Forces of Nature (review)

Posted on May 1, 2024

Forces of Nature: A History of Florida Land Conservation. By Clay Henderson. (Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, 2022. Pp. xvi, 439. $38.00, ISBN 978-0-8130-6952-4.)

Visitors to Florida’s state parks are often greeted by a sign that announces one’s arrival in “the Real Florida.” In many ways, the sentiment behind this slogan—that the Sunshine State’s essence is not found in a theme park or amid its gleaming skylines—is at the heart of Clay Henderson’s book Forces of Nature: A History of Florida Land Conservation. If much has been lost as Florida was “ditched, drained, cleared, and developed,” this work argues that much has also been protected (pp. 119–20). In an in-depth and wide-ranging narrative, it traces efforts—from William Bartram through the long career of Marjory Stoneman Douglas up to the recent past—to protect the Sunshine State’s lands, waters, and wildlife.

As a prominent environmental lawyer and advocate in the state, Henderson is a well-qualified chronicler of these events. The first two-thirds of the book draws heavily on secondary source material, much of which will be familiar to environmental historians of Florida and the South. Yet there is clear value to such an expansive yet fast-moving narrative describing how the state’s environmental concerns and debates have evolved from the time of European colonization through the early twenty-first century.

Henderson’s chapters are mostly topical or episodic, with each one following a consistent chronological progression to advance this lengthy history at a decent pace. Moreover, the narrative does well to rely on biographical profiles of figures like May Mann Jennings and on institutional histories of key groups such as the Florida Audubon Society to help make such a vast subject [End Page 411] more readable. Although some may quibble with an over-reliance on influential public figures, this approach reinforces Henderson’s claim that “the story of conservation in Florida is the story of dedicated people” and their “connection to a special place” (p. 17).

The final third of the book addresses the last fifty years of environmental politics in the state, concluding with the successful efforts to create the Florida Wildlife Corridor. These chapters rely on secondary sources combined with the author’s own recollections and dozens of interviews he conducted with relevant activists and policy makers. The book benefits from Henderson’s expert assessment of the impact of Floridians such as Nathaniel Reed and Carol Browner on environmental policy as well as his insider perspective on campaigns to establish unique conservation funds, such as Florida Forever.

The near-encyclopedic coverage of the state’s numerous protected lands ensures that the primary audience for this book is Florida-based educators, students, policy makers, and activists. With careful research and topical chapters, Forces of Nature should be an especially useful reference for public historians and journalists to research state parks or environmental topics. It is also a timely book. The author asks Floridians to draw inspiration from their great cloud of environmental witnesses to “think big” and “find the political means to do more” (pp. 356, 347).

All told, this book portrays land conservation in Florida as largely a success story and provides another important counternarrative to the state’s perception as a paved-over paradise. The forces of growth and development that drive this history are mostly unseen, an almost Damoclean threat in the narrative background. Henderson does not wish growth away. Rather, it adds urgency to his task. There are millions of new residents who wanted and still want the “Florida Dream.” Conservation and development may always be mutually reinforcing. But the question Forces of Nature implicitly raises will help determine Florida’s future: What is the “real Florida,” and how long can it be preserved?

Madison W. Cates
Coastal Carolina University


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