is a political project, a site of habitat restoration, a hurdle blocking development, or a resource to be extracted. These different perspectives have long been at odds, reflected in legislation authorizing the Everglades’ destruction in the mid-19th century and 170 years later in legislation proposing its restoration. 

Despite growing awareness of the Everglades’ ecological and community value—9 million Florida residents get their drinking water from the Everglades—stakeholders continue to debate how the Everglades should be viewed and cared for. Artists are advocating for an understanding of the Everglades that foregrounds the ecosystem’s part in Florida’s history and contemporary culture, and they warn that its destruction would threaten the collective memory of the state altogether.

Undoing a complex ecosystem 

The Everglades is a living story of how water moves through southern Florida. Its headwater is Shingle Creek, a modest tributary of the Kissimmee River. River water flows south to Lake Okeechobee, the heart of the 3.9 million-acre watershed, where it joins with rainwater. From the lake, water flows further south to Biscayne Bay on the eastern side of the state and the Gulf of Mexico on the western. 

The Everglades’ symbiotic and complex ecosystems are governed by the water’s tides and wet and dry seasons, which have become less predictable with climate change. To reach its destination, water traverses a concert of sawgrass marshes, open-water sloughs, cypress swamps, hardwood hammock forests, mangrove swamps, and pinelands. Industrious tree islands filter water, prevent hurricanes from wreaking inland destruction, and provide shelter to numerous endangered and threatened species. The Everglades is home to hundreds of amphibian, mammalian, avian, and reptilian species, both predator and prey, that coexist in the wetland’s fresh and brackish waters. 

This interplay between tributaries and aquifers, plant and animal species, didn’t just happen naturally. Roughly 5,000 years ago, the Everglades were created by peoples indigenous to what’s now called Florida. It’s estimated that around 250 A.D., Indigenous peoples constructed “largest precolonial canal system on the continent,” according to Jessica R. Cattelino, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“It takes work to make the Everglades seem like a wilderness without people—cultural work, conceptual work, physical work—and to render it an uninhabited swamp,” Cattelino said in a 2015 lecture

The undoing of that work started in 1850 with the federal Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act, which handed water rights over to the state from the federal government, providing the legal grounds to drain, settle, and raze the land for settler and agricultural use. The state collaborated with private industries and would-be landowners, ultimately transferring 17 million acres of land to private ownership. Federal and state army and police removed Indigenous nations, communities, and peoples from their lands.

Over the next century, the federal Army Corps of Engineers would authorize and construct 1,400 miles of canals and levees, along with 16 major water pumping stations to divert water for agricultural and municipal use. The agency bludgeoned the Kissimmee River, effectively cutting off the lifeline of water for downstream wetlands. And after realizing that the artificial canals couldn’t handle the natural ebb and flow of rainwater flooding of Lake Okeechobee, officials responded by funding multiple flood control projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. With this interruption to the unique “sheet flow” of water from Orlando to the southern point of Florida, the Everglades faded into a ghost of its former glory. 

Sugar plantations and rice farms boomed in the wake of settler construction and cities grew into the drained land. Miami sits on the Everglades, as do Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach. Urbanization threatens what remains of the Everglades, contributing to habitat loss, over-extension of aquifers and water resources, and pollution. 

Bird species populations have dropped 90% since the early 1900s, when the Army Corps of Engineers ratcheted up their water diversion efforts to make way for sugar farmers. Polluted and untreated water from nearby municipalities poison food supplies for wading birds and other species. Even the Everglades National Park, whose creation was heralded as a conservation effort that would prioritize the health of the ecosystem, gets the last water rights after cities. Most recently, in early November 2022, Miami-Dade commissioners voted to move a boundary that previously protected the Everglades from commercial development to allow for warehouse construction on nearly 400 acres of land. 

Global climate change exacerbates these challenges. Sea level rise threatens saltwater intrusion, which offsets the balance of brackish and fresh water. Habitat loss means fewer places for larger mammals like panthers to roam. Roads built through the Everglades further splice the natural water flow, and cars can hit and kill animals. Non-native species like feral hogs, piranhas, and various invasive plants throw off the region’s preexisting food web. Soil losses threaten mangrove forests, which precipitates saltwater intrusion, reduces the forests’ ability to capture atmospheric carbon, and shrinks the critical habitat for infant mollusks and shellfish species. Between 1980 and 2000, mangrove forests were reduced by 35% globally. Less rainfall means fewer opportunities for underground aquifers to recharge and less freshwater for wading birds and other animal life. 

Taken altogether, the Everglades is in crisis. Over a century of uninhibited exploitation and lackadaisical enforcement of any protective policies has made the Everglades into one of North America’s most endangered habitats.

“I’m witnessing an acceleration of the evacuation of the place, and that’s because of water mismanagement and invasive species coming in [and] the encroachment of development,” Cypress said. 

Giving the water the respect it deserves

Federal, state, and local partners have been at work since the early 2000s attempting to better understand and treat the scope of the problem through an $8 billion, 30-year project. The agencies tasked with healing the Everglades are those enlisted to see to its demise: the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District. 

While the agencies focus on attempting to reverse the damage they’ve helped inflict on the land, to people like Cypress, who grew up in the Miccosukee Tribe, an Indigenous community west of Miami in a small town of the Everglades, healing the Everglades isn’t about restoration—a conservation practice born out of colonial relationships to land—at all. Rather, it’s about respect.

According to Cypress, the compartmentalization of the Everglades—separating the watershed into its component parts of rivers, plant and animal life, aquifers, and forests, both in how we talk about the Everglades and how we develop roads and canals—is part of the problem. Each of these elements of the Everglades intersects and can’t exist without the others, the same as humans who take care of and rely on the Everglades. Instead of asking how we can preserve the Everglades, Cypress wants guests of the Everglades to ask, “What can we do to give the water the respect it deserves? How can we encourage people to care if they’ve never been there?” 

These questions led Cypress to found the Love the Everglades Movement, which offers participants the opportunity to learn the Everglades through artistic, poetic, and spiritual practice and understand the ecosystem as “a full body experience,” Cypress said. Love the Everglades leads groups on airboat rides and camping trips, and in the past it has hosted symposiums and concerts to raise awareness of the Everglades. 

In doing so, the Everglades becomes an interactive venue for storytelling and reminds participants that they exist because of the Everglades. Cypress reminds participants that the waters of the Everglades are already flowing through their lives. 

“If you’re drinking it, it’s flowing through your body, and if you’re using electricity in some way, then your electrical needs are being provided by the waters of the Everglades,” Cypress said. “We’re all linked even if we’ve never been to the Everglades.”

Despite this connection, 95% of residents in South Florida don’t know where their water comes from, said Begoñe Cazalis, the director of communications for The Everglades Foundation. Nine million people, or almost all of South Florida, get their freshwater from the Everglades. 

“When the Everglades is under threat, and there’s development, people need to know what’s at stake,” Cazazlis said. 

Moving at the speed of the wind and water

Sister Robin Merrill shares Cypress’ spiritual relationship to the Everglades. A Christian missionary, Merrill has worked with Cypress for a decade, collaborating on creative and educational projects. 

Part of the trips’ spiritual component that Merrill developed takes place out on the water where it’s not possible to hear the motors of the other airboats. She turns the airboat’s motor off and instructs the participants to listen deeply while the wind blows along the surface of the water and prairie grasses. 

“We let ourselves just drift across the face of the water in our boat, and then I tell people to listen to what I call the symphony of the swamp,” Merrill said. 

When everyone’s silent, she said it’s possible to hear the frogs croaking, small fish moving in the water, and the rustling of plants in the wind. Everything moves, including the participants, at the pace of the wind and water. 

Once connected to the place, Merrill tells guests how the limestone deep in the earth filters the water for humans and other animal species. She explains that the demands humans are making of the Everglades are “pulling it way beyond capacity, way beyond what it can handle. We’re breaking it.” 

It’s difficult to care about places you don’t know about, but as these places disappear, so too do their histories. 

This is what motivates Cornelius Tulloch, a Miami-based visual artist, in his work as the creative director for AIRIE, the Artists in Residence in Everglades program. Though he grew up in Miami, Tulloch said he had little exposure to the Everglades. That changed in early 2022 when he became an artist fellow at AIRIE and was later asked to take on a full-time role as a staff member. 

From the Saltwater Railroad to the Florida Highwaymen, Tulloch’s art is informed by the Black revolutionaries and artists who realized their freedom in different ways. Through his creative work and research, Tulloch said he learned about the vast amount of Black history in South Florida. 

“These stories weren’t being told on a large scale, but their information and the stories themselves existed all around us,” Tulloch said. “Black people were able to live freely in the landscape and find liberation in Florida’s natural spaces.”

To artists like Tulloch, the Everglades isn’t just an ecological touchpoint, but also a cultural and historical keystone as well. And erasing the Everglades, either because of development or apathy about climate change, threatens to erase “any sort of visual memory that there might be of what happened in this landscape, and that’s something that I’m very concerned with,” he said.

Maybe, Tulloch added, if there were more visibility on the many histories of the Everglades, more Florida residents would feel curious about the land and, in turn, be inclined to care for it. And as he sees it, art is the way to help people tap into that curiosity because art allows people to be “seduced into the storyline” of a place rather than hit over the head with esoteric or overwhelming scientific facts and research. 

“I think, in large part, a lot of artists now are doing the heavy lifting on getting people intrigued about these subject matters,” Tulloch said.  

Art offers a way to learn about the challenges the land faces and feel hopeful that something can be done to fix it. It’s a hope that seems especially potent as the Everglades faces a new era of challenges: both the threats of development and climate change put pressure on the antiquated idea that nature is something that can be protected and restored. Yet nature isn’t inherently vulnerable, as the Love the Everglades Movement knows—the interconnected web of waters, forests, and animals makes for an environment that’s inherently complex, evolving, and alive, just like the human communities of the Everglades. At the heart of this movement is the hope that more people can see themselves as part of the landscape and understand that the fates of the Everglades and the people of Florida are irrevocably intertwined.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.