Write, Act, Live: Reflections on “Literature of Florida” and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ literature and activism

7 December 2010

Write, Act, Live

Clyde Butcher's "Everglades Restoration Can Do". Clyde Butcher was a personal friend of Marjory Stoneman Douglas during her lifetime; their perspectives about Everglades conservation, and eventually, restoration, reflect their common goal for re-framing the ways in which people "see" "The Swamp." Butcher's extensive site, http://clydebutcher.com/journal.cfm?holdtype=155, explains: "Clyde Butcher's black and white photographs explore his personal relationship with the environment. The exquisite beauty and depth of his work draw the viewer into a relationship with nature. For more than forty years, he has been preserving on film the untouched areas of the landscape ..."

Reflecting on this course – the literature, the field trips, the service learning project, to name just some of the highlights – all informed the literary content and theoretical methodology of this critical creative project on Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ literature of Florida. Why Douglas? Two of the most significant justifications for choosing Douglas, a Florida nature writer whom we didn’t discuss this semester (there weren’t many that weren’t discussed …) are that Douglas is significant to the goals of this course, as well as the broader goals of the ways in which the literature of Florida has the potential to contribute to Florida environmental policy. In his impressive and extensive biography on Douglas, An Everglades Providence, Dr. Jack E. Davis writes,“…more than any other single writer or activist, [Marjory Stoneman Douglas] embodied the American environmental century … Few other figures can claim to have been alive, let alone active and lucid, for such a sweeping and formative period in America’s environmental history” (xiv-xv).

One of the goals of our Literature of Florida course is expressed as the following assertion: “… the human impact on the environment constitutes a major thread in the literary representation we will be studying” (Runge). This “human impact” was certainly explicitly addressed in the literary representations we studied: namely, the literature of Rawlings, Orlean, Fleming, Ripple and Cerulean (The Wild Heart of Florida) and, of course, nearly all of the selected works of poetry. But perhaps the most provocative, significant, and longest-lasting exemplar of the ways in which human impact – specifically, drainage of Lake Okeechobee – affects “the environment” (namely, South Florida) is Douglas’ seminal work, River of Grass. Within two chapters entitled, “White Man’s Return” and “Drainage and the Frontier,” Douglas writes, “The word was again “drainage.” … Drainage began. The parts of the first dredge were put together at Fort Myers. For six months thereafter the dredge worked steadily toward Okeechobee … the nineteenth century in the United States had seen a development of American fortunes based to a large extent on land and railroads …Then was born the phrase that would echo all over the country: ‘The Empire of the Everglades.’” (Douglas 283-312). But despite this seemingly foreboding tone, the intent of Douglas’ River of Grass was not overt environmental activism; rather, it was simply to characterize and describe the ways in which the people of the glades – and subsequent developers of the glades – lived on/manipulated/impacted this environment. Its intent was literary, not political … at least at first. For this reason, I see River of Grass as one of the most interesting examples of how literature has the potential to emote environmental activism, or at the very least, awareness of one’s impact on the environment. Additionally, I see it as reflective of the goals and values of a course like “Literature of Florida.”

Another significant goal of our Literature of Florida course was to continually pose, reflect on, and attempt to answer the question, “How might the literature of Florida contribute to our understanding of our home place?” The “our” used here ought to be understood in two contexts: the individual (“I”) and the collective (“public/political”). To explain further, I need to turn to the theoretical foundation of this reflection and analysis, Lakoff’s “Why It Matters How We Frame the Environment,” as his cognitive scientific/linguistic theory of “framing” affects both individuals and politics. For Lakoff, framing matters because it affects the “stickiness” of ideas; words and ideologies either adhere to existing frames or not. The frame must exist first, before the truth of words and ideologies can be understood. Lakoff writes, “In the absence of frames built over a long period of time, words … probably could not do much” (73). Additionally, one of Lakoff’s most important premises pertains to individual action, political action, and how each relates with environmental frames – in particular, the frame (concept) of environmental action. He writes:

…take the concept of “environmental action.” What can we, as individuals, do? Use less energy? Replace our light bulbs? Drive less, walk more, ride bikes? Recycle? Eat organic? Eat local? Green our homes? Buy green? All of this is fine and necessary, but the most important thing is missing: political action! To an enormous degree, governmental action outweighs and shapes individual actions. When we think of the environment, we should be thinking of political involvement. (Lakoff 77)

To reiterate: we must begin to deconstruct the “our” above, (the “our” within the question of the course, “How might the literature of Florida contribute to our understanding of our home place?”) as pertaining to individual actions and, to an even greater degree, political action. Why? Because we ought to accept the responsibility, as I see it, of environmental/nature writing – especially environmental/nature writing that pertains to Florida – of transforming our individual actions into political action. If not, why are we writing? Concerning our understanding of (local) place/s, this environmental/nature writing is significant to “our” home place of Florida because “… the cultural hybridity of Florida has produced a significant, if under-studied, literature, emphasizing the limitless potential and paradisal promise of this unique land” and especially because “the environmental challenges now facing inhabitants of this place make attention to Florida a critical issue” (Runge). It’s undeniable that literature “matters.” It’s even more undeniable that environmental literature matters … and, to a greater degree, environmental literature about Florida. In this sense, I see my decision to focus this project on Marjorie Stoneman Douglas as doubly significant: first, because her work is illustrative of environmental literature about Florida, and second, because of the implications of her environmental literature about Florida – in particular, River of Grass – for political action. As Davis articulates in An Everglades Providence, every writer desires posterity; every writer desires to be remembered for his/her mark on “the field.” In writing River of Grass, “Douglas hoped she might at the very least expand the knowledge of her contemporary readers, offering a corrective interpretation of a physical place and the cultures associated with it; she never spoke of the goal of stimulating political consciousness” (Davis 362). As an individual writer, Douglas’ goal is understandable and, most likely, similar to our own goals as writers. But what Lakoff urges – and what has been proven by Douglas’ literature and (eventual) activism is that both goals are admirable and, most importantly, necessary if a writer is to extend the art of writing to the public sphere; to appeal to emotion and intellect.

Last, I want to characterize how Florida itself influences the ways in which environmental writers characterize it. Something unique to consider is the question, “How does this unique, beautiful, and diverse environment shape the literature written about it?” (Runge). This question is especially significant for Douglas’ River of Grass, in that what she considered “unique, beautiful, and diverse” was – to others – framed as “… a forbidding abyss” of “emphatic flatness” (Davis 25-26). In describing what she – as an individual – saw, she became cognizant of the imperative of translating her perceptions, her frame, of the Everglades into political action. Although political action wasn’t necessarily the original intent of River of Grass, it is inextricable from American environmental history/environmental thought and politics because of its literary – and not explicitly political – appeal. In chapter 31 of An Everglades Providence, Davis explains:

“She did not … write her book as a call to arms. But the lack of an activist intent makes River of Grass that much more remarkable. “The book,” as Douglas called it, immediately became the cultural and natural historical record for the Everglades, what they had been, what they had meant to various people whose lives were linked to them, and what they were becoming. The volume trained a proving light on the iniquities in the stratification of culture over nature. It served as the constitution for Everglades protection, retaining the tenets of the national park’s founding agenda before it had been obfuscated, impeded, and all but forgotten. And lest any maker of policy, law, or business enterprise forget, River of Grass spelled out the benefits of a healthy Everglades to life, including human life. (Davis 482).

Literature is, among other things, essentially the art of eliciting emotions, eliciting emotions is why we write. We write to affect, to influence. Writing like Douglas’ does this and more – it has tremendous literary power, which has proven to be significant even if only its title is taken into consideration. The title, the frame, is a metaphor which caused such a drastic shift in perspective – in other words, it incited enough emotion to cause a public/political revision to ways of seeing “the forbidding abyss” of “emphatic flatness.” In writing – influencing – affecting, Douglas elicited a massive change in perspective; through the use of literature, in particular, metaphor, she effectively introduced a new way of framing the Everglades: the ever-poetic river of grass.

Throughout the remainder of this project, I intend to define, explain, and apply Lakoff’s cognitive scientific/linguistic concept of “framing” to River of Grass and its political/environmental influence. Lakoff’s work is significant and applicable here for two reasons: first, because of his notoriety and long-standing career as a cognitive scientist/linguist specializing in the study of how metaphors affect human communication, particularly political action, etc. and secondly, because this particular article addresses environmental communication/framing in particular. Therefore, it’s a useful theoretical foundation for explaining the premise of this project: namely, because it enables me to answer the question, “Why was Douglas’ literary work so influential for environmental politics?” As a means of answering this question, I will rely on specific explanations of Lakoff’s over-arching claim, that “what makes social movements effective is simple, basic framing” (80). In particular, I will be explaining the relationship of frames with emotional regions of the brain (and therefore, the role of literature in eliciting emotions/creating frames), the ways in which “the wrong frames” are problematic in inhibiting “the right frames” (and what to “do” – and what Douglas did – about eliminating wrong frames), and, finally, to suggest how Douglas, who was unaware of Lakoff’s theory of framing, was able to effectively re-frame her home place, the Everglades.

To begin, it is essential to understand Lakoff’s concept of the frame, and framing, in particular, how this concept pertains to the environment. He defines frames as follows:

“… in the cognitive and brain sciences we think in terms of typically unconscious structures called “frames” (sometimes “schemas”). Frames include semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames … All of our knowledge makes use of frames, and every word is defined through the frames it neutrally activates. All thinking and talking involves “framing” (Lakoff 71-72).

Regarding the specific relation of framing to the environment, Lakoff explains that the environment frame is problematic essentially because of the engrained, historical separation of subjects (humans) from the environment (other/s). Douglas, too, explains this particular frame, albeit not in Lakoff’s terminology of framing but in her own, literary, emotive, prose. At the conclusion of River of Grass, she writes, “Overdrainage will go on. The soil will shrink and burn and be wasted and destroyed, in a continuing ruin. The salt will lie in wait. Yet the springs of fine water had flowed again. The balance still existed between the forces of life and of death. There is a balance in man also, on which has set against his greed and his enertia and his foolishness; his courage, his will, his ability slowly and painfully to learn, and to work together” (385). The “balance” Douglas refers to is indicative of the environment frame Lakoff refers to – specifically, the balance of subject and object, man and nature. What’s interesting is that Douglas’ characterization of the relationship of the people of the glades – those who lived with nature and those who manipulated it – is framing the environment (humans and nonhumans) as simultaneously in and out of balance. While her work is both critical and hopeful in that she criticizes the balance that currently exists, can we suggest that she also confirms that man learns … “to work together” with nature? In this sense, her literature primes the explicitly activist stance that she eventually embraces post-publication. While Douglas’ work is illustrative of the “environment frame” which Lakoff characterizes as juxtaposing subject versus object, it also insinuates that this frame doesn’t have to persist as such; it is malleable, able to “slowly” and “painfully” be revised, which ultimately characterizes the process through which Douglas’ reframed the Everglades.

As Davis explains, the “old” frame – the environment frame Lakoff describes – of the Everglades was that of a “forbidding abyss” of “emphatic flatness.” His description is perhaps the most explicit characterization of the old frame. Davis writes:

For hundreds of years, people had thought of the Everglades as a forbidding abyss …Wet prairie stretches in all directions … It is not intuitive to think of the Everglades as a river, as Douglas did. Rivers are not typically grassy and 60 miles across … In the early years of exploration and settlement, most people could not see the river for the swamp, and no one conceived that the Everglades were part of an ecosystem that begins far to the north. (Davis 25-26)

As Lakoff confirms, frames develop with repetition of words, words that become ‘normally used’ language. As a result of the repetition of such ‘normally used’ language over lengths of time, such language can “still activate that ideology unconsciously in the brains of citizens …” (72). What does this mean for Douglas, River of Grass, and the implications of literature on emotions and therefore on framing of the environment? In Douglas’ situation, the ‘normally used’ language to describe the glades derived from Davis’ description above: namely, something along the lines of “forbidding abyss” and “emphatic flatness.” Essentially, in one summative and condemning word, “swamp.” For that reason, the proliferation and repetition of “swamp” as associated with the “normal” and subsequently accepted framing of the Everglades, engrained this particular environmental frame in the minds of the public. Concerning River of Grass, as mentioned above, Douglas re-framed the Everglades with a poetic, metaphorical language – language that she invented. In a parallel example, Lakoff explains how Michael Pollan “had to invent the terms ‘sun-based’ and ‘oil-based’” as a way of introducing a new frame for the ways in which the public/politics conceives of food (and the ways in which choices in favor of each have further-reaching implications, implications that the old frame doesn’t allow for). Perhaps most importantly, though, is the emotional effect of literature, as this effect relates to Lakoff’s framing. Lakoff writes, “… many frame-circuits have direct connections to the emotional regions of the brain. Emotions are an inescapable part of normal thought. Indeed, you cannot be rational without emotions” (72). Here, I’d like to suggest that if we conceive of literature as the art of eliciting emotions, and if we accept Lakoff’s assertion that “frame-circuits have direct connections to the emotional regions of the brain” then literature – as emotional appeal – is powerful as a frame for political action. Eventually, although it wasn’t intended as such, Douglas’ literary work transgressed its purpose – it effectively introduced a way of reframing the Everglades: as a river and, therefore, “worth” conserving.

Although “introducing a new frame” sounds somewhat simplistic and straightforward, doing so is complicated – and severely jeopardized – by the ways in which “the wrong frames” are problematic in inhibiting “the right frames.” What ought to be done about such a roadblock? Davis’ account of Douglas’ realization that simply writing “The book,” as she called it, was inadequate for inciting any “real” change is noteworthy. He writes:

“On that night in the convenience store, Wilson [friend of 40 years and assistant at Audobon] asked Douglas what she was doing to contribute. “But dear,” Wilson remembered Douglas saying with the mien of a torchbearer, “I did. I wrote the book.” Wilson pressed: “But what have you done lately?” Douglas was nonplussed. She was past her seventy-ninth birthday, part of a retiring generation that should be stepping back and passing the flame to a new generation. There, with cat food in hand and a friend waiting in the parking lot to drive her home, Douglas took her leave with a polite “Call me if I can do anything.” (Davis 474)

Although Douglas’ introduction to environmental activism seems arbitrary, her immersion in Everglades conservation certainly wasn’t; it was explicit, committed, even religious. Douglas is quoted as having attributed much of her commitment to environmental conservation as an influence of her Quaker background. It’s likely that this foundation – and eventual practice of the belief that “… those who walked the earth were burdened with the moral and social responsibility of setting humans straight when their behavior threatened the welfare of others, human and nonhuman alike” (Davis 481) – served as Douglas’ inspiration, especially in tumultuous and disappointing times, to commit herself to the cause of conserving the glades for the rest of her life.

The final question I’d like to pose is this: If Douglas wasn’t aware of Lakoff’s theory of framing, and the practice of framing as an effective way in which to introduce, incite, and achieve a social movement, then how did she do it? How did Douglas successfully introduce a new frame, and subsequently act on its behalf, to the great extent that she did? Davis suggests that while other activists have accomplished notable achievements, none have acquired the reputation, stature, and breadth of a movement that continues on in her name. As a means of interpreting Davis’ claim, I want to consider Lakoff’s claim, that “The social movement approach is idealistic of necessity” (80). Idealism – is it really as simple as idealism? Did Douglas’ ponderings, criticism, praise – her narrative – of the Everglades engage in the environmental re-framing of this place? If idealism is, as Lakoff asserts, necessary to a social movement such as the re-framing/conservation of the Everglades, and Douglas’ idealism is expressed within the beauty of her prose about this unique and imperiled “river of grass,” then the “secret” to Douglas’ success seems to be the literature itself, the artistic expression of emotion, the graceful appeal to “do something” and, essentially, Douglas’ virtuosity: the genius and beauty in which she has written, acted, lived.

Works Cited


Davis, Jack E. An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American

Environmental Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. Print.

Douglas, Marjory Stoneman. River of Grass. New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc, 1947. Print.

Runge, Laura. The Literature of Florida. University of South Florida, Aug. 2010. Web. 4 Dec.



About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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