Marjory Stoneman Douglas~ Feisty Fighter for the Glades

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, writer and advocate, lived to be 108 years of age (1890-1998). Throughout Douglas’ life, she fought for the rights of others. Suffragist, anti-prohibitionist, supporter of the ERA and civil rights, she wrote passionately in the roles of private citizen, as reporter, columnist, and assistant editor for the Miami Herald. In her mid-50s, and on until her death, she took up the cause of preserving the Everglades of South Florida.

Douglas was a skilled, seasoned watchdog picking another fight for the environment-against the odds, in the face of harsh criticism from peers, society and the powers that be.

In 1947, at the age of 57, Douglas published what would become a  “must read” for anyone fighting to save the environment from the developers, from greedy big business, you know, the usual suspects in the destruction of the natural world. The book is titled The Everglades, A River of Grass. So lyrical, so poetic is the language, so persuasive is its appeal, you forget you are reading an environmental protest. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, you are my hero.

Douglas opens her book with immediacy of place:

“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. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free salt-ness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass.” (6-7)

She wrote, she protested, she lambasted developers, bombarded government officials (including several U.S. Presidents), pushed back in defense of nature, and stressed the intrinsic value of the ecosystem.  It was an all-out assault against those who set their destructive sights on the Everglades, her beloved river of grass. And her voice was heard. In the latter part of her life President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her environmental work in the Everglades, even as she attacked his administration for being too soft on industry in the area.  She was tough on the Army Corps of Engineers too. She spoke her mind, and had the expertise to back it up.

In spite of her valiant battle, sadly, the Everglades is still at risk today. Species are endangered and falling into extinction. Developers, after a brief pause, took a deep breath and continued on their destructive path.

When I visit the Everglades I thank Marjory Stoneman Douglas for her persistence, her staunch devotion, her unyielding defense of this elegant, vibrant, expanse known to us Floridians as “the Glades.” Even now as I sit in my Colorado home I remember the Glades and I relive the beauty, peacefulness, and sheer vastness of the place. I hear the birds and the rustle of the wind through the grasses, I see the lush green mangroves. I imagine the river as it flows ever slowly towards the ocean so close by I can smell it.  The Glades are alive, but for how long? More research is indicated here, but for now I leave with an awareness of fights to come in honor of this cherished river of grass.

Douglas is an inspiration to me and what is looking like my own lifework of writing for nature; animals, landscape, seascape, in whatever manner, to whatever eventuality. Writing takes us where it wants us to go, I always say.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ writing was clear, unfiltered, and bold. Her purpose defined. She was a true Rhetorica Heroica!


Maxine Hairston~ Goin’ Down Swingin’

In Against the Grain, I read Maxine Hairston’s final professional address, titled “A Last Hurrah”, she gave in 1993 at the College Composition and Communication Conference, as a farewell to the profession, and to University of Texas, Austin. She wrote of her life as a young mother, working the farm, and then told of her return to academics, starting her doctorate in her forties. I relate to this “late” start as I too started my academic career in my forties with my bachelors pursuit. Hairston’s reflections on her timing resonated with me: “I think I did better work than I would have at twenty-three, trusted my intuition more and graduate advisors less, and had more confidence in my tastes and my judgment.” I particular adore her for saying: “Women who come back to school after…ten years or more return with energy, excitement, and a good deal of common sense.They know what they want and are not shy about asking for it.”

She made it her goal to be a teacher of composition in a field dominated by men. She was discouraged and looked down on by her male colleagues, she was even given a letter by her department head that her chances of ever getting tenure were “very poor!”  Funny, she didn’t find that letter until years later…yep, after she was tenured.

As a full-tenured English professor, she fought to break “composition’s bond to the literature power structure” at University of Texas. This revolutionary call did not make her a darling of the administration. But her and her colleagues pushed on and eventually the split occurred. Their goal for the department division was to open the way for teaching instruction focused on a student-centered classroom, where they worked to “make students stronger, more confident writers who can think for themselves.”  I see the legacy of this smart move in my Rhetoric and Composition graduate program here at CSU.

Hairston believed the writing classroom was no place for university politics. The classroom was no place for teachers to showcase “ideology at the forefront of their teaching” or push their own “ social agenda before the students’ rights to develop their own voices and abilities.” These were arguments which labeled her a “heretic, a dissenter” against the bright, shiny, new theories of the day.

In her farewell, she told of her new fight as a social reformer, advocating for women’s rights, and ending the “cycle of poverty and despair.” I smile to think of her in the social boxing ring, landing an uppercut square on the chin of the political powers behind social injustice-Maxine Hairston style!

Bold, sassy, a pioneer for women, and an accomplished rhetorician, she is worthy of our praise and emulation!