Through the Looking Grass

A recent e-mail inquiry sent to "fine art landscape photographer and natural history author" Jeff Ripple -- as he bills himself -- triggered the automatic response: "In the field. Please leave a message at ... " Hardly a surprise, since the Gainesville-based Ripple, camera and notepad at the ready, has spent much of the past twenty years tramping about in the wilderness -- frequently in the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp -- observing, recording, and absorbing the innate beauty of the nation's flora and fauna, much of it threatened with extinction. Except in this particular instance, "in the field" meant the remote outpost of ... Chicago.

"I was participating in an art festival at the University of Chicago," Ripple admits, calling from eastern Kansas, where he's photographing native tall-grass prairie.

For much of the past three years, though, Ripple, working with a large-format camera, has documented the remarkable diversity -- and regrettable twentieth-century history -- of the 70,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, located at the western edge of Big Cypress Swamp. Eighteen of his images make up the exhibition "Fakahatchee: Natural and Cultural Landscapes," now on display at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, where he will present a slide lecture Thursday.

"There's something a little bit different about the Fakahatchee," Ripple rhapsodizes. "The abundance of orchids, its jungly nature, the higher water." For Ripple, it possesses an almost spiritual quality. And offers an escape. "The thing I liked the best was that I can go out in the swamp and never see another soul all day long -- or for five days," he explains. "If you venture 100 feet off the trail, you could be completely lost."

Logged extensively -- "most of the old-growth cypress and pine were pulled out," Ripple says -- farmed, and raided by orchid, royal palm, and rare-fern poachers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Fakahatchee next narrowly escaped being turned into a housing project when a developer ran afoul of dredging laws elsewhere in Florida. Conservationists prompted the state to rescue the land, and over the decades it has recovered.

Now 38, Ripple nurtured an interest in nature while growing up in Fort Lauderdale, turning active in the mid-1980s when he "became aware of pressure for water resources and clean water, development pressure, and myriad other problems that face the South Florida natural system." Shortly thereafter he began photographing those natural systems, resulting in his first book, Big Cypress Swamp and the Ten Thousand Islands (1992); several other books, including Florida: The Natural Wonders (1997), have followed.

Despite continued degradation to the state's natural ecosystems (principally from Big Sugar), Ripple professes sanguinity: "I have to be optimistic about the future of Fakahatchee and the Everglades in order to keep working out there. My photographs, I feel, portray my hope for maybe not a pristine Everglades and Big Cypress, but one that is certainly beautiful and functional -- a place where people can go and get a sense of the wildness that has always been there, still is there, and must remain there."

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Michael Yockel