A literary remembrance of Bill Belleville, whose storytelling celebrates the mystery and glory of our state’s waterways, and beckons us to go outside.

By Cynthia Barnett

This winter on a sunny weekday, I jostled my kayak into the warm waters of the Wekiva River in honor of Bill Belleville, one of the great chroniclers of what he called vernacular Florida—“the luxuriant particulars of nature, of culture, and of place.”

Belleville, naturalist, author, filmmaker, and a beloved Florida Humanities speaker, died last summer at the age of 75 after a long neurological decline. His literary legacy had spanned half a century: Seven acclaimed books including River of Lakes, his intimate biography of the St. Johns River; more than a thousand essays reported from the deep underwater caves of the Caribbean to the worn swivel chairs of Dave’s Barber Shop in old downtown Sanford; and award-winning film scripts such as “In Search of Xanadu,” his quest for the wild, romantic Florida that William Bartram described in his Travels of 1791.

“The Florida I have inside me is the Florida Bartram wrote about,” Belleville once said. “It’s mysterious and enchanting.”

Belleville’s storytelling was mysterious and enchanting, too. He often built his narratives around a quest to find something hidden or uncover a secret. Sometimes, he’d set out to get lost. Even after reporting on water from some of the world’s most remote outposts — the Galapagos Islands, Russia’s White Sea — his favorite place to lose himself was along his own, home river: the Wekiva.

Implausible as it seems just north of Orlando’s congested suburbs, you can still find Bartram’s Florida, and Belleville’s, along the subtropical tendril that rises from Wekiwa Spring and winds 16 miles to the St. Johns. (Wekiwa, the Creek word for a spring, was the Indigenous name.)

As I paddled past banks gnarled with the trees of fairy tales — dark roots spread like buttresses, oaks bent to arches, palms growing sidelong across the water — I could hear Belleville’s distinctive drawl. His Southern lilt fused the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland where he grew up and the old Florida where he chose to spend his adult life — an abiding decision he made at age 8 while peering into Silver Springs through a glass-bottom boat on holiday with his parents.

“Rivers have a mystic quality to them, a way of
helping us remember something we thought we had forgotten.”

—Salvaging the Real Florida.

Ten years ago, during one of his Florida Humanities talks, I had scribbled notes in the back of my copy of Salvaging the Real Florida. “Bill doesn’t feel that his own writing will change anyone’s mind,” I jotted to myself. “He hopes that his writing will get someone outside — even if it is just to sit outside — and find themselves.”

“Don’t wring your hands,” he told the audience that evening. “Get outside of yourself to restore your spirit.”

“I have watched these elegant limpkins wading in the shallow waters in their stealthy search for apple snails, heard them conversing more casually in a rachetlike clacking, and, by summer, seen young fledglings stumbling about an island rookery like giant clumsy ducklings, covered in a light down. Ephouskyca is a Wekiva bird, a river bird, and it belongs to the St. Johns Basin and to Florida; to come upon it each time is a pleasant surprise, like running into an old friend.”

— River of Lakes.

I met several of Belleville’s old friends picking through lily pads along the Wekiva, brown feathers lit golden in the late-afternoon sun. Ephouskyca is not modern taxonomy as I’d assumed; the limpkin’s scientific name is Aramus guarauna. Belleville was following in some old bootsteps, and still-older footsteps before those. “There is inhabiting the low shores and swamps of this river and the lakes of Florida,” Bartram wrote in Travels about the St. Johns, “a very curious bird, called by an Indian name, Ephouskyca, which signifies in our language the crying bird.”

Keeping and pronouncing Indigenous names, Belleville wrote in an essay on Florida’s coontie plant, which the Creek called conti hateka, could help bond us in shared heritage. His penchant to follow the human story, like an old map, led him to the Caribbean to report on the Taíno, Indigenous people whose language resembled that of northeast Florida’s Timucua and who made coontie griddle cakes like the Indians here; to Eatonville to write about Zora Neale Hurston; and to the wreck of the S.S. Commodore, sunk off Jacksonville in 1897 with Stephen Crane onboard.

Of the many literary paths he retraced, he seemed to relate best to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in having moved to Florida as a young writer and become fully, almost religiously, inspired by the state’s native wilds and culture. Like her, he bought an old Cracker house. His, four miles outside Sanford, had been hand-built of heart cypress in 1928 “off one of those little dirt roads that used to define what the geography of the place was all about.”

When developers broke ground for a mall that would change everything, Belleville decided to stay put and “address what happens to a sense of community, and what happens to identity, by chronicling the change.” He was touched when the resulting book, Losing It All to Sprawl, brought an outpouring of letters and emails from readers around the country who shared stories of their own, profound losses to unfettered growth.

Loss of vernacular Florida — not only wildlands and waters, but historic architecture and place — also severs the values that connect us in spite of differences. Belleville wrote of his politically incorrect country neighbor who lived in another old cracker house nearby. During one of their passing conversations in the street, the man “stopped midway in a sentence and said, ‘red shouldered hawk’.”

“We both looked up then, searching for the shrill whistle the hawk makes, up high in his orbit as he searches the ground for little things that move. And sure enough, there he was, in the midst of a wide elegant swoop, like a finely-crafted Chinese kite, except without the string. We both smiled then, at the hawk and each other and the notion that something that wild can still exist here, just over our heads. ”

—Losing It All to Sprawl

The river preacher was never preachy. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Belleville as a writer was his ultimate rejection of the forms the rest of us rely on most. After years of reporting on the environment for Discovery Channel, Newsweek and countless others, he felt that journalism was too often corrupted by false objectivity. Science writing, he said, was too abstract. Advocacy was too polemic. He gently admonished “econinnies” — environmental political correctness he feared would drive people apart rather than drawing them together around shared awe for wild waters, lands and animals.

For as many dear friends as he counted among scientists, he also did not put all his stock in “science-based” conservation—the mantra oft-repeated by elected officials who are in fact far more moved by their supporters’ passions than by data points. The work of the writer, and the environmental humanities at large, is to help people feel, to touch their hearts.

The father of modern hydrology, Luna Leopold, son of the American ecologist Aldo Leopold, believed the same. Only a “reverence for rivers” — a shared ethic based on deep feeling — would lead Americans to care for water in a way that technology, economic signals, or the legal system never could.

As I paddled a narrow detour called Rock Springs Run, one of the most popular runs in Central Florida for its twisty mystique and emerald shallows set against the tea-brown river, I could feel the reverence and see what it had wrought. Thanks in part to Belleville, and to a larger collective of river-lovers bound by deep affinity, the Wekiva is one of the best-protected rivers in Florida. Whether this lovely tendril — or any other Florida waterway — can sustain its vernacular wild will depend on that human reverence; on the humanities as much as the science.

On an assignment that brought him back to the place where he’d fallen for Florida as a child, Belleville got to join a scuba expedition to map the limestone caves beneath Silver Springs. In Salvaging the Real Florida, he described the aftermath as vividly as the adventure itself. He rose in the spring’s upwelling to see a glass-bottom boat moving silently above. Looking through his mask, he caught the wide eyes of a little boy with his face pressed down against the glass.

“Can there be any difference between me, the bass and the gators, the old Sea Hunt set, the imported monkeys, the bottomless spring? Another myth, a sacred story, in a little boy’s imagination has been created. I don’t know where it will lead him, long after I’m physically gone from this spring, this earth. But it gives me great joy to know that, in some way, I have entered the sacrosanct dreams of a child, an inviolable place. If he is careful, he might also store this moment away for a lifetime.”

Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of four books, including The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans, out in July 2021 from W.W. Norton. She is a fifth-generation Floridian raising a sixth generation in Gainesville, where she teaches at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications.

Cynthia Barnett is an award-winning environmental journalist and author of four books, including The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans, out in July 2021 from W.W. Norton. She is a fifth-generation Floridian raising a sixth generation in Gainesville, where she teaches at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications.

FORUM Magazine Spring 2021, Written in Water

This article originally appeared in the Spril 2021 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.