Voice of the River – Book Review

You can be an activist at any age.

Voice of the River is a fascinating tale about Marjory Stoneman Douglas the “Grandmother of the Everglades.” This book is her autobiography created by author John Rothchild from numerous visits with her and over 200 hours of recordings.

Ever since 2013, each March I make a point of reading at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist in honor of Women’s History Month. Throughout the year, I add books to my running “to read” list and then in February I decide which book to read for March.

One year I discovered Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her now famous 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass and intended to read it. However, our local library system did not have the book so I left it on my “to read” list hoping to find a used copy at some point in the future.

Voice of the River Book Cover

Last September, far from the Florida Everglades, I stumbled across Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Voice of the River in a used bookstore located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. At first, I thought it was the book on my list but when I realized it was Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ autobiography, I instantly knew that I wanted to read the book for Women’s History Month 2019.

It turned out to be one of those books that you cannot put down.

Book Review

Although neither Marjory Stoneman Douglas or John Rothchild knew it at the time, their joint book project Voice of the River was initiated at a 1973 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public hearing about a proposed suburb on the edges of the Everglades National Park. They were both opposed to the development.

In the book’s introduction, Rothchild describes getting to know Douglas and gives you a preview of the woman you are about to meet. Make sure you wear cool clothes because as you take a seat in the main room of her tiny home in Coconut Grove, Florida you will notice she does not have air conditioning. Prepare to be entertained and surprised by her story.

This excerpt sets the stage.

“The hardest thing is to tell the truth about oneself. One doesn’t like to remember unpleasant details, but forgetting them makes one’s life seem disorganized. I’m not at all sure how to go along but I’ll begin at the beginning.”

The first section of the book covers Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ early years from her birth on April 7, 1890, in Minneapolis, Minnesota through her tumultuous childhood, the years she spent earning her degree at Wellesley College, and what turned out to be a strange and short marriage. If you are paying attention, you will get a glimpse of the environmentalist she will later become as she recalls her father reading to her from the Song of Hiawatha.

Next, Douglas recounts moving to Florida in 1915 to live with her father and stepmother. This is where she launched her life as a writer by accepting a temporary assignment as the Miami Herald’s society editor. After a short stint overseas in 1918 with the American Red Cross near the end of World War I, she returned home and expanded her role at the newspaper. She also got involved with a group of people advocating for an Everglades National Park.

Moving on, Douglas talks about deciding in 1924 to focus on her freelance writing and how she made her living writing articles and short stories for the next 15 years. She became a homeowner in 1926 and she was still living in the same house during the writing of this book. She often said that projects just sort of fell into her lap and that was the case with her most famous book.

The Everglades-River of Grass Book Cover

Early in the 1940s, Hervey Allen asked her to write a book about the Miami River for a Rivers of America series. She recalls responding by saying, “Hervey, you can’t write a book about the Miami River. It’s only about an inch long.” She thought the Miami River and the Everglades were connected and she suggested writing a book about that. He agreed.

After several years of research and writing, The Everglades: River of Grass hit the bookstores in November 1947. All 7,500 copies of that first edition were sold by Christmas that year.

20 years after the publication of The Everglades: River of Grass Marjory Stoneman Douglas became an environmental activist. She founded the Friends of the Everglades when Michael Chenoweth handed her a dollar and became its first member. She was 78 at the time. Over the next twenty years or so, she became a staunch advocate for protecting the Everglades.

At the end of the book, Douglas shares her thoughts on politics, old age, and faith.

The Bottom Line

Marjory Stoneman Douglas epitomizes the proverbial woman ahead of her time. An independent and outspoken woman, she was a suffragist, journalist, civil rights supporter, author, environmentalist, speaker, and an activist. She continued working into her second century and lived to 108.

John Rothchild is an author who had the distinct honor of helping Marjory Stoneman Douglas with her autobiography. I think he did a masterful job of creating a book that brings her to life for readers in the 21st century and beyond.

Reading Voice of the River I could imagine myself sitting and talking with Marjory Stoneman Douglas. She was both lyrical and forthright. I was amazed at some of the things I learned about her. I hope you will read the book to discover this remarkable woman for yourself.

Blue Heron and Alligator at Everglades National Park
A blue heron and an alligator hanging out in Everglades National Park. Photo credit – D. Harris/Everglades National Park Service. Click here to open the photo.

In 1993, when she was 103, President Bill Clinton awarded Marjory Stoneman Douglas the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor granted by the U.S. The medal citation reads:

“Marjory Stoneman Douglas personifies passionate commitment. Her crusade to preserve and restore the Everglades has enhanced our Nation’s respect for our precious environment, reminding all of us of nature’s delicate balance. Grateful Americans honor the ‘Grandmother of the Glades’ by following her splendid example in safeguarding America’s beauty and splendor for generations to come.”

I am still interested in reading The Everglades: River of Grass. Perhaps someday I will find a copy in another bookstore far from Everglades.

Featured Image at Top: Sawgrass prairie at the Everglades National Park – photo credit G. Gardner/Everglades National Park Service. Click here to open the photo.

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Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees

Planting trees is an act of love towards people and the planet.

Imagine if you could do something simple to beautify your community and help keep Earth habitable. Planting a tree is one way to do it.

If you have access to a shovel or even a garden trowel, you can plant a tree seedling in your yard or somewhere else, that needs a tree like a park, community open space, or a forest. You can obtain a tree seedling from a nursery, botanical garden or native plant sale, or a nonprofit organization that grows trees.

Mother Nature does a lot of tree planting ably aided by the wind, rain, and critters, both feathered and furry. However, she would probably appreciate some assistance from us, humans. Mother Nature is unlikely to come knocking on your door asking you to plant trees, but I think she is wily and employs a variety of methods to get the word out. If you are not listening, she may give you a nudge or two. That is what happened to me.

Cambria in the Pines

Before moving to live among Monterey pine trees in the small town of Cambria on the California Central Coast, I had never lived this close to the rest of nature. Our town motto is “Cambria in the Pines.”

My spouse and I share a tiny piece of land with Monterey pine and oak trees, native plants, mule deer, wild turkeys, voles, lizards, and a wide variety of birds. I am acquainted with each tree in our mostly wild yard. Whenever a tree dies, I feel bereft. Then I will notice a new tree seedling in our yard and feel hope.

Our Monterey pine forest is one of the few remaining native stands of Monterey pine trees in the world. It is precious, irreplaceable, and struggling to survive. Drought, rising temperatures, and disease have taken a toll on the forest. Thousands of trees have been lost. Mother Nature and people have planted new tree seedlings, but not enough, not nearly enough. We are in danger of becoming “Cambria in the Pine.”

Over the years, to supplement Mother Nature’s efforts, I have attempted to buy Monterey pine seedlings at our local nursery, but they never have any in stock (I think this is weird). I admit that I did not look elsewhere for seedlings. Perhaps Mother Nature sensed that I needed a nudge to propel me to action so she gave me not one but two gentle nudges.

We Meet a Tree Hugger

Near the end of December, I saw a notice in the local newspaper The Cambrian that the Cambria Forest Committee was hosting a talk by a guy named Rick Hawley from Greenspace, a local nonprofit land trust. The subject was Monterey pine trees. I was interested but what really caught my attention was a sentence that said Greenspace grows Monterey pine seedlings for sale to the public. I thought, “You are kidding me. Why do I not know about this?”

A week or so later, on a cold evening in January, my spouse and I bundled up and walked down to the community room at the Rabobank to hear Rick speak and to find out how we could obtain some tree seedlings.

Rack Holding Tiny Monterey Pine Seedlings at Cambria Forest Committee Meeting on January 9, 2019
A rack holding tiny Monterey pine seedlings at the Cambria Forest Committee meeting – January 9, 2019. This photo and the one below courtesy of the Cambria Forest Committee.

As soon as we entered the room, I saw a rack of tiny Monterey pine seedlings nestled in little plastic sleeves sitting on a table. I coveted them.

Rick gave an impassioned talk about Monterey pine trees and discussed the importance of replacing trees that have been lost due to drought, disease, or age. Planting trees helps forests stay healthy and resilient.

One thing I discovered during the meeting is that I am not quite the law-abiding citizen that I thought I was. Apparently, you are supposed to obtain a permit before removing a tree over a certain size (including dead trees) and are required to plant replacement tree seedlings.

You know assuming is dangerous, right? Well, I had assumed that the tree service we hired from time to time to remove our dead trees had a permit or something so we did not need one. I did know about replacement tree requirements but fortunately, we have had more than enough tree seedlings volunteer in our yard to replace the dead trees (whew). Okay, now I know.

Rick Hawley and Linda Poppenheimer Talking after the Cambria Forest Committee Meeting on January 9, 2019

At the close of the meeting, I approached Rick to thank him for his inspiring talk and to volunteer to grow seedlings. When I asked him where I could obtain seedlings to plant in our yard, he gave me his business card and told me to call to make arrangements.

Mother Nature Throws down the Gauntlet

Two weeks later, Rick’s business card was still sitting on my desk.

Then, one day my spouse walked into our home office and said, “A Monterey pine tree just threw a seed at me.” This had occurred outside of our kitchen when a pinecone made a loud cracking noise as it burst open and then a single papery-winged seed drifted down onto the deck. I had never seen a Monterey pine seed.

I took this as a sign from Mother Nature.

After locating Rick’s card, I called and left a message that I was interested in buying some Monterey pine seedlings.

We are still in the rainy season so I thought the seedlings would have a good chance of settling in before the dry summer and fall months. I figured I could probably keep track of and care for twenty seedlings. This means keeping the wild grasses from overrunning them and carrying water to their locations if needed.

Rick called back and said he would bring the seedlings to the Greenspace office for me to pick up.

When I arrived at the office, Rick introduced me to Mary Webb, the current president of the board of directors. The three of us had a delightful conversation about Greenspace and Monterey pine trees. Greenspace began as a land trust in 1988 and has been instrumental in preserving natural areas, restoring the Santa Rosa Creek watershed, caring for the Monterey pine forest, leading educational forest excursions for middle school students, and advocating for local environmental issues.

Mary Webb and Rick Hawley Holding Greenspace 2001 Arbor Day Foundation Award and Two Monterey Pine Seedlings
Mary Webb and Rick Hawley standing outside the Greenspace office in Cambria, CA holding Greenspace’s 2001 Arbor Day Foundation award and two Monterey pine seedlings that would soon find a home in my yard – January 24, 2019.

Greenspace sells Monterey pine seedlings in one-gallon pots for $10 each. I think this is a good deal. If everyone in town invested just $10 for one tree seedling for their own yard or for a community open space, we could plant about 6,000 trees.

Planting Monterey Pine Tree Seedlings

When I got home, my spouse helped me unload the seedlings from my car and we lined them up on the edge of the driveway so I could take a group photo before we dispersed the trees to their planting locations (top phot0).

We decided to plant the seedlings that weekend before the next rainstorm.

Linda Poppenheimer Holding a Monterey Pine Seedling with Shovel, Bucket, and Watering Can
This is me decked out in a California Native Plant Society t-shirt, jeans, boots, gloves, and a hat ready to plant some Monterey pine seedlings.

In addition to typical tree planting concerns like not planting too close to the house and avoiding locations beneath power lines, we also needed to consider deer trails and vole highways. Deer cruising through the yard could easily crush a 12” seedling and voles tunneling underground dig up anything in their path and toss it aside.

We decided to plant the seedlings in groups spaced far enough apart so that they can grow into mature trees but close enough that they would have buddies nearby. In some cases, we planted the seedlings near decaying tree stumps in hopes that this will protect them from trampling by deer or even wild turkeys.

One thing I realized almost immediately is that I will need to put some kind of marker near the tree groupings because as soon as the grasses grow to more than a foot tall, it will be hard for me to locate them so I can check on their progress. In the past week, we have had several inches of rain and the tree seedlings seem happy, so far so good.

I am looking forward to Rick’s class on propagating Monterey pine seedlings from seeds. I have a spot picked out next to my pots of native plant seeds.

You Can Plant Trees, Too

Planting trees is an act of love towards people and the planet.

Even though it is winter, there are many places where planting trees now make sense. If you live in one of these milder climates, please consider taking action by planting a tree seedling or several seedlings. If you are hunkering down in a cold and snowy place, perhaps you could select the type of tree you would like to plant in the spring and put a photo of it on your refrigerator.

If you do not have a yard or do not want to plant a tree in your yard that is okay, there are plenty of other places that need trees such as playgrounds, parks, common areas, city streets, community open spaces, and forests. Find a tree planting opportunity in your area and go plant some trees.

You can still help even if you are not able to plant a tree or do not want to do it. Consider making a financial donation to a tree related nonprofit, offer to help organize a tree-planting event, or volunteer to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies for the people planting trees.

Fortunately, you do not need to wait for Mother Nature to toss a seed at you to get your attention. If you are reading this, she already has your attention so go plant a tree.

Featured Image at Top: Twenty Monterey pine tree seedlings in pots lined up on the curb of our driveway awaiting planting.

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