JOIN US FOR A 'SOFT LAUNCH' AS BILL READS FROM 'THE PEACE OF BLUE' AT MAYA BOOKS & MUSIC IN SANFORD, FL'S HISTORIC DOWNTOWN ON SUN. SEPT. 21 AT 4 P.M. Bill will also describe his new book and answer questions about it. Book sale & signing will follow. Refreshments.*** Check back for descriptions of more formal presentations at the Orlando Public Library and many other venues throughout Florida.
A series of stories in the genre of creative non-fiction, all having to do in some way with water---around it, above it, below it, and so on. THANKS to ARTIST Jim Draper for the use of the beautiful image "Fern Spring" for the cover.
NEED A SPEAKER WHO CARES ABOUT NATURE AND SENSE OF PLACE ? Bill is on the approved list of Humanities Professionals compiled by the Fl. Humanities Council. As such, your group can request that he give a presentation on the nature of Florida as it reveals itself in all its many forms. Understanding how this wild nature shapes culture---and sense of place---is key to understanding our place in the world.
Check out the link below for information on the FHC's Speakers Bureau.
Former Fla. Gov. & U.S. Sen. BOB GRAHAM is filmed at the edge of Silver Springs in mid-Feb. in preparation for a forthcoming PBS film on springs our non-profit Equinox Documentaries is producing. Entitled "HIDDEN SECRETS OF FLORIDA SPRINGS" it will reveal the scientific "secrets" of hidden fossils and labyrinthic passageways---but will emphasize the more dangerous "secret" in which most of our springs are dying a slow death by loss of flow & increase in nitrates. This last one is a "secret" we can reverse---as long as we build a consensus among citizens to make it happen.
This is Fern Hammock Springs, which feeds into Juniper springs in the Ocala National Forest. This is the spring that inspired Jacksonville artist Jim Draper to paint the image "Fern Spring", which is used for the cover of "Peace of Blue"
Me and my 'yak and the sweet subtropical river experience
The cover of "River of Lakes" shows me in a kayak just after dawn along the middle St. Johns River.
"Wekiva Reflections" by the talented Jacksonville artist Jim Draper
Read about two new springs we recently found in a state that is far from being "nature on a leash"..
News article about two new springs we were able to discover and to map with a state GIS specialist a few weeks ago in the wilderness of the swamps within the 110 square miles of public land in the Wekiva River basin.
Journal of Florida Studies
A journey devoted to inter-disciplinary studies with an extended essay I was asked to write that deconstructs the making of our Equinox PBS film "In Marjorie's Wake"
WLRN, Public Radio for South Florida
Listen to an on-air interview on the "Tropical Currents" program in which Bill discusses his book "Salvaging the Real Florida"
EARTH ETHICS INSTITUTE
"Salvaging" included on the "RECOMMENDED READING" list of the Earth Ethics Institute of Miami-Dade College
Medallion for the National Outdoor Book Award
"SALVAGING" IS A 2011 NATIONAL OUTDOOR BOOK AWARD WINNER
FROM THE JUDGES: "Belleville is a talented writer and a sheer pleasure to read. He takes readers throughout Florida on hikes, paddles and dives---and through lagoons, forests, and swamps. Intermixed with his stories are fresh insights and strong reasons why the remaining wild lands of Florida need to stay that way." Previous award winners include Farley Mowat, Robert Michael Pyle, David Attenborough, Roderick Nash, Richard Bangs, and Aldo Leopold
Sydicated "American Variety" radio program
MP3 recording of an interview on "American Variety" radio program about "Salvaging"
Op-Ed Essay that champions Florida's natural places, and explains why diluting laws to protect them in the name of "economic prosperity" is reactionary and generally mindless : "Nature Didn't Burst the Bubble"
This is a shot I took of Bob Giguere, my partner in our non-profit film group, Equinox Documentaries, videotaping in the deep lagoon outside of Wekiwa Springs a few days ago. We were putting finishing touches on a short film on turtles & ecology--and, if lucky, we might even work a bit o' culture & myth into the story.
"AQUIFERious" won the top honor for non-fiction books published in Florida in 2010 ! The stunning collection of images of our springs by artist Margaret Ross Tolbert is a compelling blend of art, science, adventure and literature. Sure am proud to be a contributor with an introductory essay that was a literary and cultural riff on our spring system here. www.Aquiferious.com.
Gar schooling in the run of Blue Spring seem only too happy to oblige when I shot this one..
A native passion flower in bloom, as seen in my backyard. Bartram sketched one of these during his excursions into Florida.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO RECENT ANTHOLOGIES
* BARTRAM'S LIVING LEGACY: THE TRAVELS & the NATURE OF THE SOUTH - Anthology that both reprints the original "Travels" (1791) as well as presents a number of essays from Southern nature writers about the natural places they love---places once visited by the naturalist in the 18th century. Exquisite landscape art created especially for the book by Philip Juras. Edited by Dorinda Dallmeyer. Mercer University Press. In my 5,000 word piece, my hiking bud Steve and I venture into a swamp that's on the cusp of a tributary of the St. Johns.
* "UNSPOILED: Writers Speak For Florida's Coast": Contributors to this anthology argue against drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for a variety of very good reasons---some scientific, some more sublime. Writers include Connie May Fowler, Jeff Klinkenberg, Diane Roberts, Janisse Ray, Jan DeBlieu, Jack Rudloe, Susan Cerulean, Dawn Radford, myself, et. al.. Ironically, the essays were written and the book went to press BEFORE the BP disaster. This is both timely and very sad.
Noted nature writer Terry Tempest Williams has described "UnspOILed" as one of her favorite five books for the year. "...Each of these essays from memoir to environmental history creates a strong argument for a deeper sense of place..."
Peter Matthiessen, National Book Award-winning American author, praises this collection as: “A lively assemblage of strong arguments for the environmental preservation of Florida’s wonderful wild coasts.”
Bob Giguere, volunteer Julie Fisher, and myself at our Equinox exhibit during the Friends of the Wekiva's annual Wekiva Riverfest. For more on the good work this non-profit does, click on the live link describing the FOWR in the right column.
NOVA is one of over 35 springs that feed the complex Wekiva River system.
GIVING a presentation at UF's School of Law in Gainesville, Fla. on "Sprawl"
COLORIZED postcard "On the Beautiful St. Johns" from the new book "Florida's American Heritage River: Images From the St. Johns Region". I wrote the Introduction & served as consultant for the project.
HISTORIAN Jim Robison (r) and myself discussing something obscure in prep for a talk on "Along the Wekiva."
New History Book on the Wekiva River
THE WRITER, in a cypress moment
A chronicle of researching and filming our new PBS film produced by Equinox Documentaries.
Paddling on Rock Springs Run during a Friends/Wekiva River outing.
"IN MARJORIE'S WAKE", which aired in PBS markets in Florida last year, is now being broadcast nationally. Contact your local PBS affiliate to see if they have scheduled it. (Photo of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings crabbing at Salt Springs courtesy Smathers Archives at UF.)
"Rivers of the Green Swamp: An Anthology" is newly released. "All rivers need friends like these," says Janisse Ray, author of "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood." Published by the Florida Studies Program, USF, St. Pete, Fla. To purchase a copy or for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org
"SPRAWL" HONORED WITH THE 'AL BURT EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM AWARD' BY THE '1000 FRIENDS OF FLORIDA.'
'SPRAWL' NAMED ONE OF "BEST BOOKS OF 2006"
The highly-regarded Library Journal has named "Sprawl" as one of the "Best Books of 2006", a list of 34 general fiction and non-fiction titles. (out of a possible 56,000). Other titles were by Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford and more.
[author photo: Marisha Camp]
An early archival photo of the headspring of the Wekiva River, which figures large in "Losing it All to Sprawl." Of this book, authors have written:"[It] is about one man's small piece of a vanishing paradise, yet it's really about all of us who cherish Florida and fear for its future. Bill Belleville writes gorgeously and straight from the heart. This is a compelling and insightful book and it's impossible to read it without feeling sadness, outrage and awe." - Carl Hiaasen."Bill Belleville writes about the old Florida, the real Florida, like a poet or maybe a preacherman---certainly a prophet. He's up there with Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and William Bartram." - Diane Roberts, author of "Dream State."
Musician and teacher Jennifer Chase joined writer and educator Leslie Poole on the river journey in our documentary film "In Marjorie's Wake." The film, which retraces the real life excursion of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on the St. Johns, also examines the inextricable ways in which the landscape can shape culture. For more on the making of the film, click on the link to Equinox Documentaries blog in the margin to the right. Jen also wrote ten songs about the literary-river experience, and they are available on a CD via the Equinox link.
June 1993-May 2007
I've written about Shep in books and essays. He was always there; watching, playing, having fun. He was just the sweestest and smartest dog. And he was up for most anything. We had great times, sometimes just us, sometimes with others, poking around on the trails. Thanks to folks, past and present, who cared for him, and to those very special people who always will.
This is what I love about wild places in Florida---visions that could be from a few weeks ago, or a few centuries. The photo to the right is me in the wild landscape at the edge of the St. Johns River inside the Lake Harney Wilderness Area. The St. Johns and its surrounding basin are home to some of the greatest biological diversity of plants and animals in all of the Florida peninsula, both on land and in the waters.
Rivers like this---and the springs and caves of the aquifer that feed them---are among my favorite places to go and, if I'm lucky, to participate in the dialogue between wilderness and the human spirit.
But that dialogue isn't limited to these rivers, and can still happen in Florida wherever the intact ecological systems still endure---the coastal lagoons, the un-roaded Keys, the offshore reefs---any real place where the sweet and noble force of nature has the energy to sing its hymn of comfort and light.
Our forthcoming film for Equinox Documentaries has to do with our Florida springs and how they've shaped our landscape---and our culture---through time. For more about it, click on the live link in the right column under "View Our New Springs Film Trailer Here!" [Thanks much to the very talented photographer Delany Dean for this photo]
* Perhaps no state suffers more from development than Florida. A real-estate agent once observed to longtime science writer and documentary filmmaker Bill Belleville that “all of Florida is for sale.”Belleville witnessed this firsthand as condos and restaurants crept toward his rustic “Cracker” house about 20 miles north of Orlando, eventually engulfing it. His home was built using heart cypress in the 1920s, “back in the days when it took resourcefulness and common sense to live in Florida and not air-conditioning and bug spray.”His account, Losing It All to Sprawl, is a heartfelt tribute to the natural beauty Florida bulldozers are erasing relentlessly, acre by acre. Belleville combines the story of rampant development with tales of his travels to the hidden wonders of Florida, including the pure freshwater springs beneath the Wekiva River, not far from Disney World.With prose drifting eloquently from anger to hope to sorrow, he grieves for the state he has called home for three decades. “Florida is for sale, has been for a while now, and it makes me sad as hell,” he writes. “I’ll stay as long as I can, but one day soon it will all go: the marsh wrens and the butterflies, the cactus and blackberry vines, the old Cracker house, the feeling.”- Todd Neale, AUDUBON MAGAZINE (Editor's Choice)• This book is about loss-the loss of community, neighborliness, connection with the land, wetlands, potable water, wildlife, and native plants; in short, the loss of Florida's unique character. Once known for its vast stretches of fecund wetlands and untainted springs, Florida is fast becoming a land of homogeneous, sterile developments. Here, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and nature writer Belleville (River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River) describes the gradual destruction of his Cracker-style rural homestead and neighborhood near Orlando in central Florida. Knowing that this area will be lost forever under strip malls and apartment buildings, he documents the region's human and natural history. His thoughts meander like the wild streams he loves to paddle; chapters merely designate a convenient place to break. A sensitive writer relating a story that is both heartbreaking and poignant, Belleville displays a thorough understanding of ecology and the economic, social, and environmental impact of uncontrolled development. Given that urban sprawl is pervasive in the United States, this work should attract a wide readership. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.-Maureen J. Delaney-Lehman. LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred Review)•...Belleville reminds us there is an irreplacable Southern rural environment that we are losing just so we can all have T-shirts from The Gap.Like the memoir of a beloved friend who is dying, Belleville writes poetically of the loss of this Florida. Although he grew up in a rural area on Maryland's Eastern Shore, he writes lovingly about his adopted state..."- Cathy Mathias, FLORIDA TODAY• Bill Belleville, a well-known Florida nature writer, shows the impact of relentless growth on one corner of Florida, a few houses on a dead-end road four miles outside the town of Sanford. "Losing it All to Sprawl" is a compelling story of a low-key community that had made its peace with nature, and how a mall and a few residential developers killed it..Despite the book's focus on a tiny patch of the state, it provides an enormous amount of information on how government, business and the environment work in Florida.- David Fleshler, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL• [This book] approaches the topic from a whole new avenue. Author Bill Belleville colorfully details his history in Florida, centering on the purchase and maintenance of a 1940s-era "Cracker" house. Belleville weaves tales of vivid scenery and feral neighbors with the environmental devastation that overcame his rural neighborhood as the realtors and bulldozers rolled in. "All of Florida is for sale," an interested real estate agent had explained to Belleville. [It] seems to dare the reader: Now that you know, what are you going to do? - E THE ENVIRONMENTAL MAGAZINEBill Belleville's "Losing It All to Sprawl" is a book most notable for its author's descriptive power. This searingly beautiful work, at once plea and elegy, confronts what we have sacrificed for residential-commercial development and short-term convenience. It is at once a teaching text in which we learn about the ecosystem that we have so thoughtlessly and rapaciously undermined and a personal story of one individual's confrontation with loss.Bill Belleville teaches us to appreciate the integrity with which Cracker architecture raised domiciles whose design did not attack the hot and swampy environment, but rather took advantage of it by working with it. He patiently explains the price of progress, how the paving over of our state not only creates unmanageable runoff of poisons but also undermines the delicate balance of rain, natural water storage, and natural water flow that allows this peninsula to exist. Dry wells, sinkholes, and impoverished flora and fauna are consequences of greed and irresponsibility. And much worse is to come.Losing It All to Sprawl is a mighty and moving achievement, a telling antidote to the pro-growth boosterism that shapes the decisions of all too many private and public leaders.- Philip K. Jason, Ph.D. NAPLES SUN TIMES • Next to the travel writing there needs to be a shelf for the literature of staying put. On it would be Thoreau's Walden, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross Creek, and William Least Heat Moon's Prairy Erth, books whose writers confined their skills of observation to one place while letting the mind range far. It can be a greater challenge, in this form, to construct narrative; the writer needs to tease out the larger implications in small incidents, to sing the turns of the natural year, and to trace the deeper story of land and time. Bill Belleville does all of this, but his Losing It All to Sprawl has more story than most, as he sets the value of one place against the accelerating tragedy of what those who favor it call "development."Belleville is most known as the exploring author of River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River and Sunken Cities, Sacred Cenotes, and Golden Sharks. But in this book he documents his decade in a house down unpaved Sewell Road off S.R. 46 in Sanford, in an area once known for celery farming. When he gets there the neighborhood has lapsed from its agricultural heyday and a ruined orchard has long been going back to woodland. Divorced and somewhat rootless, he gradually falls in love as he learns the materials and meaning of his Cracker house, built pragmatically for the climate before air conditioning:"The house was constructed from dense, heavy, heart cypress, which provided its own measure of natural insulation, and it was up on concrete blocks to allow air to circulate under it. Its elevation also kept it above the low ground, preparing it for that special Florida moment when monsoonal summer rains overwhelm the earth's ability to absorb them. Its roof was metal so that it would reflect the sun, and its generously wide gables and overhangs would shelter most of the windows from the overhead glow. Two giant deciduous hardwoods also stood guard, proving more shade--a southern magnolia to the front and a water oak to the side between the house and the garage. The structure was more rectangular than not, and most of its girth was arranged on a north-south axis for good reason: Its exterior walls could absorb solar heat from a low winter sun while also avoiding the scorch when the summer sun was high overhead.""For good reason" is the thought that beats through this book. The logic and grace that the builders and owners of this house and their neighbors brought to their lives, whose hard work and small pleasures Belleville comes to know, are set against the many bad reasons of those taking their place—the fatuous belief in progress, the politicians who give away more to developers than the development will bring in, the desperate agreement of those who want work, and behind them the long sequence of mistakes that is the history of Florida's relationship to the land.Even as Belleville is, like the area's gopher tortoises, finding his burrow, out on the nearby highway a new predator is entering the territory, its cry the beeping of the back-up signals on huge bulldozers. A mall is to be built. And as it arrives, everything changes. S.R. 46 doubles in width. Auto dealerships arrive and send up searchlights. "The sky has been diluted by light, and constellations that must have been comforting for ages have disappeared," Belleville writes. The gopher tortoises, displaced, seek new habitat. Homes are sold to a speculator who rents them to drifters, thus lowering the value of the nearby homes which he is avid to buy. Belleville cast the same naturalist's eyes with which he studies an owl or a rabbit on those who move in; he sees the temporary workers who come for quick money and drug themselves on the proceeds, the neglected children, the rage of a thwarted moneymaker and the timidity of a homeless woman who camps nearby, the idealism of those who fight and the pragmatic resignation of those who leave. For relief from the dismay of sad discoveries, he takes us on escapes into protected (but still threatened) areas, where he takes joy in discovering a natural spring and understanding the land as the Timacua and Mayaca and Seminoles saw it, as the contrast between the untouched and the despoiled widens.Just as he reads the landscape, Belleville reads the history of Florida. He often draws on Rawling's Cross Creek, his nearest literary neighbor, but he forages through all sorts of materials. The book includes a bibliography that ranges from the first observers of Florida, like William Bartram in the 18th century, to the geological bulletins and hydrology studies which document what's happening today. At one point Belleville gets his hands on a rare copy of the out of print (since 1929) From Eden to Sahara by John Kunkel Small, which predicts what will happen as Florida dries up and comes to match the earth's other places at this latitude.At the same time, Belleville gathers the unwritten history of his particular place from those who have lived there. Not all is nostalgia--while we get the pleasures of flowering shrubs and bathing in the coquina pond, we also learn about the exploitation of workers and the bad choices which almost always have to do with water, the once-abundant resource that led to overwatering which leached the nutrients from the soil, the flooded celery fields vulnerable to fungus controlled by copper sulfate till it built up copper in the soil , the cutting of slash pine woods to make way for crops which couldn't thrive on the poorly drained soil, till the land became more desirable for development than any other use.As the doom of Belleville's paradise got ever closer, I found myself silently urging him to DO something, the way one yells at the hero in a horror movie. But of course that yearning for someone else to be the hero is what lets all of us stay passive. Belleville shows us those who fight and the immense forces arrayed against them, but with sad grace he does merely the best he can for his bit of land, and the most he can, in writing this book, to stir us all.- Lynne Barrett, FLORIDA BOOK REVIEW.• Acclaimed journalist, documentary filmmaker, and environmental activist Bill Belleville chronicles his experiences living in a Cracker farmhouse in Seminole County, Florida. Part environmental history, part memoir, and part muckraker journalism, Losing it All to Sprawl illustrates how, although others had successfully coexisted with the harsh and delicate Florida environment before the 1960s, the present short-sighted reliance on land development as Florida's economic engine and a lack of political will make any moves toward greater sustainability and reversing negative environmental impact as the Sunshine State grows nearly impossible.Belleville offers less an analysis of the ecological or sociological impact of sprawl in central Florida than a first-person observation of sprawl in action. Drawing inspiration from the writings of naturalist William Bartram and novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Belleville seeks to provide an updated description of central Florida that is both a naturalist's log and a focused and sympathetic celebration of locality.As a journalist, Belleville has traveled the world, and in this work he describes his many adventures with like-minded friends visiting nature preserves and National Forest areas to explore the tangled, beautiful, and unique drainage basins of the Wekiva and St. John's Rivers. He expresses a zealot's passion for the environment and a child's wonder for discovery through stories of seeking new and uncharted springs deep in the woods and at times diving into their depths. Coupled with this exploration of wild central Florida ecosystems is his own intimate observations of life from a house that was intentionally built to be adaptive to the subtropical climate. - Joshua C. Youngblood, H-NET Published by: H-FLORIDA•Bill Belleville is a documentary filmmaker and author specializing in conservation: his work has appeared extensively in magazines, has been anthologized in collections, and he's written many books, but LOSING IT ALL TO SPRAWL hits closer to home than many of his other books. Bill Belleville writes of his historic Cracker farmhouse and old neighborhood of central Florida even as it's being wiped out: any who have visited the area in the last few years will readily acknowledge the truths and observations in LOSING IT ALL TO SPRAWL. In addition to documenting the underlying social, political and economic forces at work in promoting sprawl, Belleville offers Floridians and others hope for appreciating nature. - MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW• The doomed patch of land author Bill Belleville makes the focus of “Losing It All to Sprawl” isn’t particularly noteworthy, but that’s part of what gives Belleville’s book such emotional power. Though the setting is northern Seminole County, it could be almost anywhere in Florida.Belleville, one of Florida’s foremost nature writers, interweaves personal experiences with careful observations of the natural world around Sewell Road and in the nearby Wekiva River basin, a crucial corridor for Florida black bears and other wildlife. In a manner reminiscent of Janisse Ray’s Georgia-based “Ecology of A Cracker Girlhood,” Belleville shows the connection between the personal and the universal. The author covers the basics of Florida’s failed growth-management process, but he wisely avoids a slog through bureaucratic detail and instead concentrates on depicting a particular place and time -- the moment before a way of life vanishes. Probing the memories of the house’s previous owners, Belleville evokes the history of the place, its quiet and natural changes over the decades. - Gary White, THE LAKELAND (FLA) LEDGER:• Our environmental prophet has been hard at work again, and this time, Bill Belleville gets personal on us. The true-blue Florida boy ("I've been sinking into Florida for decades now," is the opening of his introduction) shares the slow-heartbreak story of how he bought and lovingly restored a venerable Cracker house in Seminole County. Actually, to say Belleville did it with love is a gross understatement. He did it with the type of reverence that he holds for the Wekiva River and surrounding woods that was near his property, and the rest of natural Florida at large. The anguish comes in the form of big-box development that arrives in his driveway, and his decision to move on. Belleville weaves the details of the history of his Sanford home and the land it was built on into his own private memoirs. The result reads like poetry and feels like a prayer. - Lindy Shepherd, THE ORLANDO WEEKLY• This is a book for people who are concerned over the rapid change they see taking place in Florida, be they native or newcomer. There's plenty to learn and ponder as you follow Belleville's literary hike over the sandy uplands and lush swamp bottoms of Central Florida -- and along the way, if you pay attention, you could well develop a deeper sense of place for this true wonderland." - John Burr, FLORIDA TIMES-UNION •At any given moment, most Floridians can see a high-rise crane or hear the grind of a backhoe. That's because Florida is under development and urban sprawl is quickly filling the peninsula with Perfectville strip malls and cul de sacs. No one knows it better than nature journalist Bill Belleville who lost his central Florida village to developers and watched first-hand as the old neighborhood was suffocated...Belleville recalls a once wide-eyed territory run by Timucuan Indians, conquistadors and ranch crackers, and examines the current battles between preservation and expansion.- FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE • Bill Belleville's book - part memoir, part poetic observation of the natural world and part analysis of our shared contemporary condition - provides a warning sincere and serious and urgent."- Dennis Barone, HARTFORD (CT) COURANT• “Losing it All to Sprawl” by Bill Belleville is an ode and lament to the changing face of Florida, particularly Central Florida, but the warnings apply to all parts of the state. Subtitled “How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape,” “Losing It” is a blow-by-blow account of the complete destruction and reinvention of a once rural bucolic neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, north of Orlando. Belleville bought a 1925 vintage vernacular “Cracker Cottage” on a dirt road in 1990, thinking it would be the perfect place to lead the peaceful solitary life of the serious writer.Sanford began to change radically in 1993 with the announcement of an impending development of a Sanford Mall. Newspapers and businesses cheered and developers begin to smack their lips in anticipation, but Belleville began to mourn the inevitability and the extermination of a simpler way of life, more in harmony with nature.A documentary filmmaker and writer specializing in environmental issues, Belleville had been visiting Florida since childhood and was alarmed by the changes. He chronicles the pains of development back to the 19th century, where there were serious plans to drain all of the Everglades. He documents the ominous drop in water tables, the advance of pollution and the growing phenomenon of sinkholes in the porous landscape of Central Florida...- Skip Sheffield, BOCA RATON (FL) NEWS• More than 15 years ago, nature writer Bill Belleville left Folly Beach and moved back to his home state of Florida, where he settled into a simple, vernacular farmhouse well outside Orlando.He called his wood-frame home a "Cracker home" because it reflected the lessons and heritage of some of the earliest settlers who were intimately connected with central Florida's land and swamps. As a freelance writer and filmmaker, he would spend much of his day around the place, noticing the special rhythms of its nature, from trees and flowers to bugs and birds. He began falling in love.Then the mall came, and speculators began snapping up nearby properties, often renting them to rowdy folks who would continue to drive down nearby home values, making the few remaining residents on large tracts more willing to sell. The roar of construction equipment moved ever closer.Belleville's sad experience is not unique, unfortunately. What is unique is his ability to report and write persuasively about the seemingly endless march of development and the poignant trade-offs involved.He weaves the development news into the historical context of the land and into the beauty of some nearby areas that remain pristine and protected. There's a moving meeting with an elderly woman who grew up in the house and is deeply appreciative of how Belleville looked after it.The narrative is a significant work for Lowcountry readers, because anyone with eyes can see similar storm clouds moving this way from central Florida.- Robert Behre, CHARLESTON (SC) POST & COURIER
"Elemental South" just won a special recognition award from the Southern Environmental Law Center during this year's competition. The Center annually recognizes "outstanding writing on the Southern environment." Elemental South, edited by Dorinda Dallmeyer and published by the University Press of Georgia, is an anthology that includes essays by a bunch of writers, including Rick Bass, Chris Camuto, Jan DeBlieu, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Janisse Ray, Thomas Rain Crowe, myself, etc. I was in awe of the company. (More info: www.SouthernEnvironment.org)
In 1929, botanist John Kunkel Small wrote a prophetic book about the impacts of development on the Florida landscape. Small, who had been collecting plants for the New York Botanical Garden for almost three decades here, was alarmed at how drainage and channelization were destroying the rare Florida that he loved. Without its vital wetlands, springs and rivers, the peninsula would eventually turn into a desert if trends continued, Small warned.
Out of print since 1929, this reprint is a valuable step in helping readers understand Florida's love-hate relationship with water. I was fortunate enough to work with an impressive group of professionals from the fields of science, graphic design, and publishing to make this book happen. Many of Small's original photos are included. Contact me for more info on this book, including ordering. (Cover photo of a sabal palm hammock on the lower Econlockhatchee River by Robert Boswell, M.D.)
Plans are now underway to use this book as way of explaining Florida's precarious water situation in a new Equinox Documentary.
BOOK REVIEWS & BLURBS about "SUNKEN CITIES"
Fom "Natural History" magazine, September 2004:
"Just about the time that you, dear reader, are pulling out of your driveway, heading for your daily aggression-filled hour on the expressway or inbound commuter train, Bill Belleville is probably tumbling backward off the gunwale of a diving boat into a crystal-blue ocean. An environmental journalist and filmmaker, Belleville has managed to make a decent living, as far as one can figure from these enjoyable essays, out of visiting ecologically engaging underwater sites in the West Indies and in Central and South America, and then writing about it for the folks at home. Nice work if you can get it.
It’s not all dog-paddling in a heated pool, though. Belleville is an expert diver whose wanderlust takes him to places few sane people would venture. In one early scene in the book he is dangling in a harness fifty feet above the water level of an overgrown limestone cenote, or sinkhole, deep in the jungle of the Dominican Republic. From that precarious position, a winch will lower him down to an inflatable raft floating on the shadowed waters far below. With a team of scuba-clad archaeologists, he will dive more than a hundred feet farther down into the cenote, to a pinnacle of rock that rises from the pit’s bottom (some 250 feet under water). From there, he and the rest of the team will get their bearings as they search for artifacts tossed into the sinkhole by pre-Columbian tribes as a sacrifice to their gods.
It’s cold, dark, and claustrophobic down there, with practically no margin for carelessness. But the journey, which leads to the discovery of shards of ancient pottery and the bones of extinct sloths, makes for a story of great suspense.
Equally chilling is Belleville’s account of a nocturnal dive off the coast of Cuba in search of the rarely seen, bioluminescent flashlight fish (Kryptophanaron alfredi). To spot its soft radiance, Belleville and a companion turn off their lamps before descending into near total darkness, aiming for an underwater cliff top. They can see neither their depth gauges, the research vessel above them, nor even one another. Except for the increasing crush of water pressure, the luminous flashes of the passing marine life, and the glow of their own ascending air bubbles (which roil the abundant plankton in the water), the effect is one of almost total sensory deprivation.
When Belleville finally pulls up, turns on his light, and looks at his digital wrist gauge, he finds that he’s dropped almost 110 feet, probably overshooting the target. For a tense ten minutes Belleville wanders around alone searching for his partner, whose light, if it’s on, is nowhere in sight. He’s afraid to swim very far in any one direction, terrified that, should he be forced to surface too far from the boat, he’ll be lost from sight, a helpless dot in the choppy waters that surround Cuba.
Fortunately for Belleville (and for readers with a low tolerance for stress), most of the brief excursions he describes in his book take place in far less threatening, though no less interesting, settings. Short essays describe travels to the interior of central Guyana, where rugged jungle and towering waterfalls become exotic destinations for ecotourism; to the ominously named Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, where conservationists try to enlist native fishermen in a project to preserve endangered sea turtles; and to the Peruvian Amazon, where a team of biologists is studying the behavior of the boto, an unusual, pink, freshwater dolphin. Belleville’s account of the commercial conch farm he visits on one of the Turks and Caicos Islands, an archipelago southeast of the Bahamas, depicts an operation not unlike that of a Midwest cattle ranch—though the conchs, which look like foot-long garden slugs, are destined for soup pots around the Caribbean, not fast-food joints in Tulsa.
Yet such is Belleville’s talent that even when he ventures into relatively familiar territory, he brings an unfamiliar perspective, finding adventure and wonderment in little-seen corners of the natural world. In one episode he describes cave-diving on the Suwannee River in northern Florida, and rejoices in "the singular wonder of being inside the living veins of the earth." In another, he and a college friend take a canoe trip into the heart of the Everglades. There, only a few dozen miles from the strip malls and beachfront condos where former commuters go to live out their days, are worlds out of time: transparent channels filled with needlefish, lone ospreys gliding past tangled mangrove shores, flocks of sulfur-winged butterflies."
""This collection of essays brings the reader to places that are noted for archaeological treasures, rare plants and animals, or great scenery, and water is the common denominator. Belleville, travel writer, scuba diver, and boater, seems always to be wet or preparing to be wet. As his armchair companions, readers may stay dry, but the expressive and descriptive prose allows them to experience the discovery and excitement as if they were there themselves. In the Amazon, the quest is for a freshwater dolphin. In the Florida Keys, it's the quiet backwaters that preserve the past, and so on, around the globe. Belleville is an old-fashioned adventurer, excited by what he finds, seeking just for the joy of finding. He must also be a man of great charm as he seems able to coax the most arcane information from his local guides...As a book to read at leisure, it is a fine treat."
-Danise Hoover, BOOKLIST, March 15, 2004
"Florida-based naturalist Bill Belleville journeys to one of the last travel frontiers: the underwater world. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Amazon, Belleville seeks out strange aquatic species and sunken archaeological sites. He witnesses the rare spawning of a coral reef. He introduces the freshwater pink dolphin, which Peruvian villagers believe to have magic powers. And he explores the underwater ruins of Port Royal, Jamaica, the "Pompeii of the Caribbean," swallowed by the sea during a 1691 earthquake.
These tales of adventure were originally published as magazine pieces and are crisply written in the you-are-there present tense. Belleville's writing is down to earth, with minimal jargon (one exception--he never defines precisely what a cenote is). He enlivens his prose with flashes of humor and indulges us urbanites with pop-culture analogies.
Water is not the only common theme flowing through these pieces. So is a love for unspoiled nature and an impatience with those who threaten it. Belleville has crafted each story to foster appreciation for the natural world.
- International Travel News, Sept, 2004 by Chris Springer
"I admire the precision, the poignancy and the passion of Bill Belleville's prose."
-Don George, LONELY PLANET Global Travel Editor
"What splendid adventures Bill Belleville guides us through! He is one of our great modern explorers, questing for gods in a time of technology, lusting for life. Here in this sensuous and unforgettable book he navigates us as deftly through language as he does Amazonian rivers or limestone fountains deep within the earth. His journey narratives are fluid, fresh, and piercingly poetic; what he finds is ceaselessly fascinating. I would travel with Bill Belleville to the ends of the earth."
-Janisse Ray, author of 'Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home' & 'Ecology of a Cracker Childhood'.
"Bill Belleville's writing is like a stream of phosphorescence in the ocean that he loves so well. Belleville's language creates a dreamy double vision, blending archetype and precision so well that the reader is convinced he has not merely read about jeweled morays and pink dolphins, but floated alongside them in tropical waters. These tales are not hairy-chested, macho attempts to conquer snowcapped peaks, but adventures into sensuality and meaning."
- Susan Zakin, author of 'Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement'
"With the release of a new book, 'Sunken Cities,Sacred Cenotes and "Golden Sharks: Travels of a Water-Bound Adventurer,' Florida author Belleville is that much closer to solidifying his reputation as a top-shelf nature writer. As much adventure story as naturalistic poetry, Belleville's latest excels at wrapping his eco-prose in a captivating form. After all, who doesn't love reading about sunken treasure?
For Belleville, these treasures are both artifacts and living; he gives as much breathless attention to coral reproduction as he does to a now-underwater city. As with "Deep Cuba" (Belleville's last book, recently reissued in paperback), "Sunken Cities" is a book that tackles ecological and political problems in a way that's engaging simply as a stand-alone story."
- THE ORLANDO (Fla.) WEEKLY. May 7, 2004
"Bill Belleville is a fearless Florida scuba diver, explorer and underwater adventurer. He also is a heck of a writer. His poetic images in his latest travel tale, "Sunken Cities, Sacred Cenotes & Golden Sharks," not only engage the reader but elevate his work to a higher level than just another trek through the jungle.
Each of these chapters -- already run in magazines, which accounts for their brevity -- could be a book unto itself, but Belleville seems content to recall the moments leading up to each memorable dive, the dive and then the spiritual or philosophical rush he gets from the dive.
He meets a lot of interesting characters, as one would in the swampy backwoods of Florida or on the remote islands and rivers of the Caribbean Basin."
- Rebecca Thomas, Staff Writer, Covington (Ga) News. April 29, 2004
ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING: WHAT'S THE POINT? (A short rant)
The information superhighway can be a busy, congested place, and we're all trying to navigate it without becoming roadkill.
One of the best ways to navigate anything, I've found, is to simply slow down. I feel there's a lot of wrong turns made by going way too fast, by wanting to be somewhere else other than where we are at the moment.
The natural world helps me slow down. It's a bit like fly tying---the behavior itself affords a certain grace. It just doesn't allow us to rush through it. That's one of the reasons I've chosen to write about experiences that take place under the sky, on the water, deep in the woods somewhere. Learning about habitats and ecology---of people and place---is an abiding theme. But, really, it gives me the chance to spend a lot of time playing outside.
Like naturalist Aldo Leopold, I don't think we can really connect or care for a place unless we have a gut relationship with it. We're losing our natural lands at an alarming rate---especially in Florida where I live. Citizens who years ago might not have wanted to rock the boat now feel a need to speak up and express their concern over this loss. Maybe my books, articles and films might suggest how urgent it is to forge a connection with these places. But, anything I can say in way of advocacy is only rhetoric; it pales next to a personal experience a reader or viewer may have with a natural landscape.
Jim Harrison has written that the danger of civilization is that "We piss away our lives on nonsense." Web sites, books, films---they can only do so much. They are tools, honestly, ways to lead us to authentic and real places in the world. But if we obsess on them, they lose their context. And, it's a conceit to think that only writers or artists have an exclusive grasp on blazing trails to these places. Celebrity can be very seductive, both for the one being celebrated as well as for the ones engaging in the celebration. We can help read the maps and use the compass. But, the experience of finding your way to a rare place that affords redemption is yours alone.
So, after you make your way through this site---or maybe sometime before--- turn off your computer, go outside, and breathe deeply. Take a walk in the woods. Snorkel or scuba dive in a spring, a lake or river, an ocean. Paddle your canoe or kayak until you can no longer hear the hum of the mechanized world. Travel to a distant rainforest or reef and get to know the people whose lives are shaped by the wonder of it all. Or just sit under a tree and relax. Let our genetic predisposition for the natural world kick in. You don't need me or anyone else to preach to you about protection or preservation. You'll know what to do.
- Bill Belleville