Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Defender of Florida's environment

John Kunkel Small
John K. Small was livid when he realized what was happening to Florida’s unblemished wilderness under the relentless onslaught of development; so, he wrote a book about it.

Small was a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden for 40 years. For decades, he came to Florida on vacation and explored the wilderness for plant species. He was a taxonomist and was responsible for identifying and cataloging numerous tropical and subtropical plants. He collected more than 60,000 specimens for the New York Botanical Garden.

By the time he was moved to publish From Eden to Sahara–Florida’s Tragedy in 1929, he had been coming to Florida for nearly 30 years. He was often accompanied by his wife and their four children.

A copy of the first edition of Small’s scathing assessment of the miserable state of Florida’s botanical resources is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

Much of the research and many of the photographs in the book were from a month-long expedition down the east coast of Florida from about Daytona Beach to the Everglades and the Keys in 1922. Small used before and after photos showing the changes wrought by development.

The intervening years between his trip and the publication of the book were a period of rampant growth during the Florida land boom. Communities were popping up everywhere. In many cases,  little effort was made to preserve the natural beauty of the land.

Small was a friend of Charles Torrey Simpson, the botanist and writer we featured last week. Small accompanied Simpson on his forays into the wilderness, bringing along his camera to capture shots of the Florida flora. Small was a prolific writer himself, producing some 450 published articles. There were numerous unpublished typescripts in his collection as well.

Charles Deering, the chairman of International Harvester and a philanthropist, supported the New York Botanical Garden and Small’s efforts at cataloging plants in Florida. One of Deering’s winter homes in Miami included 25 acres on which the Botanical Garden grew various cactus varieties.

Small also knew many of the botanical luminaries of the era, including David Fairchild, who introduced more than 200,000 exotic plants into the United States; Liberty Hyde Bailey, who cofounded the American Society for Horticultural Science; and Thomas Edison, who in addition to inventing the electric light bulb, experimented in vain to develop a domestic source of natural rubber.

The John Kunkel Small Photo Collection at the Florida State Archives contains numerous photographs of botanical specimens but also has shots of Seminole Indians, sugar cane processing operations, a coontie mill, lighthouses and kitchen middens.

In his book, Small decries the destruction of many ancient mounds with little or no research into them and emphasizes their importance in understanding the aboriginal people who populated Florida before the arrival of the Seminoles and Europeans.

This copy of Small’s book was given to the Chester County Historical Society in Pennsylvania by Clement S. Brinton, who was a scientist hired by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Brinton apparently was a fan of the work of his fellow Pennsylvanian. Small was born in Harrisburg, PA.

About the time his book was published, Small wrote to Minnie Moore-Willson, a fellow nature lover who contributed to wildlife magazines. If further amplification was needed, his comment shows clearly where he stood on the question of preserving Florida’s wilderness. "There is much activity now to get parts, at least, of the Everglades rescued from the vandals."

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