Everglades National Park Through the Eyes of Clyde Butcher
It took Clyde Butcher four years to find anything in Florida that inspired him. But once he discovered it, it led him down a path that would make him the most recognized photographer of Everglades National Park.
His large-scale, black-and-white photographs have helped shift the way we see this unique and misunderstood ecosystem — and they've served as ammunition for many conservation campaigns related to the park.
Butcher has taken similarly striking images of landscapes from around the world, including Yellowstone, Cuba and Czechia. But it’s the so-called swamp that has most captured his heart.
To see the Everglades through the eyes of Clyde Butcher is to fall in love with them and to understand why he calls them both “the most interesting place in the United States” and “the most beautiful place on Earth.”
Discovering the Beauty of the Everglades
Butcher was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and grew up in California, so he's no stranger to natural beauty. Inspired by Ansel Adams, he’d been doing landscape photography for years before he moved to Florida in 1979.
Interestingly, he initially found little that was truly exceptional in the natural landscape. But two fateful encounters would change his whole perspective of Florida — and the trajectory of his life.
The first of these encounters happened at a roadside attraction near Palmdale. Noticing Butcher was bored, the owner asked him if he wanted to see the boardwalk out back. This gave him an initial glimpse of the slow-moving river that would come to fascinate him endlessly.
On another occasion, Butcher saw some prints in a photography studio owned by Oscar Thompson and thought they’d been taken in Africa. He was surprised to learn they were images of Big Cypress, which was located just down the street. Thompson immediately took Butcher to the swamp and got him to walk straight into the water, swatting away his misgivings about gators and snakes.
“There's a whole different experience of walking through there, through the flowers and the grass and sawgrass and orchids. It was just a fascinating place. You would think that you’d [gone] back 10,000 years. It was very primeval,” he explains, claiming that you often feel as if a dinosaur is going to come right out of the ridge. “I discovered that you can't see it without getting out into it. It's more of a feeling experience as well as a seeing experience.”
From that moment on, Butcher was hooked.
A Walk in the Swamp
The swamp became Butcher’s place of refuge, where he’d spend long hours wading through the water to capture a stillness that teems with life.
Butcher explains that “to see Florida, you have to get out into it. You have to walk into it. You can't see it from a car; you can't see it from an airboat. You can't see it from a swamp buggy. You have to be on the ground, walking.”
This is why he and his team decided to start offering swamp walks in Big Cypress, a preserve that's connected to the Everglades. This proposition is shocking even to me, a local Floridian who loves the Everglades but who has always seen them as a place to enjoy from a safe distance. But Butcher is very reassuring about the safety of the swamp, claiming that after taking 12,000 to 15,000 people on swamp walks, they’ve never once had an incident. “The only thing we’ve had happen is people coming back.”
Butcher himself has only encountered one alligator in all the years he’s been wading in the water. A 12-footer attacked when he and a friend were in his path. Thankfully, the photographer was quick enough to grab a paddle and hit the gator on the nose, causing it to scurry away.
Participants usually go from sheer terror to pure love. Butcher believes it's because the landscape is “so beautiful that the fear goes away. It’s so different, so unique.” But there’s also something incredible about having an experience you quite literally can’t get anywhere else, as the Everglades ecosystem is singular in the world.
As one participant said, walking in the swamp is much better than going to Disney World. It’s also, Butcher thinks, probably safer than Miami. “I’ll take Big Cypress over Miami any day,” he proclaims.
Given the way people drive in the city, I might have to agree.
What Makes the Everglades Special
You could travel the world and never find a place like the Everglades. The national park is home to eight distinct habitats, including mangrove forests, pinelands, sawgrass prairies and coastal lowlands.
It’s also the only place on Earth where you’ll find both alligators and crocodiles. (Yes, they are different.) Besides its most iconic animal, the ecosystem is home to manatees, 360 species of birds and the majestic Florida panther, which is endemic to the area.
But for Butcher, the appeal of the swamp is tied to its pristine nature and its ever-changing landscape. While he loves the beauty of places like Yosemite and the Redwoods, he also claims they’ve remained unchanged since he started photographing them in the 1970s.
“In Florida, everything changes,” he assures. “[It’s] a living space. A living organism. It’s a whole different experience than any place else in the United States.”
Words of Wisdom
So, how to make the most out of an Everglades experience? Of course, book a swamp walk with the Clyde Butcher Gallery.
But even if you’re not ready to tread in the water yet, Butcher recommends skipping the urge to rush through it. “It's very easy to drive into Everglades National Park. Just drive through it and drive out. But you gotta stop at the boardwalks. Get out, walk, sit, listen and experience it.” If you can find a bench, “just spend half an hour doing nothing, sort of absorbing it.”
It's hard to imagine taking a break from the rush of everyday life to do nothing except look at a landscape. But if you’re open to the stillness, you will understand why Butcher calls the Everglades “the most lovely thing I think I’ve found in the world."
Learn More About Clyde Butcher
If you want to see Butcher’s large-form photographs with your own eyes, visit one of his galleries. Big Cypress is his main studio, but you’ll also find some lovely work in his Venice gallery, located near Sarasota.
If you can’t make it to Florida just yet, “Clyde Butcher: The Everglades” is a gorgeous coffee table book with photographs taken between 1986 and 2019. You can also follow him on Instagram, Facebook or sign up for regular updates through his newsletter.
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