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by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & The Swamp by Michael Grumwald & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "T & lt;/span & he Everglades is a test. If we pass, we may get to keep the planet." That's the signature quote, from an Everglades defender, in Michael Grunwald's sprawling recounting of Florida's complicated relationship with its most profound geographical feature. Nobody's put their pencil down just yet, but early scoring indicates that we'll have to ace the last few questions if we want to pass this exam.

Grunwald is a reporter for the Washington Post, and The Swamp grew out of an award-winning series he wrote on the Everglades, one of the most disputed pieces of property on the planet. The place offers a perfect case study for how badly we've treated Mother Nature -- and how schizophrenic our efforts to make it up to her have been. Civil engineers from as far away as Iraq, where ill-conceived water projects turned marshlands to desert, are coming to study the Everglades.

Famously called a "river of grass," the Everglades are a very gradual, shallow drainage from central Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. It's also ridiculously fragile, as humans have found out ever since they've endeavored to control it. Tame the Everglades, the idea goes, and you could reclaim millions of acres for sale. As is so often the case, it's all about land deals.

Florida provides the perfect setting for showing off human hubris; long considered a hell-hole, it was reimagined as a retreat for the rich and richer, then, by Walt Disney, as a fantasyland. While great for business, it's been an ecological disaster, with salt creeping into the water supplies, algae killing fish and coral, pavement covering every available space and the Everglades half gone.

The "politics of paradise," as Grunwald calls it, is pretty dense stuff -- reading these later passages is like wading through endless thickets of sawgrass. But the book shines in its retelling of Florida history, with a crazy cast of characters and epic events, like the Seminole Wars, the deadly storm of 1928 and the building of a railroad all the way to Key West.

But as a call to action, Grunwald's a little too much of journalist, and not enough of a poet to really hit your heart.

"There is only one Everglades, and we have just about destroyed it," he concludes rather dryly. "It is our ability to recognize this, and make amends, that sets us apart from other species."

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