Our Swamp Beautiful

You look in any direction and encounter a stillness, a quiet placidity that makes vistas in this chunk of Florida appear much like photographs, beautiful and moving ones.

In fact, you are looking at a drenched hotbed of fertility. Bugs and birds, snakes and gators, flowers and weeds. "This place has a life force," exclaims Clyde Butcher, referring to his 780,000-acre back yard. "Once you get into it, it's pulsing with life. It's not like the Rocky Mountains with elks and bears running around. It's subtler. But it's everywhere."

Butcher got into it -- the Big Cypress National Preserve -- a decade and a half ago. Photographing Florida beach scenes and other touristy stuff at the time, he was guided by friend Oscar Thompson, a Fort Myers commercial photographer who practically grew up in the preserve. "He got me interested, took me out there in his buggy," Butcher recalls. "I didn't know much. I thought the bromeliads were birds' nests."

Today Butcher knows from birds' nests. And thanks to his prolific and generally stunning camera work, plenty of people who have never been startled by an anhinga exploding from a tree line, who have never sought the serenity of a staring contest with a basking gator, who have never walked waist-deep in muck to get a better look at a delicate flower can still experience the natural wonder of Big Cypress. It's no stretch to call Butcher the Ansel Adams of the swamp.

Only half as old as Everglades National Park -- this week marks the silver anniversary of Big Cypress's existence as protected land -- the pristine area where Butcher lives with his wife of 35 years, Nikki, and where the couple operate a photo gallery almost fell prey to the profit-driven developers who have wrecked much of the rest of South Florida. Just this side of Naples and sliced through by Highway 41 (the Tamiami Trail), the area was ripe for plundering, a perfect locale, Nikki Butcher notes, for gas stations, Kmarts, McDonald's, strip malls, and the infamous Jetport, which would have been the largest international airport in the world. Fortunately for those who still think life is a good thing, a series of important ecological studies and congressional acts protected this sanctuary from almost certain ruination.

Now it's time to celebrate that preservation. For three days the Butchers, their staff, and a half-dozen swamp vets (including Oscar Thompson, photographer Jeff Ripple, Historical Museum of Southern Florida assistant curator Michael Cushing, Miami-Dade County biologist Bob Karafel, and historian Cesar Becerra) will participate in the Big Cypress Gallery Open House featuring darkroom tours, photography demonstrations, slide shows, historical lectures, and guided walks into the heart of the matter -- yes, swamp walks, or "muckabouts," as the Butchers call them. Butcher will end each day with a retrospective of his work, work that has landed him in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame (along with people like Ernest Hemingway, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Tennessee Williams). Of course, his photographs will be on display and available for purchase.

The annual event, Butcher says, attracts all types, from trail people and adventurers to New Yorkers "with no concept of what they were going to end up in, but who, by the time we were through, didn't want to leave. Everyone needs to do this. They can get a primeval feeling they've never felt before. Everyone is looking for their roots, and this place gives a concept of where we came from."

-- Greg Baker

The Big Cypress Gallery Open House takes place Saturday through Monday, September 5, 6, and 7, at the Big Cypress Gallery, 52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. Swamp walks are scheduled for 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. each day. Expect to get wet, so bring old shoes, a hat, and a change of clothing. Admission is free. Call 941-695-2670.

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Greg Baker