Posted by: floridanature | September 8, 2010

“Knockabout Club” Journey to the Glades; Some Modern Symmetry

And so here we are in 1887, getting ready to join the boys of the “Knockabout Club” as they journey to Florida. It’s a tricky time to launch such an outing, since—after all—the interior of the peninsula was virtually unknown.

Geez, just a few years before that another writer came here in search of Lake Okeechobee in order to prove that it existed at all. Great tales were being created routinely about that giant lake—there were islands in the middle populated by wealthy Indians, awash in valuable pearls, and in some places, primates were swinging from the trees.

The interior of Florida in 1887 was terra incognita

But, after all, this was Florida, a place where folks had been making stuff up for a really long time. Jacques Le Moyne drew giant ears and big human-like hands on the alligators he saw here in the 1560’s and no one back in Europe even winced. Other visitors tugged at the truth, too, because it seemed unsporting not to. And, by the late 19th century, half the state was still covered in water. It was hard to really tell where the truth of dry land would begin and end.

But that just wasn’t an affliction of European or early Americans. Embellishment has always been a way of life here in Florida. How else can you explain the swamp-land purveyors of “Golden Gate Estates” down in Southwest Florida ?  And while we’ve been really good about making a lot of those pesky wetlands go away, the shills who would re-package natural Florida in 2010 to make it marketable are no different, really, than the ones who would peddle a nice chunk of submerged land to us in the 1950’s.

But, I digress. This is what you do on a rainy afternoon in Florida when indoor projects (i.e. writing) are already managed, and outdoor projects are too soggy to mess with.

You go to Florida in 1887 with the Knockabout Club boys via E.A. Ober’s wonderfully baroque “The Knockabout Club in the Everglades”. You do so by sailing down from Cape Cod, not a particularly efficient way to begin, especially if you’re prone to seasickness and the trip takes almost a month.  But, not to worry, mate: Soon, you see the light marking an inlet and make your way inside the “famous Mosquito Lagoon.” And then the real fun begins…

First, our intrepid travelers spot the water all aglow with “phosphorescent light”, revealing “thousands of fish darting here and yon, leaving torturous trails of fire like those Fourth of July serpents of our boyhood ”  Then, there’s a series of really manly things going on—a bear on the beach is shot, sea turtle eggs are dug up (the mama turtle thankfully escaped), a great feast ensues, and a panther attacks ! (At least, we know the bioluminescence still exists here; hunts for turtles, eggs, and bears are—for now—out of favor, and panthers no longer range throughout the state).

From Ft. Pierce, the band made it inland towards the “St. John’s” River, which then was Terra Incognita. And for all intents and purposes, this is where the “Everglades” began for them. Wonderful illustrations in the spirit of French artist Edouard Riou—who created the images for most of the Jules Verne novels —helped flavor and animate the baroque narrative.

And, in the pen and ink drawings, Florida becomes the darkest reaches of the Amazon or Africa. Images of our marshes and swamps are every bit as gloomy as any jungle from John Paul Stephen’s journey to Central American and the Yucatan. At their best, they embody a sort of neo-mediaevalism in which almost anything scary and unknown could happen, at any time. This was the sort of gothic landscape that begged for stories to entertain us, frighten us, leave us in awe. Is it no wonder Florida’s had such a tough time finding its way back to reality after all these years?

And were these gothic landscapes any different, really, than the scary-as-hell exaggerations that our political candidates have been relying on lately ? Fear plays big in mythology—and it sure does sell well on modern talk radio and in the viper dens of  the political extremists.  

If Mr. Ober and his buds relied on a bit of swamp jihad to  scare us, well, that’s child’s play next to the  yammering we’ve  been listening to over the last few months. That would be a  sort of “fantasy jihad” in which common sense and human  decency are  hijacked in the name of one Machiavellian strategy or another—all to honor “freedom” and the “American way.” Guess that would more properly be “Delusion Jijhad.” (Or, in a friend’s perfectly on-target phrase: “figgie maggie”—as in a Figment of the Imagination.) After all, it’s not democracy at stake as it is some corporation’s grossly over-loaded bank account.

The upper St. Johns WAS the Everglades

Well, spin has no special kinship with the 21st century, certainly. And even at the time that our boys were making their way up the wild and exotic “Everglades” of the St. Johns River, some affluent suits in fancy hotels were figuring out the best way to drain all that mess. As one proto-developer observed: “It (the wetlands) are without value—and a menace to health !”

Am figuring it was a good idea the Knockabout Boys didn’t know about this. Their purpose, after all, was singleminded: To have a grand adventure, to revel in the gut rush of new experiences in the Florida jungle, to test themselves. And to return with a grand story about it all—an event with a foreshadowing of Joseph Cambell’s “mythic journey” woven throughout.

Mr. Ober and his buds made their way in deep, even camping on one of the islands in Lake Okeechobee, sans pearls and baboons.   Ironically, they never actually traveled into the expanses of of sawgrass and mangroves that today are protected as the Everglades inside a national park. But, no problem: Half of Florida *was* the Glades then, and a voyage across the upper St. Johns and a stumble through a fretwork of green to Okeechobee was about as wild as it gets. (Trust me, in some ways, it still is…)

And, of course, there were literary critics, just as there are now. And one in New York wrote of the book: “Mr. Ober knows what he is about and is familiar with Florida. He writes well and brightly and readers can learn a great deal about Florida  —though the best we can wish him is to never and try to take a trip through the Everglades again.”

“It is alright enough for the Knockabout Club to be adventurous—but to hunt up Lake Okeechobeee and to work through the Everglades is a task only to be performed by very well paid engineers.” So much for nascent eco-tourism.

Today, we learn that Mr. Ober’s expedition was half real, half-made up. Nonetheless, the words and the pictures still appear before me right now on a very tangible page. To read this wonderful story, and to consider more completely every twist and shadow hidden in the art is to time travel back into a place where Florida symbolized the very real excitement of an adventure into nature. Those adventures are still available to us today, gothic images and all, if you bring your imagination along for the ride. We can still be scared, and that’s okay, because it’s part of the larger natural experience, one we too often try to tame.

We can figure out the aesthetics, the irony, the threats, and all that, because we’re human and that’s what we’re equipped to do. We just don’t need a man in a fancy suit with no sense of scale and decency to endlessly try to inflict his own insecurities on the rest of us.  The modern jungle isn’t as much vines and swamps as it is fear-driven political rhetoric—and fallacy-driven marketing.

Given my druthers, I’d take an island with wild Indians and baboons and alligators in Lake Okeechobee any day…



  1. ” Embellishment has always been a way of life here in Florida.”

    Enjoyed the entire essay, but that line is a masterpiece of understatement. You couldn’t make this stuff up . . .

    Thanks so much for the excellent read and fine images.

  2. I was just saying to a friend the other day that I would like to have lunch with John Muir or William Bartram because Lord knows they would have some stories to tell. Florida was, and still is in many ways, a prehistoric jungle.

  3. I grew up on the edge of the Everglades, in Coral Springs. I spent many hours sitting on the dike wall that kept the water out of our town watching the snakes and alligators down below tucked away in the sawgrass.
    Later in my life, after a brief time in South Beach, I found myself living in the town of Everglades City. I was searching for my story, a quest for artistic inspiration. I immersed myself in their culture, they being the folks who lived here, descendents of the original cast and crew and some newbies, such as myself, that fell in love with such an inhospitable terrain. Water is the culture here. I bought a motor boat, a crappy little vessel, that I thought would be sufficient to get me out and back. Many times I was stuck in the out position, waiting for the tide to come or a line to grab onto. I read, talked and mostly listened and looked. I learned everything I could about the expansive area. I took airboat rides on sawgrass with locals, went on slow canoe rides through the mangroves, pulled traps with local fisherman, walked long trails into Big Cypress Perserve and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve. I met up with gators, boars, otters and oh so many birds.
    I find the stories tragic regarding how much was and how little is left.
    I have taken my offspring here…the town and the at large area have changed…eco-tourism and all. There are however, still places that remain naturally wild and untamed.
    Thank you for your Florida history.
    I was commissioned to do some large scale fish paintings and line drawings of all the historical buildings for the Everglades City Museum.
    Now I find myself in North Florida, on a similiar quest for artistic purpose, this time however, I learned through my Glades experience to not only enjoy native Florida, but to protect IT for all it’s worth. The Springs Heartland needs to stave off large scale development and keep Florida wet and wild (and I am not referring to a theme park).

  4. Found you through Brack Barker on Facebook. Thank you Brack. And thank you, Bill. I found myself smiling, nodding and smiling, as I read lines that so reflect my own thoughts. “Meeting” you through your blog gives me confidence in Florida’s future.
    I live, when I have the courage, near Williston, Levy County and hope to meet you in person when next I venture down.

  5. And thank you for your links. I’ve been looking unsuccessfully for folks like these.

  6. Thanks for the very kind words, Skipper. Am glad my stuff resonates with you, and that the links take you to useful resources.
    There’s lots of caring folks and neat projects in Florida, but we all tend to be a bit spread out.

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