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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The Legacy of Luna – Book Review

Life in a tree can be surprisingly busy.

The Legacy of Luna tells the story of an ancient redwood tree and a woman who interpreted the words “We don’t need you.” as a call to action.

Before reading The Legacy of Luna, I had heard of Julia Butterfly Hill and I knew that she had lived in a tree. I did not know that she is a woman of courage, faith, and ingenuity with an apparently strong streak of stubbornness.

Several years ago, in honor of Women’s History Month, I began a tradition of reading at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist and writing a post about it in March. This year, I selected The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods by Julia Butterfly Hill.

“I’ve always felt that as long as I was able, I was supposed to give all I’ve got to ensure a healthy and loving legacy for those still to come, and especially for those with no voice. That is what I’ve done in this tree.” —Julia Butterfly Hill

Book Review

Before you embark upon reading The Legacy of Luna, I suggest donning warm clothes and a windbreaker because you are going to be sitting way up in a huge windswept tree with Julia Butterfly Hill as she tells her story. I am only partially kidding. Reading the book it a bit like being miniaturized, strapped firmly to Hill’s shoulder, and then following her about. You are there.

The prologue recounts the story of Stafford, a small town in Northern California that was devastated by a mudslide during a deluge of rain. A lumber corporation that put profits above everything else had left a steep mountainside exposed by clearcutting all the forest trees. With nothing to hold the soil in place, it slid down the mountain destroying homes in its wake.

Stafford is near where a majestic redwood tree called Luna has resided for over a thousand years.

The rest of the book chronicles the 738 days between December 10, 1997, and December 18, 1999, that Hill spent living in Luna. Her initial goal was to save Luna from the chainsaws of Pacific Lumber Company. Along the way, she became rather famous for living in a tree, which gave her an unusual platform (pun intended) from which to conduct public outreach about saving forests not only in California but also across the United States and around the world.

I still do not understand the title of the first chapter called “Fighting Fear with a Fork.” Here Hill recounts a bit of her history and the back-story of how she came to live in Luna. Her faith-based upbringing, a terrible car accident, and an impromptu trip to the West Coast led her, at age twenty-three, to be in the right place at the right time when someone asked, “Can anybody sit in Luna?” Hill immediately volunteered.

The Legacy of Luna Book CoverAs you continue reading, you will learn how Luna got her name, what it is like to climb 180 feet up a giant redwood tree, the horror of seeing forest clearcutting from a bird’s eye view, the practicalities involved in living in a tree, and why Hill got a cell phone.

You will have an opportunity to listen in while Hill perches on a tree branch conversing with loggers who want to cut down Luna and security personnel hell-bent on preventing her from receiving food and supplies. As you follow Hill’s story you will learn about clearcutting, logging company tactics, government agency inaction, dealing with the media, and what it feels like to become the spokesperson for a movement, unintentionally.

The book ends rather abruptly. Hill reaches an agreement with Pacific Lumber Company to preserve Luna and a 20-foot buffer zone in perpetuity and then climbs down out of the tree.

The Bottom Line

Julia Lorraine Hill became Julia Butterfly Hill in 1998. When someone asked her for her forest name (used to protect an activist’s identity), she chose Butterfly because a butterfly had landed and lingered on her finger when she was seven.

Growing up Hill’s family had a lot of faith and not much money. She and her brothers learned about being responsible at a young age and her parents imparted the importance of helping others. Her upbringing and faith likely influenced her decision to help a defenseless tree and then sustained her during the most difficult days of her tree-sit (the longest in history).

Of course, I do not know what it was like for Hill after more than two years of living in a tree, mostly by herself. But, I can imagine that it might have been overwhelming for her to re-enter society and try to resume her life on the ground while being surrounded by what must have been a media circus.

The Legacy of Luna was published in 2000 just a few short months after Hill came down out of Luna. Reading it made me feel like Julia Butterfly Hill was sitting in my living room pouring out her story as fast she could so she would not forget any of the important parts.

This book illustrates what can be accomplished by a community of people working for something they believe in, something they love. Hill could not have survived in Luna without the dedicated volunteers she talks about in the book and the people around that world that supported her. She became the voice of Luna because she was the one living in the tree.

I recommend The Legacy of Luna to everyone, especially logging company CEOs and government representatives responsible for safeguarding public lands.

Featured Image at Top: Coast Redwood Trees in Del Norte Coast Redwood State Park, California – Photo California State Parks (this is not the forest where Luna lives but it is beautiful, too)

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