By Natalie Strom • [email protected]
“My concept is to make the best looking picture that I can. So I’ve learned to take old technology into the new technology and then back to the old again,” explains Clyde Butcher as he celebrates his 70th birthday at his art gallery and home in The Big Cypress National Preserve. Every Labor Day weekend, the photographer, famous for his black and white images, and his photographer/artist wife, Niki, take guests into the heart of the swamp, giving them a chance to experience for themselves how old has blended with new even in the most primeval of places.
Conservation through education is at the heart of the Butcher’s annual Muck-About. Almost ironically, their Big Cypress Gallery sits on the edge of the Tamiami Trail, a modern engineering marvel of its time and a symbol of the development of South Florida. But within their 13-acre property that borders the Trail is a jungle of air plants, bromeliads, alligators and thousands of year old cypress trees. Walk five feet in alone and you’ll be lucky to ever find your way out. But take a tour with one of the Gallery’s eco-guides and you will spend an hour and a half wading waist deep at times in what looks and feels like Jurassic Park.
Big Cypress is about three-quarters of a million acres of National Preserve. It is considered it’s own ecosystem, separate from the Everglades. What sets it apart from the Everglades ecosystem is only about 10 to 12 inches of elevation. As one eco-guide tells her group just before they disappear into the cypress domes, “underneath this entire part of Florida is an old coral reef that’s become an aquifer. The rains that fall here in the spring and summer bring about 60 inches of that rain right here into the swamp where it percolates down into the ground, fills up the aquifer and slowly stores it over time for use for Miami and Naples.”
Years of development in South Florida nearly destroyed the natural water-cleansing system of Big Cypress. As more and more people flocked to “paradise,” plans were put in place to construct an airport half-way between Fort Myers and Miami. The cypress domes were to be cut and cleared to make way for the state-of-the-art Jetport. Luckily, environmental interest groups got involved, saving the land and creating The Big Cypress National Preserve in 1974.
Under the canopy of the Preserve, Niki Butcher stands in knee deep water explaining how the human-altered flow of the Everglades has polluted the fresh water of both ecosystems over time; Big Cypress fairing better due to its slightly higher elevation. Improper drainage causes a heavy build-up of nutrients which signifies an unhealthy system. Pointing out an alligator flag plant, Butcher notes how large amounts of these plants signify environmental distress. “This is the only place in the United States that you can find something like this. There are cypress in other places such as Virginia, but none of them also are in a temperate climate that allows the bromeliads and things like that to grow. So this whole ecosystem is really a special place and we really need to take care of it.”
Their annual Muck-About and Saturday Swamp Walks that start in October give those who go a chance to understand the importance of caring for Big Cypress and the Everglades. Surrounded by only sounds of nature, crystal clear water, trees that extend into the heavens, bromeliads and air plants that fill every tree and the bright green mosses and pure white fungi, “is truly like you’ve stepped into a different planet,” adds Niki.
It’s as if you’ve walked right into one of Clyde’s larger than life portraits; and that’s the point. The man who “photographs from his heart” and with an old view camera with actual film, says, “I only use three things in photoshop. I use the eraser, the gradient tool and the history brush. That’s all I use. That’s it.”
That’s all he will ever need as long as The Big Cypress National Preserve that he and Niki call home remains protected. As long as enthusiastic swamp walkers continue to muck about in the footsteps of Niki and Clyde, coming to understand the beauty and necessity of the cypress domes, they will hopefully continue be around for thousands of years to come.
To learn more about Clyde and Niki’s swamp walks and gallery, visit www.clydebutcher.com.