Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chickees and the Everglades

While I was thinking about my father when writing about Veteran's Day recently, I remembered bits of the few times he was home on leave during WWII.

On one of those visits when I was about 2-1/2, my dad took me out the Tamiami Trail to 40-Mile Bend in the Everglades, to a Seminole village where one of his friends lived. The road from Miami went due west straight as an arrow for 40 miles and then a bend in the road changed the direction directly towards Naples on the west coast. Some trading villages built up near the bend, and it adopted the name for identification.

My dad's friend was one of the grandsons of Osceola, and regretfully I no longer remember his first name. He had gone to high school with my dad, and he was a football hero. What I remember is that he played football barefoot!

The Seminole villages are small clusters of chickees built of upright bald cypress posts with a raised floor and a palmetto thatched roof. One of the chickees is always the Council House, usually round and on the highest portion of the camp. It is where the Council of Elders and Warriors met. Women and children were not specifically forbidden, but by tradition were not seen in the Council House.

My dad lost track of my whereabouts (the small villages were
very safe) and when he found me, I had crawled up the short ladder to the floor of the Council House. The Chief had me on his knee and was entertaining me!

Chickees have fascinated me ever since. There is always one larger chickee used as the cook house, and each family has their own personal chickee for living quarters. Chickees have side curtains that can be hung in rainy and wet weather, and stored when not needed.

The chickees are built several feet above the potentially swampy land which covers about 9 million acres of the Everglades. It is mostly sawgrass (early on it was called the
River of Grass) and just a few inches of rain/water enabled canoes and flat bottomed boats to traverse the area.
Dotting the landscape are hammocks, which are pieces of firm ground like islands a few inches to several feet above the water. Some hammocks are as small as a footstep, while many are an acre or more and support thick forests.

It's all very different now, and not just because of exponential growth. The Army Corps of Engineers had no idea what they were doing to the shallow flow of water in the 'glades by building essentially a barrier (road) across the 'glades, and still didn't know many years later when they built the parallel Alligator Alley a few miles farther north.

In the last several years I have read of several proposals (and some actual projects) to restore the natural waterways in central and south Florida. Marjory Stoneman Douglass wrote
The Everglades: River of Grass in 1947, which redefined the popular conception of the Everglades as a treasured river instead of a worthless swamp.

Douglas was an interesting woman; born in 1890, she came to Miami at an early age to work for the Miami Herald but soon became a popular free lance writer, working nearly to the end of her 108 years for the restoration of the Everglades. The River of Grass has been said to have the impact of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

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