Swamplandia! so successfully embeds itself in the reader's mind because of Karen Russell's thick and knowledgeable descriptions of The Ten Thousand Islands, which do not seem to figure into many other literary works.
The region is a chain of hundreds of mangrove islets, tall sawgrass marsh, and brackish water where salt and fresh water mix, located off the southwest coast of Florida, roughly between the cities of Naples and Flamingo. They comprise the Ten Thousand Island National Wildlife Refuge, and part of the Everglades National Park. They are home to manatees, loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins and alligators, in addition to over 189 species of birds and over 200 species of fish.
Because the mangroves are so dense and the canals between them so labyrinthine, humans have not successfully developed the Ten Thousand Islands into productive or habitable land, but they have certainly tried. The area's original inhabitants were the Calusa Indians who fished the waters and left behind large middens or shell heaps, one of which Ossie claims is her ghost-lover's door to the underworld. The Calusa had all but disappeared by the beginning of the eighteenth century but were followed by the Seminole, who were forced down into the region of islets by the U.S. military during the Seminole Wars of the nineteenth century.
White settlers began living in the Ten Thousand Islands in the late nineteenth century, primarily as homesteading commercial fishermen and alligator hunters, an era immortalized by Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country trilogy, Killing Mr. Watson, Lost Man's River, and Bone by Bone. The federal government began a series of ill-fated efforts to transform the islands into an arable landscape by cutting canals, building bridges, and attempting to drain the water. Ossie's ghost, Louis Thanksgiving, works on a Civilian Conservation Corps team as a dredgeman, dynamiting the swamp and scooping out the muck. But the interconnected ecosystem of the Everglades and the periodic hurricanes and floods overwhelmed any attempt to turn the swamp into land. The Army Corps of Engineers then turned its efforts to flood control.
Another doomed strategy to dry up the swamp was to import the Melaleuca quinquenervia, a tall, papery tree from Australia. Melaleucas quickly displaced native species and invaded the region, reducing biodiversity, robbing animals of their habitats, and posing a new fire hazard to a formerly wet region. Ava and Ossie are at the back end of their amusement park, hunting and chopping down melaleuca saplings, when Ossie first encounters Louis Thanksgiving.
Nowadays, the Ten Thousand Islands are uninhabited and dedicated to preservation and eco-tourism, as portrayed in Carl Hiassen's Nature Girl.
(Swamp and mangrove images by The National Park Service)
This article was originally published in March 2011, and has been updated for the
July 2011 paperback release.
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