With a certain someone saying he’s going to “drain the swamp” in Washington, it’s worth looking at how this metaphor has actually played out in history. In the mid-nineteenth century, the very same, but literal, calls were made about Florida’s Everglades, and the aftermath devastated the environment and the wildlife that call the place home.

The Everglades is a massive watershed that crosses multiple ecosystems and communities. It’s a 100-mile-long and 60-mile-wide “river of grass” that begins when Lake Okeechobee in the north overflows its banks during Florida’s wet season and starts a slow-moving descent to its southernmost terminus in Florida Bay. However, after much drainage and development, the historic flow now faces many disruptions along its path to the sea. This includes toxic algal blooms resulting from fertilizer runoff and too much or too little water being released at a given time, which interferes with animals’ nesting seasons and food sources that rely on the consistency of Florida’s dry and wet seasons.

Conservation photographer Mac Stone has devoted his work to telling a fuller, more nuanced story of this misunderstood “swamp” than one usually hears.

“This is the only Everglades that the world has, and if you restore it, if you protect it, you’re really protecting a national treasure—and a cultural treasure, too,” Stone said. “We need to wash away this myth that these wetlands and these swamps are inherently dangerous and worthless. This is the narrative that has pervaded our lexicon for so long. You say ‘swamp,’ and it’s a four-letter word to a lot of people. They immediately think of mosquitoes and alligators and snakes and things that want to harm you and bite you. It’s really not like that. These places are—because of their nature of being on the fringe—full of all kinds of wildlife, and they’re actually very peaceful and serene places. I think one of the biggest barriers to restoration and conservation is just getting over that old, outdated notion that these swamps are uncomfortable places not really worth protecting.”

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A male Everglades snail kite, an endangered species swoops down on its sole source of food, the apple snail. Their broad wings are specially equipped to soar long distances in search of these small gastropods and stop on a dime when found.

In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly (75 percent) approved an amendment to buy and protect more land, primarily from the “Big Sugar” industry, for Everglades restoration. There’s also a petition going around the state today as a part of the Now or Neverglades movement, aiming to increase storage, treatment, and transportation of water south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area. It has 40,000 signatures currently and is and growing. Part of this heightened support for the Everglades stems from expanded public awareness that the ecosystem is responsible for the drinking water of eight million Floridians.

“This summer,” Stone said, “we had massive algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee that were then pumped out east on the St. Lucie River. They’re full of bacteria that they’re finding are associated with all kinds of respiratory problems and liver disease. So, it’s impossible now to ignore the fact that we are linked to our environment. If we don’t have a healthy ecosystem, if our wetlands are not producing clean water, then we, in turn, are going to suffer from that. Our water isn’t shipped in. We’re not all drinking Fiji water. We’re drinking the water that falls down on our landscape and percolates into the Florida aquifer.”

Lake Okeechobee habitat

What’s particularly exciting about the growing movement to protect the Everglades is that it’s beginning to go beyond restoring a place simply for people use or people needs.

“I think people want to believe that there’s going to be wilderness for not just our youth, but wilderness for wilderness’ sake, too,” said Stone. “I think people are starting to turn on to that idea, and my job is to identify these habitats that actually represent the real and old Florida, so that people can be proud of that place that they call home, or that place they visit. We do so much now in terms of development and city design to portray this idea of Florida being all palm trees and sandy beaches that we’re forsaking these natural systems that are real—the wetlands, the oak hammocks, the prairies, the springs, and the swamps. I think those are the places that if Floridians get out and get familiar with they’ll become emotionally connected and invested in what actually makes their home state home.”

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Stone often collaborates with local organizations and scientists to bring this emotional aspect to their advocacy work.

“I gave a talk in Palm Beach with a panel of scientists who were going over all the issues surrounding the Everglades and some of the stats to show the old historic flows and what is proposed now for restoration purposes. These facts and the stats are so important to understanding where we stand now. They’re important to give to the policymakers to say, look—this is empirical data, this is unbiased. This is what the situation is now. But, for a lot of people it’s not enough of an emotional bridge to get them onboard to actually care and to act on behalf of these systems.

Cottonmouth/Water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus). When hiking through the swamps of South Florida, you always have to be careful of two things, alligators and cottonmouths. The latter are much harder to see and can pack a powerful, venomous bite. They get their name from the warning display they make with their bleach-white mouth. Baring their fangs, they let predators know they are not to trifle with.

“My job as a photographer is to try to communicate those issues, communicate that urgency, communicate the aesthetics of an area to reach through the brain of the public and grab their hearts. If they’re not going to actually see these places for themselves, or get to know these animals for themselves, then maybe I can bring that to their doorstep to get them to care. Photography has a really great way of breaking down those barriers and getting to the emotional aspect of advocacy. Those images are hard to forget; we’re visual creatures. So, at the talk in Palm Beach after we did this science panel, I gave a talk, and the people there got to see this narrative unfold visually before them. The most rewarding thing is to be able to see people’s visceral reactions to the photos and images.”

Stone’s photos are breathtakingly beautiful, showcasing the captivating light, colors, and moments that only exist in this southeastern treasure. However, that’s not all they show.

“I think it’s important to be real. I think it’s important to show not only all the beautiful things, but also what’s at stake and what the situation really is. I love taking beautiful photos. I really do. I love going out and finding these magical moments that represent the way I feel about a habitat or an animal, but at the same time, if we paint this rosy picture all the time, then a lot of people say, why are we so urgent about protecting it? Look at all this beautiful stuff we have. A lot of times, especially when you have urban environments colliding with wilderness areas, there are some real issues at stake that might look good on the surface, but year after year they get worse and worse. We call this the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’—every year we get used to a little worse, a little worse, a little worse until we forget what it should really look like.”

One of these “real” images Stone captured is of an anemic roseate spoonbill draped over a mangrove.

A roseate spoonbill chick dies from starvation after a rain event in the central Bay. Normally, the adults would forage in a different location during a rain event, but because of development in the Florida Keys, their foraging grounds have been limited to only a few areas.

“People don’t forget that,” Stone said, “You love seeing a roseate spoonbill foraging in the water, these bright pink colors, looking beautiful. Unfortunately, the one that sticks with people is this kind of splayed out, fallen angel image. Then they ask themselves, well, what’s that about? Then you tell them, and they get it—they get the issue. All tied up in that photo is not enough water reaching an estuary. It’s powerful and it’s important to do both photos; you’re telling stories on behalf of wildlife and the environment.”

Over the course of five years, Stone gathered many of his images of the Everglades to publish in a first-of-its-kind book that takes a holistic look at the ecosystem from north to south. The book is a celebration of the uniquely Floridian wilderness, a story of images alongside the voices of biologists and advocates. It’s a compilation that should give pause to anyone calling to drain the swamp.

As a proud Floridian, and also a devoted conservationist, Stone knows how overwhelming these broad-based calls to “drain the swamp” can feel, but his local connection to the place he’s committed to save is how he stays engaged.

Moving their heads side to side, spoonbill use tactolocation to catch their prey.

“It’s easy to stick your head in the sand and lose hope when things don’t seem to be going your way. Environmentally, for example, some of the cabinet appointments that have been made by the new administration, and even some of the things that are happening on the state level are discouraging,” he shared, “But, I think it’s important to never forget your impact on a local level. That’s where these smaller Everglades advocacy organizations are really, really shining through. No matter what the state or federal level is doing, the most important thing is drawing up support locally for whatever your cause is. Momentum will go from there and hopefully reach a level where the state or the federal government can’t ignore it any longer. That’s all you can do is work as hard as you can locally and then move outward.”

Mac Stone’s Everglades: America’s Wetland is available here.

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