Environmental Themes in Grapes of Wrath
This essay reviews environmental themes from the following five books: Dust Bowl by Donald Worster, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen, and River of Lakes by Bill Belleville. This paper discusses the role that culture has played in environmental issues during the past century. Five sources used. MLA format.
Humans from the very beginning of their existence have had an impact, for better or worse, on the environment. Man has for the most part tried to control the environment to suit his needs or tastes of the era. Over-grazing, over hunting, ignoring the importance crop rotations, dam building, and toxic dumping, are but a few of the ways man tries to control. Few societies have ever considered any of the above when it comes to the environment. There are a few pockets of them in history and even today, but they are indeed few and far between. Organic farming or sustainable agriculture is the closest that most have come to being simpatico with the environment, to truly understanding the cause and effect of their actions. Money seems to be the root of this disregard, not ignorance. The fur and pelt traders of the 1800's knew that there was not some infinite supply of buffalo, that there wasn't some machine producing these animals for eternity. When the buffalo were killed to near extinction, the traders simply moved on to something else, feeling no regard or remorse. Developers are much the same when it comes to the land. Squeezing as much real estate as possible on as much land as possible, and again with no regard for the upset of ecological balance they might be causing. Man's attitude, for the last century in particular, has been one of entitlement to do whatever he chooses. Laws are amended, property and land rezoned, and restrictions overturned. The following works give an important and comprehensive view of man's relationship with the environment and the roles society and culture play in environmental issues.
Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen describes through character narratives, life in the Florida Everglades during the mid-1800's to the early 1900's. During those early years, the Everglades were home to desperadoes, misfits, renegades, moonshiners, and a few lost souls looking to retreat from the world (Matthiessen, 1990). There was also a scattering of a few survivors of several Native American Indian tribes, mostly the Mikasuke tribe, who had escaped from being rounded-up and moved west to Oklahoma by the government. Fort Myers was the largest city in the area, filled with cattlemen and bankers. Seldom did law authorities or anyone else for that matter ever venture into the Everglades. It was an inhospitable place to live. Cut off from civilization, it was a world of its own (Matthiessen, 1990).
As one naturalist recounts in Matthiessen's novel, "The Ten Thousand Islands is a region of mystery and loneliness: gloomy, monotonous, weird, and strange, yet possessing a decided fascination. To the casual stranger each and every part of the region looks exactly like the rest; each islet and water passage seems but the counterpart of hundreds of others (Matthiessen, 1990). Even those...familiar with its tortuous channels often get lost...wandering hopeless for days among its labyrinthine ways" (Matthiessen, 1990). Less than a hundred of these islands rose more than one foot above sea level, and of these most of the high ground was too limited to build upon (Matthiessen, 1990).
Plume hunting was a common and popular trade. The area was filled with boobies, turkeys, roseate spoonbills, egrets, white pelicans, and parrots. These birds provided a decent living for most, as the plumes were greatly desired for their beauty by 'civilized' fashion (Matthiessen, 1990). Deer and alligator hides, otter and raccoon pelts, sugar and molasses and beef cattle were popular trade products for markets. There were a few citrus plantations, and others who grew orchards of pear trees, Jamaican apples, sour and sweet oranges, tomatoes, pineapples, coconuts, bananas, and some who grew sugar cane on the flats (Matthiessen, 1990).
By 1887, the railroad had reached just north of Fort Myers. Wealthy northerners were flocking to Florida for fishing big game, such as silver king, Spanish mackerel, kingfish, the snook and redfish that swam through the passes of the barrier islands (Matthiessen, 1990). Over four million acres had been contracted and dredging began that left the land open for settlement, driving the remaining Indians farther southward...
And by 1909, Fort Myers had electric lights and automobiles filled the streets (Matthiessen, 1990).
Civilization had come south and had made millionaires of many. Matthiessen gives a colorful portrayal of the outlaws, home steaders, plantation owners, cattle barrons, and railroad tycoons who had each participated in their own way to the damage of the Everglades that would leave it changed forever (Matthiessen, 1990). Species were hunted to extinction or pushed farther and farther away from its natural source for shelter and food. In Killing Mr. Watson, the readers gets a first hand feel for the life in this frontier wilderness (Matthiessen, 1990).
Marjory Stoneman Douglas' The Everglades River of Grass has become a classic among nature writing. Written in 1947, when most people thought of the Everglades as a worthless swamp, Douglas brought the world's attention to the need to preserve the Everglades as the unique and magnificent place. Her crusade to save the area was a lifelong passion (Douglas, 1997).
Douglas begins her book by describing poetically the area she was so devoted to for over fifty years. "There are no other Everglades in the world, they are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known" (Douglas, 5). She speaks of the enormous horizon, the sweetness of the winds, and the miracle of the light as it pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and water. She also details the origin of its name, pointing to the oldest English origin of the word 'glade' which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'glaed' meaning 'shining' or 'bright' (Douglas, 1997).
Douglas chronicles the Everglades in minute detail from the first records she could trace to the present day. The last chapters of this anniversary edition, which updates the preservation and ecological progress made during the last half century, are the most important. They add significance to the history of the Everglades, which has already been discussed in the previous novel.
In the last chapter of the 1947 book titled "The Eleventh Hour" Douglas warned that time was running out for the Everglades. When Randy Lee Loftis interviewed Douglas in 1987, she warned again that the clock was still ticking in that final hour. Although some progress had been made, there was still much to be done. South Florida, she contends, is probably the worst place on earth to put millions of people (Douglas, 1997). Tainted and overtaxed water supplies, agricultural drainage and pollution, and the never-ending quest to build on the last remaining natural places will only get worse, she says. Although Florida has made progress, the degradation of the environment has become institutionalized. A lake or marsh that is force-fed tons of nutrients will choke on its own growth. "The circles of nature - of biology, of wind and water and rock - are bound up with the affairs of people" (Douglas, 392). Florida's history, even recently, when people know better, can only be characterized by a thousand attempts to deny that reality. And such attempts never succeed, they only buy time. And time is running out (Douglas, 1997).
When people describe natural places such as the mountains, deserts, swamps or forests, they refer to them as fragile. However, natural places and ecosystems are not fragile by any means (Douglas, 1997). The earth has a capacity for compensation and forgiveness, even after repeated abuses. It is what has kept this planet alive. However, it has also encouraged more abuse. The Everglades is a case in point, contends Douglas.
In September and October of 1947, two hurricanes hit within two weeks, leaving crops, pastures and urban real estate under water. These natural events would influence life in South Florida forever (Douglas, 1997). The demand for flood control created one of the most massive and complex public works projects in this nation's history. The Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project apportioned South Florida's land among its competing users (Douglas, 1997). Over 700,000 acres of the northern Everglades was given to agriculture. This area had already been partially drained by the state and private interests. The plan called for the eastern cities to be drained by a system of secondary canals. These canals would also serve to recharge the vital groundwater supplies. The cities would be protected from the Everglades waters by a 100-mile long levee, from the woody swamps of central Palm Beach County to the rocky glades of western Dade County. The Everglades would be confined to…
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