A Perilous Situation in the Everglades

Restoring correct water flow in the Everglades is of vital importance

Red tide; millions of dead rotting fish cover the shoreline. A massive bloom of toxic neon-green algae; millions of tourist revenues lost. Retreating mangrove estuaries; leave coastal communities more vulnerable to storms. Fresh drinking water for 8 million people; in jeopardy. Habitat loss for plants and animals. Possible extinction of the Florida Panther. Everglades National Park ecosystem is threatened and one of the national parks most infected with invasive species.

An underwater plateau of land existed in the southernmost portion of the eastern United States since archaic times when the continents occupied different positions on the planet. Submerged beneath the ocean for thousands of years, coral, shellfish and fish skeletons piled up. This created a layer of limestone over hundreds of feet thick. As glaciers in the north expanded and melted the Florida peninsula emerged and submerged with rising or retreating sea levels. At this time the ancient Appalachian Mountains were eroding. Silt and quartz sands were carried south by streams and rivers to blanket the Florida peninsula. In the south central area of the peninsula a large geological basin existed. Until about 6,000 years ago the basin was dry. A layer of silt built up that compacted more than the underlying sand and limestone. Slowly water accumulated in the basin, eventually forming Lake Okeechobee, the third largest freshwater lake in the country.

The Okeechobee Basin played a defining role in formation of the Everglades ecosystem and is still as important as ever. It is the water from Lake Okeechobee that replenishes aquifers and trickles southward through a sawgrass prairie to the sea. During the summer rainy season, fresh water overflows the south shore of Lake Okeechobee and flows in a sheet about 100 miles long, dropping only 12 ft. to 14 ft. in elevation, to reach the terminus in Florida Bay.

In freshwater sawgrass marshland and salty mangroves of the Everglades, organic soils (called peat soils) develop under persistent flooding. Peat soils are comprised of plant material that accumulates faster than it can decompose. About 5,000 years ago peat soil began to accumulate from the remains of aquatic plants preserved in the waterlogged conditions. In the deepest freshwater marshes peat soils are 2 ft. to 3 ft. in thickness. In Everglade mangroves, peat soils thickness can exceed 10 ft.

In the early years of the 20th century southern Florida was seeing an unprecedented surge in population, real estate development and land speculation. At the time, draining of Everglades swamp land was seen as a progressive movement that would open virgin land for agriculture, oil and gas exploration and provide for urban development. Canals, ditches, dams and levees were constructed to redirect waters flowing from Lake Okeechobee. The Everglade habitats were segmented and natural occurring cycles were being altered. Raised roadbeds, like the Tamiami Trail that crosses the heart of the Everglades, dammed the low relief slow moving sheet flow of  water.

In 2000, the United States Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which forced both federal and state officials to develop a plan to route water south to refresh stagnant swampland in southwest Florida.

Everglades National Park is recognized as a World Heritage Site. In 2017 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (INCN) issued a report on the health of the Everglade bioregion. These are their findings.

  1. Conservation Outlook: Critical. Unless more restoration projects outside the site to deliver more clean water to the site as correctly timed sheetflow, and are not compromised the essential qualities and habitat will continue to be lost.
  2. Values: Critical. Water quantity, quality, distribution and timing are deteriorating. Invasive species and climate change is creating overriding impacts to the system and the deteriorating trend of so many values puts the parks World Heritage values in a critical situation.
  3. Overall Threats: Very High Threat. Reduced water flows, water pollution and shifting habitat threats include hurricanes, climate change and ocean acidification.

The Everglades is the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in the United States. It is also provides habitat for a number of species found no place else on Earth and it also provides fresh drinking water for over 8 million people. Mostly due to past human activity The entire Everglades ecosystem is severely threatened.

Invasive Species

The Everglades bioregion is  suffering from a barrage of pressures. Invasive species is one of them. The most successful invaders out compete native species and typically have few biological controls to keep them in check. Over the last decade, snakes from around the world have been turning up in Everglades National Park. The Burmese Python is the best known and most problematic of these snakes. Mammal population numbers have declined sharply in the park as a result. Non-native reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, fresh and saltwater fish species have all invaded and now make the Everglades home.

In terms of exotic plants, Everglades National Park is severely infected. Brazilian Pepper is the most serious long term threat. Other invasive plant species such as Melaleuca, Australian Pine, Seaside Mahoe, Leather Leaf and Old World Climbing Fern have also established themselves in the park. Because of limited funding only a small number of the exotic plant species can be targeted for treatment.

Threatened and Endangered

The United States Congress established the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973 to provide a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats. The Endangered Species Act is a key legislation for both domestic and international conservation.

In the listing of plant and animal species the Endangered Species Act uses the term Threatened to indicate the species is likely to become endangered and the term Endangered to mean in immediate danger of extinction.

Threatened and endangered plant life of hardwood hammocks and rocky pinelands in the Everglades include: Brittle Thatch Palm, Buccaneer Palm, Florida Thatch Palm, Krug’s Holly, Lignum-Vitae, Manchineel, Silver Thatch Palm and Tree Cactus.

Marine and estuarine regions of the Everglades provide habitat for Florida’s population of Green Sea Turtles. Green Sea Turtles have been listed as endangered since 1978. The declining population is attributed to commercial harvesting for eggs and food as well as incidental bycatch in fishing and shrimp nets. Hawksbill Turtle, Atlantic Ridley Turtle and Leatherback Turtle are listed as endangered and Loggerhead Turtles as threatened.

Bird species listed are: Everglades Snail Kite, Woodstork, Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, Red-cockaided Woodpecker, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle and Roseate Tern.

The Florida Manatee is listed as endangered.

The only known breeding area for the Florida Panther is in Big Cypress Swamp. The  Florida Panther is one of the most endangered species in the world. Loss and degradation of habitat has doomed the panther population. There are only 70 to 100 that remain. Note; While I was visiting southwest Florida in February 2019, it was reported that two Florida Panthers had died, due to being struck by vehicles on the Tamiami Trail in the region of Big Cypress Swamp. 

Retreating Mangroves

Mangroves are made up of coastal vegetation that grows in salty or brackish water. They are considered crucial buffers to storms and saltwater intrusion, as well as key habitats for certain marine creatures. Mangroves filter pollution, hold nutrients and provide food and nesting. Florida’s mangroves are a vital part of the ecosystem.

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Mangrove forests are retreating inland, leaving behind open water and imperiling coastal communities. Researchers collected sediment cores from mangroves and analyzed aerial photographs and satellite imagery taken over the years. What they discovered was that mangroves south of Miami were retreating about 100 ft. a year. According to the study, this trend is related to salt water intrusion caused by sea level rise and water management practices.

The Florida Oceans and Coastal Council in Tallahassee, Florida is studying the consequences of mangroves retreating from coastal areas. They have addressed their concerns as follows:

  • Changes in barrier islands, beaches and inlets.
  • Changes in estuaries, tidal rivers and coastal forests.
  • Higher storm surge and impacts on coastal infrastructure.
  • Threats to coastal water supply and waste water treatment.
  • Increase in beach erosion and renourishment.
  • Impacts on coastal planning.
  • Increased flooding risks.

Drinking Water

Nearly 8 million people depend on the Everglades for drinking water. The Biscayne Aquifer is located just below the land surface in southeast Florida. The aquifer sits atop a highly permeable layer of limestone and covers approximately 4,000 sq. miles, underlying Broward County, Miami-Dade County, Monroe County and Palm Beach County. Most of south Florida residents, visitors and businesses are dependant on water from the aquifer. Because the Biscayne Aquifer is so close to the surface it is extremely vulnerable to surface contamination.

When developers built out Miami-Dade it was often less costly to install individual septic tanks to new homes rather than wait for municipal infrastructure to catch up with sewage treatment lines. In southeast Florida groundwater is especially close to the surface. Since the 1960s, the amount of precipitation that falls during the heaviest of storms has increased. Miami Beach and Key Biscayne are often inundated. More intense flooding and rain storms that swell the water table are sending partially treated human waste into the aquifer.

Miami Drum Services company operated within a few blocks of an aquifer well head in Miami-Dade County for over a decade. In 1981 the business was forced closed for pollution warnings. Miami Drum Services became a Superfund site. The E.P.A. later said the space was leaching arsenic, cyanide, mercury, nickel, lead, cadmium, chloroform and oil into the groundwater.

Increased flooding can dislodge the toxic chemicals that remain in Superfund and other industrial sites, pushing them into the Biscayne Aquifer.

As the ocean rises, salt water is being pushed into the limestone substrate and is creeping inland. As the saltwater advances westward across the aquifer it will reach wellhead intake valves enveloping them in saltwater, rendering them useless.

Nutrient Pollution

Because rainfall contributes most of the water,  soils and water in the Everglades are low in nutrients, especially phosphorus. Plants and animals that colonized the area became well adapted to survive in a low-nutrient, freshwater habitat. Farmers in agricultural areas cultivated their crops in peat soils to allow their crops to flourish.

To expand productive agricultural land a network of canals were dredged to drain surface water. When we deprive marshes of freshwater, peat soils breakdown, resulting in soil loss. Once exposed to air, drained soils are gradually oxidised away by aerobic bacteria. As much as 2/3 rds of past productive peat soil has been lost because of water drainage programs.

In addition to draining soils, farmers also fertilized the land. Over the years a variety of chemicals have been added to the Everglades agricultural area.

In the mid-1980s scientists reported problems with eutrophication in Lake Okeechobee. Eutrophication results in rapid overgrowth of plant and algal species due to excessive nutrients. In 1988, federal, state and agricultural interests agreed on an approach to reduce phosphorus levels entering the waterway. By 1992 phosphorus levels had dropped from 150 ppb to 30 ppb, a significant achievement. The goal is further reduction of phosphorus to 10 ppb which would resemble naturally occurring levels. The goal may not be achievable. A massive algal bloom invaded southwest Florida in 2018 with devastating effects

 Salt Water Intrusion

Saltwater can encroach coastal areas as a result of development. Some of the saltwater has migrated inland in response to the lowering of inland groundwater levels adjacent to canals constructed for drainage of low lying areas and near large well fields. Construction of drainage canals lowered freshwater levels and allows landward movement of saltwater and into the aquifer. The canal becomes a tidal channel that conveys saltwater inland. Low freshwater flow (because of water management) and saltwater intrusion can change an affected area by loss of land eventually leading to the area becoming open water.

The speed at which Florida sea level has increased and is now rising as much as 1 inch every three years. In Miami-Dade County, the groundwater levels in some places are not high enough relative to rising sea levels has allowed saltwater intrusion into drinking water and compromised sewage plants. Many traditional methods to solve sea level rise and flooding in Florida won’t work, because water can flow through permeable limestone and below sea walls.

Sea Level Rise

When Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000 they did not take into account issues of sea level rise.

Everglades wetlands dip below sea level at the coast and gradually rise as you move north at a slope of about 2 inches for every mile. So, for every 2 inch increase in sea level we can expect to see about a one-mile wide strip of freshwater Everglades exposed to saltwater. The Pensacola Bay and St. Johns River watersheds and southern Florida from Palm Beach to Miami, the Florida Keys, Naples and Fort Myers are especially vulnerable to saltwater intrusion.

Sea level rise is the greatest threat to Florida’s environment, economy and culture over the coming decades. There will be unprecedented challenges for sustainability, urban planning and political action.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”     Dr. Suess

Restoring correct water flow in the Everglades is of vital importance.

Mālama ke Kuleana o ka ʻĀina – Hawaiian phrase for Take care of the responsibility of the land

Till next time, Dohn

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Birdwatching: Big Cypress Swamp, FL

Celebrate the Beauty of Birds

Big Cypress National Preserve has a variety of excellent birding locations. The preserve is located in southwest Florida in some of the most rugged land in the state. Big Cypress Preserve encompasses approximately 729,000 acres of a freshwater swamp ecosystem, offering refuge for a wide diversity of birds. The Audubon Society calculates that bird diversity in Big Cypress Swamp is 177 native species.

Big Cypress Swamp is a place that is beautiful and rare. Drastically different than where I live in the southern Rocky Mountains, where long cold winters are the norm; conversely the months of November to April are the best times to visit southwest Florida. Temperatures are mild during the Florida dry season and the nuisance of mosquitoes is at a minimum. In mid January 2019 I began to make plans for an expedition into the Florida Everglades. Wetland habitat is limited in my area and an opportunity to explore the “river of grass” and watery environment of the Everglades captured my imagination.

I arrived in southwest Florida early February, intent on understanding and experiencing the Everglades ecosystem. I wanted to absorb the geology, hydrology, wildlife, (and warm subtropical climate) as a lasting memory. Several days were spent in Big Cypress National Preserve as part of the expedition. I recommend a stop at the Ernie Shorter viewing area as being rich in biodiversity as it straddles an ecotone of marl prairie and cypress swamp.

Discovering the complex biodiversity at Big Cypress Swamp was quite an amazing awakening. Wildlife viewing was all that I hoped for. I was especially gratified viewing our feathered relatives in their natural habitat. Anhingas, egrets and herons are found in plentiful numbers.

” In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence”     Robert Lynd 

 

American Crow

Length: 7.5″ Wingspan: 33″-44″  Population: common  to abundant.

 

 

 

 

 

Persecuted in the past by farmers and hunters. Crows are still legally hunted for sport in many states.

 

 

 

 

Duck, Mallard (male & female)

Length: 23″ Wingspan: 30″-40″ Population: common to abundant

 

 

 

 

 

One of the ducks harvested  in greatest numbers by waterfowl hunters.

Prone to lead poisoning from ingesting spent lead shot with food from bottom ooze.

 

 

Prairie Warbler

Length: 4.75″ Wingspan: 7.5″ Neotropical migrant. Population: common but declining.

Vulnerable to habitat loss with maturation of forests.

 

 

 

Anhinga

Length: 35″ Wingspan:  45″ to 48″ Population: Common in breeding range.

In the past often killed by fisherman fearing fishing abilities of this bird.

 

 

 

Black Crowned Night Heron, (Juvenile).

Adults have a black crown and back with the remainder of the body white or grey.

 

 

 

 

Adult Length: 25″ to 28″  Wingspan: 44″ to 45″. Population: Overall stable or increasing.

Benefited from general protection by state, federal and conservation agencies.

Loss of habitat affects food supply and reproduction.

 

Green Heron 

Length: 18″ to 26″      Wingspan: 26″ Population: common and stable.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Blue Heron

Length: 24″ to 29″    Wingspan: 40″to 41″ Population:  Increasing and expanding.

Responding to protection of nesting colonies.

 

 

 

Great Blue Heron

Length: 46″ to 52″    Wingspan:    77″ to 82″ Population: Stable and widespread.

 

 

 


 

Have benefitted from protection of breeding colonies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Ibis

Length: 21″ to 27″ Wingspan: 38″ Common to abundant coastal marshes.

Population: Florida population lower than previous levels.

 

 

 

Juvenile White Ibis

As the young birds mature the darker feathers will moult, being replaced with all white.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great White Egret

Length: 40″ Wingspan:  52″ to 67″ Population: abundant and widespread.

 

 

 

 

 

Early twentieth century was hunted to near extinction to supply millinery trade.

Threat (all wading birds) is continued drainage of wetlands.

 

 

 

An image of a Great White Egret, flying with wings spread, is the logo and emblem of the National Audubon Society.

 

 

 

Anyone can become involved in birdwatching anytime, anywhere. All it takes is a bird identification book, some binoculars and curiosity.

When you start to take notice of the birds around you, you might find yourself more curious and perceptive. You’ll notice sounds you might have previously overlooked. You might start to notice details in your surroundings, like trees and other plants. You might start to perceive time differently as birds come and go each season.

Bird watching can also be a social activity. Beyond being a fun family activity, birding clubs and park rangers offer opportunities to meet other people. Bird watching can be a doorway to recognizing and appreciating a wider world that was there all along.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows definitively that we need nature for our health and well being. Due to their accessibility, birds are a useful tool for environmental education and awareness of environmental issues.

You don’t have to be actively looking for birds to practice birding. Take note of the birds you see or hear on your walk to work or school, while you are looking out the kitchen window or while doing other outdoor activities. Being observant and aware of your surroundings can heighten your senses and help you find other surprises in nature, too.

Get Outside!

Happy Trails,

Dohn

 

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The Rich Biodiversity in the Everglades

Species diversity is a measure of community complexity

Located at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula encompassing 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is a national treasure. Everglades National Park was established in 1934 and dedicated in 1947 to protect and preserve the biological diversity (biodiversity) that existed in the vast wetland environment. Everglades National Park is the only national wetlands park in the United States. Many of the plants and animals found there exist nowhere else on Earth, and the richness of diversity makes this a truly unique environment.

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Biodiversity is the occurrence of different species of organisms, with the whole range of their variants, adapted to different climates and environments, along with their interactions and processes. The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines biodiversity as: “the number, variety and genetic variation of different organisms found within a specified geographic region.”

The Everglades form a complex wetland mosaic. There are nine distinct habitats found there: Hardwood, Hammock, Pinelands, Freshwater slough, Freshwater Marl Prairie, Cypress, Marine and Estuarine. Everglades National Park is at the heart of a group of protected areas in southern Florida’s ecosphere, including: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne Bay National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, several national wildlife refuges and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

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For many people living in towns and cities wildlife is often something seen on television or at best a squirrel at the backyard bird feeder. Over a million visitors from around the world visit Everglades National Park each year to capture the essence of wilderness and view wildlife in their natural habitat. There are 1,033 plant taxa, 344 bird species, 44 mammal species, 372 fish, 78 reptiles, and 16 amphibian species identified. The total number of insect varieties is unknown.

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Each species has a place in the food chain and is valuable as a relevant part of the ecosystem. Some species in the Everglades biosphere are not seen with the naked eye. These are the decomposers at the bottom of the food chain. These detrital dwellers of the food chain feed on dead organic matter.  In the marl soils of the sawgrass prairie, microbes, fungi and bacteria chemically break down any plant or animal detritus. These microbes and fungi are consumed by single cell protozoans. In turn the protozoans are eaten by worms and insects. Insects are a primary food source for fish, lizards, small mammals and birds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An example of the food chain in the water environment might begin with mosquito larvae which are eaten by sunfish which are then eaten by a largemouth bass and the bass is eaten by a river otter. Another aspect of the food chain begins with plants. Plants are consumed by herbivores such as rabbits and the herbivores are eaten by carnivores, such as bobcats. Every species has a place in the food chain.

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The plants and animals that inhabit the Everglades wetland environment have had to adapt to fluctuations in the water cycle to survive. The water cycle (hydrological cycle) is essentially a closed loop that moves water from the sea and through the process of evaporation, water vapor is absorbed in the atmosphere where clouds form and are blown by winds over land and as the water vapor condenses it falls to the land and then travels back to the sea. Southern Florida receives 50″ to 60″ of rain per year but this occurs mostly in the summer months, June to October. The winter months are typically dry, often with periods of drought. As water level changes from drought to flood, two critical adaptive behaviors are essential to the survival of Everglades watershed creatures: the capacity to live through floods and droughts and the ability to spread rapidly, recolonize and reproduce when rains return. Water is the lifeblood that sustains this ecosystem. The largest breeding ground in the United States for wading birds is found in the Everglades. It is also a significant (and consequential) refuge for migratory bird populations that increase the biodiversity when there.

In the subtropical climate of the Everglades, plants thrive in the warm temperatures. The many and varied plant species within the Everglades have an intimate relationship with the insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals in the ecosystem. Plants also play an important role for the atmosphere and the carbon cycle. In the presence of sunlight, plants absorb carbon dioxide and water vapor from the air in the process of photosynthesis. In a chemical process plants then produce the oxygen that animals and humans breath. The carbon that is absorbed remains stored in the plant fibers until the plant dies and is then released back into the atmosphere during another chemical process of decomposition by microbes, bacteria and fungi. The 1.5 million acres of the Everglades is a significant resource for clearing and storing carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere. The plants of the sawgrass prairie, pinelands, cypress strands and mangrove estuaries are a benefit to all species including humankind.

As I sat quietly for several hours in the Big Cypress Swamp area of the Everglades I slowly began to realize the incredible biodiversity found there. It is such a unique environment. The activities of its innumerable plants, animals and microbes, physically and chemically unites the atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere into one environmental system.

As Marjory Stoneman Douglas said ” to be a friend of the Everglades is not necessary to wander around out there.”

I thank those of you that support preserving the wild places.

Malama Ka Aina,

Dohn

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Two People That Saved The Everglades – Earnest Coe & Marjory Stoneman Douglas

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”     Margret Mead

The Everglades are the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi. Everglades National Park was carved from this wilderness for preservation of the biodiversity found there. It is the first time in American history that a large tract of wilderness was permanently protected, not for scenic value, but for the benefit of the unique diversity of life it sustained. The greater Everglades ecosystem supports a multitude of plant and animal species not found elsewhere on the planet.

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Everglades National Park is the only national wetlands park. It is the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in the United States. The juncture at the ecotone of temperate and subtropical America, the fresh and brackish waters, shallow bays and deeper coastal waters creates a complex of habitats supporting a high density of flora and fauna. In 1979 Everglades National Park was given designation as a World Heritage Site “and joins a select list of protected areas around the world whose outstanding natural and cultural resources form the common inheritance of all mankind.” The Everglades have been recognized as an icon to the international  community, bearing status as a United States National Park, UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and RAMSAR Convention Wetlands of International Importance.

There are nine distinct habitats within the Everglades.

 

Hardwood

 

 

 

 

Hammock 

 

 

 

 

        Pinelands

 

 

 

 

     Freshwater Slough

 

 

 

 

     Freshwater Marl Prairie

 

 

 

 

     Cypress 

 

 

 

 

Estuarine

 

 

 

 

Marine

 

 

 

In 1925 at the age  of 60, Ernest Coe a landscape designer from Connecticut moved to Miami, Florida. He soon became acquainted and associated with a small group of other naturalists. Traveling in the same intellectual and social circles, discussions and concerns were voiced about the degradation of the Everglades in the name of progress and prosperity. South Florida was experiencing an unprecedented surge in population, real estate development and land speculation. Wetlands were being drained for residential and business zones, wading birds were slaughtered by the millions for their colorful feathers, rare orchids were being plucked from the habitat, hunting of animals was unchecked.

After his first trip deep into the Everglades, Ernest Coe was so enamoured that he would spend the next 20 years fighting for the protection of this unique environment. Coe spent countless days with only his walking stick exploring the backcountry, often spending the night on the bare ground or a pile of leaves. In 1928 Coe was a founding member of newly formed Florida Society of Natural History. A letter was then written to the first Director of the National Park Service outlining a proposal for a national park dedicated to the preservation of the Everglades. That same year an exploratory trip was organized including participants Ernest Coe, the National Parks Service Director, President of the Audubon Society, the Yellowstone Park Superintendent, a botanist, a member of the House of Representatives, and journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Ernest Coe talked, petitioned and pleaded his case about the importance and value of protecting the Everglades the remainder of his life.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas is one of the most important voices to emerge from the dawning of environmental consciousness in 20th century America. After the 1928 exploratory trip into the Everglades, Marjory Stoneman Douglas became an ardent supporter of Ernest Coe and his vision to create Everglades National Park. She used her writing skills and dogged determined to persuade others of the importance of this ecosystem. Everglades National Park was established in 1934.

” To be a Friend of the Everglades is not necessary to spend time wandering around out there.”      Marjory Stoneman Douglas

The park was dedicated in 1947, the same year that Marjory published her seminal work The Everglades: River of Grass. The book innervated public interest in protecting the Everglades against development and made a lasting impact on the future of Florida’s conservation and land use policies. By 1980, tireless advocacy earned her everlasting admiration and respect of conservationists around the world. She will always be remembered as the woman that saved the Everglades.

At least one million people from all over the world visit Everglades National Park every year thanks to the conservation efforts of Ernest Coe and Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Former President Bill Clinton awarded Marjory with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993. In 1997 the 105th Congress declared that Ernest Coe was the primary force behind creation of Everglades National Park and acknowledged that he is considered the “Father of Everglades National Park” and they named the park’s visitor center in his honor.

Two people that saved the Everglades deserve our unending admiration; Marjory Stoneman Douglas a short slim woman with a powerful voice and Ernest Coe, a landscape designer that loved the wild places. Their selfless service has been a benefit to conservancy the world over.

At your service,

Dohn

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An Eight Million Year Old Living Species – The American Alligator

Alligators are a symbol of wildlife and untouched lands in the Southeastern United States.

We are all connected in the intricate web of life on planet Earth. 

During an excursion into Big Cypress Swamp and Everglades National Park in southern Florida I caught a small glimpse of the biodiversity there. Big Cypress Swamp is the only subtropical ecosystem in the continental United States. The environment is host to thousands of species. The American Alligator is one of them.

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  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Crocodylia
  • Family: Alligatoridae
  • Genus & Species: Alligator Mississippiensis

Alligators are the largest reptiles in America. The average size of a female is 8.2 feet long and the male which is larger, averages 11.2 feet. Exceptionally large alligators can weigh nearly one half ton – 1,000 pounds. These reptiles live in fresh water and inhabit slow moving rivers, swamps, marshes and lakes. Found only in the southern United States, primarily Louisiana and Florida, they range from North Carolina and Florida on the eastern boundary and as far west as the Rio Grande in Texas. Alligators do not travel far from the area they are born. Large adults are territorial and stay in a somewhat confined home range.

The American Alligator is one of  two alligator species that exist in the world. The other is the smaller Chinese Alligator. Both of these large reptiles evolved from ancient crocodiles that existed 84 million years ago. Researchers studying the fossil record of an alligator skull found in Marion County, Florida believe the American Alligator to be unchanged for the past 8 million years.

These fearsome creatures that survived the apocalyptic event that saw dinosaurs go extinct are relatively similar to their ancient predecessors. They retain a strong “armoured” body, muscular  flat tail and powerful jaws. Although alligators appear cumbersome they are actually quite swift and agile. They are good swimmers and on land can attain speeds of 35 mph for short distances. The short powerful front legs have five toes and the back leg has four toes. These are used to build nests when breeding and create burrows during dry seasons. The most fearful aspect of an alligators appearance is the long extended jaw and row of dagger like teeth. The powerful jaw has 74 to 80 teeth that allows the the alligator to rip and tear apart it’s prey. Over time these teeth wear down and are replaced. An alligator may go through 3,000 teeth in a lifetime. At the end of the long snout are the nostrils which are upturned to facilitate breathing when mostly submerged while swimming.

The armoured body consists of bony plates embedded across the back that are called osteoderms or scutes which are virtually impenetrable. It is quite amazing that these adaptive reptiles that have survived for millions of years have a brain that weighs less than half an ounce.

American Alligators are carnivorous. Their diet consists of fish, snails, invertebrates, birds, turtles, frogs and mammals. Alligators are an apex predator and a keystone of ecological health in swamps and marshes.

Alligators are ectothermic (cold blooded) and regulate body temperature by the sun, moving into warmer or cooler air or water temperature. They are most active in temperatures of 82 to 92 degrees and stop feeding when the ambient temperature is below 70 degrees. Alligators do not hibernate in cold weather but do go dormant when temperatures are less than 55.

American Alligators reach maturity when about six feet long which is in ten to twelve years of age. In April reproduction courtship begins, noted by the roaring of bulls to attract females and pronounce dominance of their territory. Breeding happens at night in shallow waters during May. At this time the female builds a nest of vegetation ten feet in diameter and two to three feet in height. Egg laying happens in May or early June when the female deposits 35 to 50 eggs in the nest and covers them with more vegetation. There is a 65 day incubation period that lasts towards the end of August. Temperatures inside the nest determine sex of the offspring. A temperature of 87.8 or below produces females, at 89.6 degrees 75% will be males and at 90.5 degrees mostly females develop. Inside the egg, the young start to emit a high pitched sound signalling the mother to remove the vegetative blanket covering the eggs. When the baby hatchlings emerge they are 6 to 8 inches long.

Crocodilians are the only order of reptiles that offer maternal care. The mother carries eight to ten hatchlings in her mouth down to the water by pulling her tongue down creating a pouch. At the water she opens her mouth and shakes her head gently side to side encouraging the young to swim out. Once in the water the young congregate in small groups called pods. Eighty percent will fall victim to predators, including birds, racoons, bobcats, otters, snakes, large bass and larger alligators. Those that survive can have a lifespan of fifty years in the wild.

During particularly dry seasons or drought when some waterways dry up, alligators will excavate a depression as large as sixty five feet along the waterway. When water levels return to normal the alligator vacates the burrow and other animals quickly move in. ” Gator Holes” provide critical sustenance for fish, insects, snakes, turtles, birds and other wildlife that inhabit these ecosystems.

Following WW II there was great concern across the Southern Gulf states about large scale commercial overhunting. The alligator population reached its lowest points in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hunting was essentially stopped by 1969. Louisiana and Florida banned hunting and trapping in 1962 followed by Texas in 1969. They did this by passing an amendment to the Lacey Act which is a Federal law that prohibits interstate commerce of wildlife. These actions brought attention to and helped to promote passage of the Endangered Species Act by Congress in 1973. Politicians in Washington have credited the Endangered Species Act with the recovery of the American Alligator as a success story. In fact at the time of the Act, the alligator population was counted at 734,000 and growing. This was accomplished by the efforts of the Departments of Wildlife and Fisheries in Louisiana and Florida a decade earlier. Today the alligator population in Florida stands at 1.3 million. In 1987 the Endangered Species Act reclassified alligators from endangered to threatened. Since 1988 the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission has offered limited recreational hunting and strictly controlled commercial trapping. Conservation methods now in place meet the three tenets of sustainability: economic, social and environmental concerns. These methods are useful in managing the population, provide meat for local residents and tanned hides to be used in valuable leather products.

The recovery of the American Alligator population from possible extinction is indeed a success story. However; this species, Alligator Mississippiensis is still threatened, primarily from destruction and degradation of wetland habitat by humans. Their loss would be a blow to biodiversity and to the ecosystem, affecting all levels of the food chain.

Remember this: We are all connected in this intricate web of life on planet Earth.

Happy Trails,

Dohn

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George Washington – Farmer

“To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”     G. Washington

At the time of George Washington’s birth in 1732 there were thirteen individual colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America ruled by England. Commerce was primarily export of agricultural goods back to England and to the individuals and businesses that had invested in the development of the colonies. Social norms of accepted behavior amongst the hierarchy were of British origin. At age 14 young George Washington possessed a book of rules for good conduct titled 110 Rules of Civility. George wrote a copy for himself so that he might become more fluent in the rules of behavior and civility and thus elevate his position in social circles. These formative practices led to a lifelong commitment to fairness and integrity.

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Commander of the Revolutionary Army, former surveyor in the wilderness, fought in the French and Indian War, plantation owner, statesman, first President of the United States. I learned all this in varying degrees as I advanced through the classes at elementary school. What I remember about the early lessons was that George Washington could not tell a lie. The old myth about the cherry tree has long been debunked but the meaning of the little story is still true today. I have found in my own life that honesty is the best policy. Bravery, endurance, diplomacy, innovation, quest of knowledge all characterize Washington. In my day we were taught to emulate that behavior. I don’t think they teach that anymore in schools today.

“Honesty will be found on every experiment, to be the best and only true policy; let us then as a nation be just.”     G. Washington

George Washington – born February 22nd 1732, Virginia.

Thank you Mr. President for your service to humanity, your country and enduring examples.

Washington’s military and political career abound with examples and stories that let us give title to him as a great man. I find myself more fascinated with the lesser known achievements and true passion of Washington, his gardening and landscaping.

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George Washington inherited the estate of Mount Vernon upon the death of his half brother Lawrence in 1754. He worked constantly for the next forty five years to improve and expand the mansion house and surrounding plantation. Washington was a true visionary farmer. He experimented with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation, tools, and livestock breeding. Washington also maintained a strong interest in landscape design and architecture throughout his adult life.

Washington himself designed all aspects of the landscape at Mount Vernon. He extensively redesigned the grounds surrounding the home adopting a more naturalistic style. He reshaped walks, roads and lawns; cut vistas through the forest and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Well ordered grounds provided food for the mansions tables and were designed to be pleasing to the eye. At the time of his death the plantation had grown from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres, consisting of five farms with more than 3,000 acres in cultivation.

“I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of the husbandman’s care.”     G. Washington 

George Washington oversaw all aspects of the pleasure grounds. His wife Martha Washington oversaw the kitchen garden, allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the mansion table year round. An interesting fact: Mount Vernon’s kitchen garden has been continuously cultivated for production of vegetables since 1760.

The Lower Garden as it was called was a formal space for the enjoyment of guests. Ornamental trees were interspersed on the perimeter of the garden while rows of vegetables and fruit trees for household use occupied the interior. Combing the attractive landscape with food production, these beds demonstrated the beauty of domestic agriculture and Washington’s artistic sensibility.

The Upper Garden had as its centerpiece a greenhouse that Washington had designed himself. At the time there were very few greenhouses in North America and none near Mount Vernon. Planning for the structure began in 1784. Within this elegant structure Washington cultivated tropical plants that could not survive the cold Virginia winters. The greenhouse was a place to grow lemons, limes and oranges and a gallery for exhibiting rare and unusual plants that were imported from around the world.

Close to Washington’s heart was a small private botanical garden. He tended this little garden himself where he experimented with new plant varieties. Situated below the Kitchen Garden was a four acre Fruit Tree Garden. Fruit orchards were also planted on the outlying farms. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches and apricots were common fruits grown on 18th century farms. To find trees for the natural landscape redesign of the property Washington easily found a supply of native trees in the surrounding woodlands. Aspen trees were planted along serpentine avenues and dogwood, maple and poplar were planted in shrubberies.

Another of George Washington’s innovative farming practices was the use of soil amendments. Use and types of fertilizer were little understood in early America. Washington erected a stercorary or dung repository building near his stables. Here he experimented with a wide range of formulas to find which worked best for different varieties of plants. Trials were done with horse manure, cow manure and chicken manure that was mixed with grass clippings, prunings and all sorts of organic matter to produce fertilizer for fields and gardens. The building even included perches for birds that their droppings were added to the mix below. Washington continuously strove to make farming operations at Mount Vernon self sustaining.

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In the 1760s the main cash crop at Mount Vernon was switched from tobacco to wheat. Within a few years after, a grist mill had been built which had two pairs of milling stones. One pair ground corn into meal for use at Mount Vernon, the other pair ground wheat into superfine flour for export to foreign ports. In 1791 an upgrade was made to the milling operation, installing improvements invented by Oliver Evans. The new automated system moved grain and flour through all steps of the milling process by mechanical means, with no manual labor. The new system also improved quantity and quality of the flour. This grist mill was capable of producing 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of flour and cornmeal a day.

Scottish born James Anderson was a skilled millwright that ran operations at the grist mill. Anderson had also been trained as a distiller and suggested to Washington that he might consider building a distillery for the making of whiskey and increase profits for the plantation. Work began on a facility in 1797. The distillery operated each of the twelve months and Washington became the largest distiller in the country, producing 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey a year. It was one of Washington’s most successful enterprizes. Ever conscious of self sufficiency, Washington built a hog pen not far from the distillery. Waste from the fermentation process was then fed to a growing number of hogs which grew to 150 animals in the pens.

When wheat became the main cash crop at the plantation, threshing was still done in a traditional manner. To separate the grain from the wheat stalks they were either beaten on the ground or treaded upon by a horse that circled around a center pole. This method was labor intensive and a good portion of the grain was damaged or unusable due to the waste and dirt that accumulated. Washington solved this dilemma in 1792 with his own invention, a sixteen sided barn.

The barn was two story affair that could accommodate an acres worth of wheat spread on the upper story. Horses were brought into the second story where they would be led in a circle for half an hour to forty five minutes, Their hooves effectively separated the grain from the stalk where it would fall between one & one half inch gaps in the floorboards to the clean granary floor below and then stored or loaded on wagons to be hauled to the grist mill. Everything happened in one place, under cover which reduced spoilage and loss, plus saving on labor.

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Three fisheries along the Potomac River reflect Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit. For almost forty years fishing operations brought in food for slaves, the paid workers and surplus was sold to provide profits for the plantation. Fish was an important part of the slave diet where each individual was provided with twenty fish per month.

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Preparation was hectic during the brief fishing season of the spawning run that lasted only a few weeks in April and May. Several processing camps were set up along the ten miles of shoreline, where all available hands were set to work. Different types of seine nets, some as long as five hundred feet, were stretched between boats along the river. The annual harvest would bring in a herring catch of over one million and shad numbered in the tens of thousands. On shore the fish would be sorted, gutted, cleaned and salted then packed into barrels for storage or shipping. Refuse from fish cleaning was loaded onto wagons and hauled to fields where it was worked into the soil as fertilizer.

Two hundred and twenty years after Washington’s death his legacy endures. After doing research on this article for George Washington – Farmer, I have a renewed inspiration to continue the preservation activities at my historic adobe house and eagerly await the arrival of the spring season when I can once again sink my hands deep in the garden soil and prepare for planting.

“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”     G. Washington

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Did you know that George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is privately owned? No Federal tax dollars go towards the management and maintenance of the property.

For many years the estate was passed on through inheritance to descendants of George Washington. In 1858 John Augustine Washington III great grand nephew of George sold the property for the sum of $200,000 to the non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The final installment payment was made on December 9, 1859. The Association took possession on February 22, 1860 – Washington’s birthday. Mount Vernon remains a privately owned property by the Association. It’s income is derived from charitable donations and the sale of tickets, produce and goods to visitors. The non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association continue their mission ” To preserve, restore, and manage the estate of George Washington to the highest standards and to educate visitors and people throughout the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.”

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After defeating the British in the Revolutionary War and gaining independence from foreign rule, George Washington thought his public service was done. He had been away from his beloved home Mount Vernon for eight years. On December 23, 1783 he presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland and resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army.

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Washington wrote a letter to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette dated February 1, 1784 … ” At length my dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac & under the shade of my own vine & my own fig tree.”

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Three years later public service once again presented itself at Washington’s door. The year 1787 found Washington traveling to Philadelphia to attend a convention assembled to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation. Washington felt the Articles formed only a weak union and operated with financial and military impotence. Washington was elected to preside over the convention which lasted four months. This convention of our brilliant founding fathers produced the Constitution of the United States. Once the Constitution was approved by Congress, George Washington was selected by every elector to be the first President of the new nation. He is the only President to be elected by a unanimous vote, by the people. Serving two terms as President of the United States kept Washington away from Mount Vernon for another eight years.

Letter to Dr. James Anderson     April 7, 1797.     “I am once more seated under my own vine and fig tree, and hope to spend the remainder of my days … in peaceful retirement, making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth.”     G. Washington

A few last notes on the politics of George Washington.

Washington administered the new government with fairness and integrity, assuring Americans that the President could exercise extensive executive authority without corruption.

“Guard against the impostures of pretense patriotism.”     G. Washington

Thomas Jefferson wrote this about President Washington … “His justice was the most inflexible I have ever known, no motive of interest or consanguinity, friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision.” 

“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of pubic happiness.”     G. Washington

George Washington set a standard rarely met by his successors, although established an ideal they are all judged by.

After reviewing this article I am once more reminded and saddened that the current President, Donald Trump, has little interest in history and much less the ideals of our first President, George Washington.

Do well my friends and farm on.

Dohn

 

 

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A Memorial to Old Abe

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

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I’m fond of Abe Lincoln. Always have been. In grade school we learned the lessons of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Great men of history, governance and the nation. Models of virtue and wisdom, ideals that us young students should strive to incorporate in our own lives. I must have had a good teacher because I’ve never forgotten.

When I was but the age of twelve I had my first truly patriotic emotion. My family was spending a day at the nation’s capital in Washington, DC; part of our summer vacation. After visiting the Eternal Flame for President John F. Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery and spending several moments in contemplative silence my father drove us to the Lincoln Memorial. I’d previously seen statues, monuments and architectural structures of significance and wonder. This tribute to Abraham Lincoln I knew was different.

As I climbed the 57 marble steps I was in absolute awe and felt I was approaching some sacred space. Not a religious one but a place so entwined with the history of the nation as to be hallowed ground. A Greek temple of marble with tall forty four foot columns, the likes of which I had seen only in books. Once reaching the level of the temple floor the enormity of the nineteen foot tall statue of the 16th President  is fully realized.

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Seated on a chair with extended arms that rest on front chair legs of carved fasces, (a symbol of law and governance), Lincoln appears reflective. The scale of the statue gives the impression at first of being god like. I imagine Zeus or a pantheon of kings that aspired to greatness. However this is different. Lincoln’s hair and suit are rumpled, the square toed boots not rooted but restless. His countenance does not gaze downward from his mighty seat but outward towards the distance, across the great mall to Washington’s obelisk and beyond to the nation’s capital.

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The artist has created a statue of a man after all, not a saint or angel. My heart swelled with pride for my country. A country where a man of humble beginnings with only a back woods upbringing could elevate his position by listening, learning and treating all men honestly and fairly. A country where this man, Abraham Lincoln,  born in a log cabin on the frontier was elected as President of the United States and went on to save the Union. I was standing in front of this President and I felt so proud to be there. The memory persists.

Within two years of Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865 a committee was formed to build a monument. Design work proceeded for awhile and then halted with lack of funding and a Congress that was dealing with the more pressing matters at hand. At the turn of the century another committee was formed with the task of securing proposals for a memorial to Lincoln. After some controversy over the site, an architectural design by Henry Bacon was approved by Congress and Daniel Chester French was commissioned with carving the marble statue.

It took eight years to build the memorial from 1914 to 1922. Henry Bacon’s inspiration came from the Parthenon of Greece the origin of democracy. There are 36 Doric columns surrounding the building, each one representing the states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Numerous decorative engravings and symbols enhance the exterior. The front portal is open, there is no wall or door to restrict entrance. The monument is open to all, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The interior is austere, softly lit with minimal ornamentation. The statue of Lincoln sits in the central room of the building while there are two short chambers to the north and and south, that create an axis to the building. One chamber wall is engraved with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other with the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address that we know so well.

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Much has been written about Lincoln. His life is well chronicled. There are volumes of his speeches from his early lawyer practice in Illinois to his time in the White House. I’ve read many. There are also many chapters recorded of his anecdotes and humorous stories which are still retold. I can’t decide which phrase would be appropriate here….”that this great man had a humble sense of humor”…or…”this humble man had a great sense of humor.” You decide.

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision, if they decide to turn their back to the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”              A. Lincoln  

Throughout his life Lincoln held in highest regard the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the laws written into the Constitution. His belief that a free people could govern themselves in this experiment of a democratic republic was unshakeable. He believed that given the truthful facts of a matter the population would make wise decisions. Mr. Lincoln would be shocked at the false rhetoric today and the consequences it has brought.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the facts”.     A. Lincoln

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“It is with your aid, as the people, that I think we shall be able to preserve – not the country, for the country will preserve itself, but the institutions of the country – those institutions which have made us free, intelligent and happy, the most free, the most intelligent and the happiest people on the globe.”      A. Lincoln

At this particular time in the country’s history the population’s beliefs are divided. There are two major political parties, each convinced of its own brand of righteousness. Vile words are hurled at opponents. Taunts and jeers are heard in the halls of congress. The citizens of one party express outright hatred for the other in social circles and it goes as commonplace. The leadership in the White House has stirred the flames of passion with it’s own supporters. Instead of trying to strengthen the ties that bind us together the current president, in every speech has promoted divisiveness and discord. It is both alarming and unprecedented. It is a shame this president has no interest in reading history. He would do well to lift a page and learn from Lincoln’s writings.

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“If the American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. ”     A. Lincoln

The Lincoln Memorial is a popular place to visit. It had almost eight million visitors in 1917. It is a rare example of a monument that has grown in stature over the years in terms of symbolic significance. The architectural form has not changed but the meanings articulated have been intensified, expanded and even altered by subsequent events. The memorial has personified the legacy of a complex man, been a tribute to the unity of the country after a divisive civil war and a central focal point for the civil rights movement. Many are those that have delivered speeches from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. To me, none are so memorable as the ” I Have A Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King that addressed 250,000 people gathered on the mall in August 1963. That speech has added to the legacy of Old Abe and expanded the meaning of the memorial to many. Each individual brings their own frame of reference when visiting.

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Abe Lincoln brought freedom to black slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. However: that did not end racism. Racism still exists in America. In fact public displays of racism have been on the rise in the past few years. This discrimination is now directed not only at African Americans but also towards Jews, Muslims, descendants of Spanish origin and those of different sexual orientation and more. There are elected officials who have subtly or actively supported this anti-ethical behavior. The President himself said that ” there are fine people on both sides” after  a particularly violent demonstration by white nationalists.

Racism is not the only problem the nation faces. Politicians reap in huge sums of dark money while granting political favors to special interest groups and corporate donors.  The CIA, FBI and our entire judicial system has been attacked by this administration as being disloyal to him, negating the apolitical position those agencies have traditionally held. Despite the collective warnings of scientists on environmental concerns, pristine areas of wilderness and public lands are being sold off to exploitive extractive industries. Income inequality is discouraging when only a handful of individuals own more wealth than the rest of the entire population. America’s position as a world leader is being diminished as our allies are not given an ear but a lashing tongue of insults, meanwhile despots and dictators are given credence. Long standing protocols and procedures are being deemed irrelevant or ignored. Our system of three branches of government, each with oversight is dissolving while a Conservative Congress appears unable or unwilling to address this outrage.

I fear the nation is on a dangerous path. The Right Wing Nationalist movement of isolationism nor the jingoism of “Make America Great Again – USA, USA, USA” will not unify the country or begin to solve its problems.  My friends we can do better, we must. Above all a sense of decency must be restored.

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“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms,  it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”     A. Lincoln

The Lincoln Memorial is a moving and inspiring place to visit, it is also a disquieting one, for their remains a challenge, an ambient reminder of the nations still unfinished business.

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809. Two hundred and nine years later I salute you Mr. President.

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Do well my friends,

Dohn

 

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