Cinderblocks and swampland

If you have ever watched an ibis stalk gingerly through a strip-mall parking lot or seen a racoon run fugitive-like into the hedges surrounding a prison-blue painted condominium palace with a name like the “The Lodges at Willoughby Chase,” or “Fellagio Villas,” and wondered how it got to be like this in Florida, you must read The Swamp by Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald (Why did a Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel or Palm Beach Post writer never think to do it first?)

Actually, you must anyway. It is beautifully written, back-breakingly researched, perfectly put together, and answers the question, how did the wild splendor of the South Florida of little more than a century ago become the cement wonderland of today?

And early on, one answer becomes clear: The first Americans to venture this far, who came to conquer the humans already here, didn’t think much of the rest of the life forms they found either. As their passion for complaining would put any British expat here to shame, this makes the read as enjoyable as it is informative.

“It is in fact a most hideous region to live in, a perfect paradise for Indians, alligators, serpents, frogs and every other kind of loathsome reptile,” an Army surgeon wrote. And as he fell ill with fever, he cried, “That I could only have escaped from this detested soil!”

The book, which compares the war on Seminoles here to the U.S. war in Viet Nam, also captures the glory that once was here, in the words of one conquerer who described “The profound and wild solitude of the place, the solemn silence that pervades it . .. ” but who added that the “abiding” impression he carried away was of the place’s “utter worthlessness to civilized man.”

It was the quest to make the splendor that was here “worth” something, that led what we have here, to make a long story short, but the long story makes better reading.

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