Fifteen years ago, before I started teaching at the University of South Florida, the St. Pete campus' Florida Studies Program called me about a part-time gig. The directors wanted me to teach a two-semester course, required of graduate students in the program, called "Rivers of Florida." This wildly experimental, experiential class would explore the state's waterways from the Perdido to the River of Grass. Along the way, we would soak in the geology, hydrology, literature, history, and art of Florida's rivers.
The honchos at USF St. Pete told me I would be co-teaching with Bill Belleville, a nature writer based out of Sanford. Bill had recently published “River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River,” and the book became our model. This 200-page travelogue packed in a lifetime of exploration of reading. Bill described cave dives in nightmarishly-close spring vents; he hung life onto the dry bones of government reports; with wit and erudition, he described everything from inland sharks (yes, they exist) to painter Winslow Homer and a Frederick Delius symphony.
Long after that memorable school year, Bill and I remained friends. He stayed at my house when giving talks in the area, we camped together, and we shared our love for Florida nature and literature. I hung around like a scholarly remora. With over a half dozen books and 1,000 articles to his credit, Bill knew how to write about this state better than almost anyone I have met.
Then he died, late last July, after a long neurological decline. A regional treasure, at 75, gone.
Bill "was a wonderful writer," Carl Hiaasen tells Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, "who always portrayed Florida with a native insight and special affection."
For months, since his death, I have sifted through the lessons Bill gave me. Read everything, he told me; don't be afraid of scientific or bureaucratic jargon. Immerse yourself in the heritage, history, ecology, and evolution of your place. If you want nature writing to bring people to a certain position, avoid taking sides. Bill succeeded in Orlando's conservative exurbs because he convinced people to see nature for themselves. He got folks onto the river, showed them what to look for, then trusted them to reach their own conclusions.
Hagiography is rough on naturalists. Like a lot of outdoor enthusiasts, Bill was a tough nut. Not a big guy, he played football in college and always carried himself like a sensitive jock. A running back who read poetry. Bill stood with his head cocked to one side, and had a way of talking to you through his cayenne gray beard using only half his mouth. I cannot decide whether he was loved or revered—or both.
What he could do was write. "I admired Bill to no end," Jeff Klinkenberg tells CL, "as someone who squeezed every ounce out of his life in Florida"; his message was always, "rise out of that armchair and explore."
Follow Bill Belleville up the Ocklawaha, for example, our state's most beautiful and controversial river. Bill describes its entrance "like walking into a deserted movie theater—a show with no ushers or ticket takers, but one where the film is still playing over and over .... you slip quietly into a solitary seat in the cool darkness, picking up where the last person left off, a person who might have been here yesterday or five centuries ago."
As he guides us upstream, Belleville seamlessly folds in natural and human histories. He nods in appreciation to Sidney Lanier and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Without getting lost in detail, he reviews the river's "twenty artesian springs," its impossibly complex hydrology, and endemic darters (or "marine relics") that have hung around the braided tributary since it was a "sprawling saltwater lagoon."
This single chapter bristles with fresh language and homegrown book knowledge, with deeply informed judgement but not opinion. Belleville pauses to describe a cypress knee, "like leather upholstered over a sponge," then outlines the pain felt by those who opposed the Ocklawaha's mid-20th century dredging. He spares no punches on the ecological and human cost of Rodman Reservoir, a prized spot for bass fishing, but stops short of pushing the reader into a political corner; instead he turns us "back to enchantment."
“River of Lakes” lets Nature hold center stage. Even though Bill chronicled personal adventures, the St. Johns shaped his path. He regarded his own journey as one chapter in an almost timeless narrative—following Sidney Lanier and Rawlings, his Delius and William Bartram, past the freshwater Timucua, to a Pleistocene Florida of giant armadillos and five-ton sloths.
Belleville wrote in such a way that taught us to slow down, to watch the river flow. I imagine his spirit at an unmarked spring that he helped discover and that he nicknamed "Bear Cub Spring." From this tiny crack in the karst, a crystalline stream runs into the blackwater Wekiva. The Wekiva feeds into the St. Johns just below Lake Monroe. From there the currents and tide carry him past Lake George, Palatka, and onto the river's main steam.
All of us are only single players in a long procession. The writer is gone but the words remain, carrying us out to sea.
Thomas Hallock teaches English at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. You can read about his forthcoming book, “A Road Course in Early American Literature,” via roadcourse.us.
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