EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLA — Everglades National Park, Fla. -- The beauty lies beyond the saw grass.
At first view the land stretches flat, monotonously so, toward the horizon where the sky seems as white and brilliant as the day's light. And the spectrum of colors in this vast wetland mimics the blandness of a Western prairie.
This national treasure doesn't soar into a cobalt blue sky like the burnished, sandstone minarets of Bryce Canyon in Utah. Nor does it hiss steam, spit fire and heave lava into the swirling blue Pacific on the command of a Hawaiian goddess in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
No, this land the Indians called "Pa-hay-okee" (grassy water) holds its beauty close -- in the crook of a mangrove, under the surface of a slough, amid the willow thicket that rises from the muck and mud of the Everglades.
Along the southeastern edge of the park, where visitors can stroll along a boardwalk through a saw grass prairie, walk in a slash pine forest or wander on a hammock -- an island of trees -- the secrets of this unadorned landscape unfold. Those who meander here must be patient, observant and studious to appreciate the Glades' strange treasures.
They must peer in the still brown water of Taylor Slough to spy a leopard-spotted Florida gar or loggerhead turtle swimming beneath white string lilies and purple pickerelweed.
They must tarry before a gumbo limbo tree to notice the tree snail, its white-and-black-striped shell fastened to a gray branch. And they must pause long enough beside a Pond Apple tree to read the small placard that reveals its curiousity: The wood is buoyant (it is also known as corkwood), and its yellow fruit is edible (although it tastes like turpentine).
The whimsy of an airplant (a sprig of green that appears to be grafted to a tree trunk but gleans its nourishment from the rain and air) will delight you.
The roots of a toppled mahogany tree -- spreading like an intricate wrought-iron fence -- will appeal to your sense of the esthetic.
A grunting sound rises from the tall, prickly-edged saw grass -- the pig frogs, of course.
And if a child happens to cry out, "Daddy, look, look, an alligator!" -- as one toddler did on my recent visit -- don't be surprised to find a reptile not just in the swamp but slinking across a pedestrian path to reach his favorite watering hole.
In 1947, the year the federal government designated the Everglades a national park, conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote: "It will be the only national park in which wild-life, the crocodiles, the trees, the orchids, will be more important than the sheer geology of the place."
The fate of that wildlife, as Mrs. Douglas so eloquently explained in her book, "The Everglades: River of Grass," depends on the integrity of that geology. Back then, Mrs. Douglas declared, "The Everglades is dying." The assertion has been often repeated in the decades since as development, agriculture and government flood control policies eroded this one-of-a-kind watershed and conservationists and environmentalists fought to protect it.
Now, after years of political debates, court challenges and farm runoff pollution, relief is on the way for the beleaguered Everglades. With the passage last month of the Everglades Forever Act, Florida has committed itself to a $685 million restoration of this fragile ecosystem.
A third of the cost of the project will be borne by sugar and vegetable growers, the source of pollutants that have contributed to the destruction of thousands of acres of Everglades and a steady decline in its inhabitants. It is an ambitious project that seeks to undo what humans have done in the name of progress.
A subtropical landscape that never rises more than 8 feet above sea level, the Glades is a unique ecosystem of freshwater lakes and rivers fed only by rain. It is a 50-mile wide stream of water that flows south 100 feet a day to the Gulf of Mexico. Here, where Indians plied their speedy canoes before Spanish explorers sought to claim the land and moonshiners hid their stills during Prohibition, the Glades system stretches from the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee in central Florida to Florida Bay at the state's southern tip.
Its most precious asset is water. The Glades is the primary source of water for southern Florida.
Quenching that thirst through a 1,400-mile system of dikes and canals has in time threatened the supply. The original wetlands, stretching 4 million acres, has been shrunk in half. Of the more than 2 million birds that waded in Glade waters, no more than 60,000 remain. Snail kites and the Cape Sable Seaside sparrow, the Florida panther and American alligator have also decreased in numbers, their feeding and breeding grounds diminished.