You've got to hand it to the Army Corps of Engineers. No agency is better at keeping itself supplied with projects, and in Florida the Corps has pulled off the astonishing coup of fouling up the environment and then being assigned to undo its own handiwork. During the 1960s, as W. Hodding Carter notes in Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades from Its Friends, Foes, and Florida (Atria, $24), the Corps transformed the "slow meandering 116-mile" Kissimmee River, a critical piece of the Everglades ecosystem, into a "fifty-six-mile ramrod-straight canal." "Birds disappeared," Hodding writes, "plants and fish died, and [the Kissimmee] began to look like what it was, a depressing drainage ditch, surrounded by ghostly S-turns -- the old riverbed filled with muck." Now the Corps is working with the South Florida Water Management District to restore part of the river to its natural state, at a cost of $524 million as compared with the original price tag of $29 million.

Some of the restoration involves blowing up structures the Corps itself had installed, and after visiting the river Carter reflects on the changing times: "It's all so absolving. Destroying humankind's mistakes to revive nature, restore some balance to the most unbalanced system in America. I start to wonder. . . . Can't we just blow up Hoover Dam as well? It's a beautiful sight -- watching these structures destroyed to save a natural environment -- as if Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang had taken over the world."

In a lighter mood, Carter took time out from his ecological explorations to frolic in Weeki Wachee Springs, which he calls "the last bastion of American maidenhood." Weeki Wachee Springs is the home of a mermaid theme park, "a frosty sip of Coca-Cola in the heat of Everglades politics," and while there Carter talked the management into letting him audition to become a merman. It didn't take him long to feel uncomfortable being watched from behind glass as he went through his routine: "Instead of my spoofing Weeki Wachee," he decided, "Weeki Wachee is spoofing me."

-- Dennis Drabelle