By Amy Weiss
Apr 21 2019
People had been living in Florida for centuries, but there is little evidence of major changes in the vegetation before the 1890’s when construction of canals to drain the water from the land began—to allow further development. The Florida East Coast Railway, which reached Key West in 1912, opened up the state in a manner previously unequaled.
John Kunkel Small’s first trip to Florida was in 1901 when Miami had some 2,000 residents. The hammocks (stands of trees that form ecological islands) and other interesting plant communities that captivated Small had disappeared to such an extent by 1929 that he published From Eden to Sahara: Florida's Tragedy, which helped spark a movement for conservation of the wetlands—eventually resulting in the formation of the Everglades National Park, established in 1934. Small (1929) writes in Eden, “the Florida of yesterday must no doubt in time fall before the juggernaut of modern progress. We try hard to preserve the old furniture that our ancestors sat and slept in, but neglect the things that can never be replaced or even imitated.”
Starting in 1902, Small also published over two dozen “travelogues” on his trips to Florida. Daniel F. Austin (1987) writes that, “Small’s travelogues are ethnohistoric documentation of a changing landscape. They are notes written by an astute field biologist and biological historian. Small knew that all regions constantly change, and he recorded almost as many items about humans as plants. Perhaps he knew that people in the future would want to know what his Florida was like.” Our fate as scientists, conservationists, or simply nature-loving citizens depend on what we learn from history—Small gives us some glimpses of the past in Florida.