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Documentary: Human hands shaped Everglades, and thus Florida

Florida is a big and complex state with a big and complex history. And any conversation about that history and its complexity can’t happen without a hefty nod to one of its most profound features – the Florida Everglades.

“The Swamp” documentary considers in detail the Everglades, which are comprised of tropical wetlands and act as a large drainage basin – part of the “neotropic ecozone.” The system begins near Orlando at the Kissimmee River and discharges into the vast and shallow Lake Okeechobee.

The documentary analyzes the history of the Everglades, man’s attempt to “tame” it, and how that’s shaped Florida. It is scheduled to premiere on PBS on Jan. 15.

“The Swamp tells a dramatic and sweeping story about the attempt of humans to drain and conquer the Florida Everglades, known as one of nature’s most mysterious and unique ecosystems,” read a statement from American Experience, the creators of the documentary.

Filmmakers tell the story through the lives of a “handful of colorful and resolute characters, from hucksters to politicians to unlikely activists.” One of those activists is Miccosukee Tribal member Betty Osceola.

“The best way it could be for the environment was how the creator originally intended it to be,” Osceola said in the documentary. “But the white man came and thought he knew better.”

Osceola, a member of the Panther Clan, also has connections to the Seminole Tribe as her late mother, Mary Billie, was an enrolled member. Osceola has siblings who are Seminole as well.

Osceola consults with the Miccosukee Tribe on environmental and cultural issues and she and her spouse also operate an airboat tour company within the Miccosukee Indian Reservation, located in the Everglades.

The Seminoles and their connection to Florida and the Everglades are also explored in the film.

“To many, expanding efforts to drain the Everglades were signs of progress. To others, they were a menacing intrusion. In the early 1800s, the Seminole had found refuge from encroaching white settlement in the Everglades, fighting a series of bitter wars to resist removal from Florida. By the early 20th century, dredges crisscrossing the wetlands had upended the Seminole’s way of life,” the filmmaker’s statement said.

“The Swamp” further explores the repeated efforts to transform what had been seen as a vast and useless wasteland into an agricultural and urban paradise, ultimately leading to a successful campaign to preserve at least part of America’s greatest wetland.

The documentary is especially apropos in light of Florida’s recent hurricanes and worldwide climate change events.

“The Swamp tells an epic tale of man’s never-ending attempt to control nature,” said American Experience executive producer Mark Samels in a statement. “The story of the repeated efforts to tame the Everglades — and the often deadly results of those attempts — is a particularly cautionary tale in these days of increasingly violent natural disasters.”

The film is partly based on the book “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise” by Michael Grunwald.

The Swamp is scheduled to air from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. (EST). In addition, it will be available on DVD from PBS Distribution and can be purchased at shoppbs.org. Online viewing begins Jan. 16 at pbs.org.

“The Swamp” is one of three back-to-back “man vs. nature” American Experience episodes in January. Viewers can also watch encore broadcasts of “The Big Burn” (Jan. 22) and “Surviving the Dust Bowl” (Jan. 29).

American Experience has been one of television’s most-watched history series for 30 years.

More information is available at pbs.org/americanexperience. A trailer of “The Swamp” is available on the site.

Alligator hunting on the Tomoka River bank, circa 1880-1897. (Courtesy photo)
A trip to “Upper Everglade Rich Farm Lands” is advertised on a boat, circa 1919. (Courtesy photo)
A Seminole woman poles past a billboard advertising the sale of reclaimed land, circa 1920. (Courtesy photo)
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Damon Scott
Damon is a staff reporter for The Seminole Tribune. Prior to moving to Florida, he was a reporter and editor for print and digital publications in his home state of New Mexico. When Damon’s not working on a story, you’ll probably find him at a hot yoga class or splashing around on some South Florida beach. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.

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