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"The first impression was that there was a sense of rightness about it," McEachern remembers. "We felt like little kids in big bodies. We drove up, and all the little ponds were full of birds. Things work in the natural world. You don't have masses of humanity bumping and grinding against each other, fighting for whatever they're fighting for that day."
Until that time his forays into photography had all been urban-oriented, but the Everglades kept drawing him back: It was his way, he discovered, to escape from Miami. "I realized that a lot of the joy was gone from my relationship with the city," he says. "I got pushed out. I was tired of being a lightning rod for finding out the difference between good and evil. The Everglades gives you a perspective on life because of the enormity of it: It's just that much bigger than you."
He considered moving down south but has so far continued to commute from Miami Springs. "It would be nice to live in a place that means so much to me, but there are other concerns," he says, explaining that since he doesn't do his own processing or printing, he likes to have easy access to commercial labs. He also has a studio near FIU's main campus, on SW 107th Avenue.
By now he has reached the park. He enters the new visitors' center, which opened in December to replace the building that was destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew. Inside, the anniversary calendar featuring Clyde Butcher is for sale in the gift shop. McEachern rolls his eyes at the sales display, then takes a few minutes to look over the exhibition of Butcher's photographs. He points out some that he likes but ultimately deems the exhibit repetitive.
"I admire his effort. I just don't understand the appeal of his work," McEachern comments. "Sometimes black and white is the right thing, but in terms of the natural world, I don't want to lose all the color just to have form. It seems kind of odd to roll back time just for the sake of creating art. It's a greater challenge to try to find ways to say these important things in the full color spectrum."
Back in his pickup, McEachern drives slowly down the main road, pointing out favorite trees and the alligator tracks through the grass and expounding on the history of the Glades. He mentions Daniel Beard, a field biologist who in 1938 wrote a report for the Everglades National Park Project, which was considering whether the area should be adopted into the park system. A photocopy of Beard's work is among the many Everglades texts McEachern keeps in his files at home. "Back then the Glades were wetter than they are now, and orchids abounded," he recounts dreamily. "It must of been a hell of a sight.
"Beard was so taken by the park that he described it as a place where you can find yourself," he adds as heads back toward Florida City. "I think that's true for everyone."
Joel McEachern's photographs of the Everglades are on display at Pitman Photo, 8650 SW 132nd St, until February 5. Call 256-9558 for more information.