PARK WEST PAPER
We had rolled the windows all the way down on the long ride over, grateful for the cool breeze that had interrupted an unusually suffocating February heat. Coffees in hand, with empanadas to fill our bellies, we marveled at its vastness. We planned to visit a large swath of land known for its wild cypress domes—a naturally occurring phenomenon that forms when cypress grow in shallow standing water, forming a cupola of shaggy green leaf. When we arrived at the Oasis Center, we found that Florida’s wetlands were substantially much larger than we had initially thought. There were animal sanctuaries and murky estuaries; hiking trails and winding bike trails; each separated by another hour’s drive in either direction.
The Florida Everglades span over 2 million acres and its protected lands only make up 20 percent of its original expanse. It is one of the few national parks created to preserve a unique geographical feature and conserve its fragile ecosystem. An immense network of wetlands and forests containing over 36 endangered animal species, the Everglades were designated a Wetland Area of Global Importance by the Ramsar Convention in 1987. On this day in February, we happen to be celebrating the creation of the Ramsar Convention in 1971—designed to honor and protect the world’s most valuable wetlands—on World Wetlands Day. The impact of this moment is not lost on us.
As we walked into the visitor center to ask for directions, they warned that heavy rain had brought on these cooler temperatures; the trails would be soggy at best and completely waterlogged at worst. We would take our chances.
Everywhere we looked, green: The brush that went on for miles, the marshy grass that burst out of the turquoise water; the cold, scaly skin of an alligator. We hadn’t gotten very far when a pool of water threatened our path, and though the ground certainly presented a few jagged (and perhaps, venomous) obstacles, there was something about the day that made us fearless. We stripped off our socks and shoes, vowing to complete the rest of our journey as god and nature intended: barefoot. Into the cool water, we leaped.
I was intimately attuned to the rhythms of my movements throughout our long, three-hour journey. The soles of my feet were intermittently soiled and purified as I traversed from puddle to plain; the firmness of the earth grounded me and filled me with warmth, while the icy water cleansed and invigorated me.
Connecting so profoundly with earth is a luxury for a city dweller, I thought, as clay mud slithered through my toes and my skin warmed under the shine of the sun. In the distance, the wind stirred up the trees, making a delicate whooshing sound that rang otherworldly. The entire experience felt innately spiritual, reminding me that the body is merely a reflection of the earth on which it dwells. I reflected on the antiquity of this land, on the daughters who had nurtured it for their own nourishment and protected it for their own sacred peace. Centuries ago, long before agriculture and concrete ravaged the wetlands, the Miccosukee tribe honored this land as I did today.
“Our connection to the earth is that it’s us,” says the Reverend Houston Cypress, a Miccosukee artist, activist, and the ordained minister that founded the Love the Everglades Movement—an organization developing a cultural platform for preservation and education about his home. “The songs we sing, our spiritual knowledge, it all holds it down. We can feel the connection in our bodies,” the Reverend explained.
Cypress asserts that the Miccosukee’s long history in the Everglades dates as far back as the 18th century when their people settled in the Florida Everglades’ swampy marshes after the Seminole Wars decimated the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws. In an era rife with mythology, the Miccosukee spent their time hunting animals and practicing sacred rituals.
Of course, Cypress was raised in a modern era, when his people were fighting off colonization, Americanization, and the contemporary political approach to razing the land for profit. Still, he was brought up in the tradition.
“I learned the importance of the land and what it means as food, shelter, and education, and how it’s expressed in all those realms. The land itself has so much to teach us; it teaches us how to survive, thrive, and heal each other. We have a spiritual philosophy called Circle of Life, and it reminds us that humans are not at the center. We have a responsibility to uphold nature, learn what grows well with what, tell stories about their bounty, and practice ceremonies in honor. I still respect that plants can heal me, and I have to learn the songs that go along with them. Those are the things I grew up with and value and want to uphold,” he says.
Cypress tells me that the mud that slid under my feet that day is the clay humanity was sculpted from before the creator breathed life into us. He recounts that the Miccosukee word for flesh, “uknit,” rhymes with the name for the earth, “yugnit.” He explains that plant medicine has a strict protocol in their tradition, which ensures the user is interacting respectfully with the universe. When they hunt for medicinal plants, they must always pick the “red bay,” or “swamp bay”—a sticky bay leaf, like the one you might find at the supermarket—first. Each plant has its song and carries a ritual.
Like the cypress tree, others are both utilitarian and spiritually dense; the bark and leaves make their chickee hut homes, and the wood is also used for arts and crafts or as utensils. “This plant,” he says, “teaches us how to live off of it and care for our families.”
As I probe Cypress about his Love the Everglades Movement, I begin to understand how his profound love for his land motivated his desire to create a cultural platform that would connect everyday people to the Everglades through symposiums, field trips, films, and visual art media.
“Today, we’re living in a situation where our sense of the world isn’t considered valid. Our way is valid and true and real, but it just doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” he says.
He founded Love the Everglades after film school, understanding that inviting people on airboat rides, hikes, and tours to get into the water, touch the plants and animals, and connect to the Everglades through art, media, and storytelling might make a difference in whether they advocate for its preservation. In this way, he’s developing a full advocacy model through science, policy, and faith.
“My family always told me to speak and know my language. If you were going to school, you were doing it to help your community. If you were bringing ingredients from other worlds, it was to help your people,” he explains. “I realized that all of my traditional waters were polluted, that the state didn’t care, and that I wasn’t just living but fighting for survival here. I realized I had to stand up for my tribe and my people.”
I think about that day in February and how free I felt. It feels like so long ago, and yet I can still hear the trees, feel the grass, and the splash of the icy water. “Do what you can with what you got where you are,” Houston’s words echo in my head. I close my laptop for the day and step outside onto my terrace, gently touch the thorny edges of a potted saw palmetto, and run my fingers over its soil. I vow to honor these sacred plants, remember to breathe deeply, take a gulp of mid-winter air, and smile with my soul.
Written by Nicole Martinez