It's Sunday afternoon and the Seminole Towne Center is buzzing. Cars swarm to primo spots in the disturbed anthill of a parking lot. Inside, shoppers flit in and out of stores, buying up overpriced goods. This is Florida, but it's not the real Florida.
Down State Road 46, the swamps of Blackwater Creek are alive in the Seminole State Forest. Mosquitoes buzz and bite, fire ants swarm over anything close to their mound and a rutting buck has marked territory on the scraped surface of a nearby tree. A green canopy provides relief from the sun above, and a spring gurgles up from underground.
This wet 'n' wild habitat at the basin of the St. Johns River is the real Florida. Forty feet down, on a ledge of fungus and mud, sits a real Floridian. The man overlooking the spring is at home here. This ledge, the spring and the entire swamp could have been formed for the sole purpose of giving this guy a place to be.
Author, journalist and filmmaker Bill Belleville is from the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, but ever since he visited Silver Springs at age 8, he was of Florida. And his effort to make people care about their natural habitats and bring about awareness of a threatened environment makes him perhaps the most important unfamous famous person living in Central Florida.
Ask for his name at most bookstores and the people at the help desks will direct you to the adventure-travel section. They'd be right partially. Belleville is an adventurer who's gone scuba diving in Cuba and met with Fidel Castro, retraced Darwin's steps in the Galapagos, swam with the mythological pink boto the freshwater dolphins of the Amazon and searched for sunken treasures in lost pirate cities, jungles and islands.
Despite the graying beard, deeply tanned skin from decades spent outdoors, a serious look and the frame of an old jock, the 58-year-old author is much more than Ernest Hemingway redux. His newest book, Sunken Cities, Sacred Cenotes & Golden Sharks: Travels of a Water-Bound Adventurer, is an anthology of essays that delivers on the excitement promised by a title that sounds like an old movie serial. It is refreshingly devoid of the mindless machete-wielding machismo that Papa Hemingway served up.
It seems the introspective Belleville is always involved in a dive, expedition or study with scientific and environmental merits. In Deep Cuba, he recounts being part of a Discovery Channel submersible research expedition off Cuba's waters the only American expedition of this type to date and he was the first to write a modern-day book on the St. Johns, River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River.
Equal parts storyteller, chronicler, adventurer and conservationist, Belleville is a little Indiana Jones and a little Henry David Thoreau. His work often maps out a timeline of what a place once was, what it's become and where it's headed. Always present in his writing is a subtext of stewardship and genuine affection for the places he adventures in.
"Bill has a way of capturing the soul of a place and is able to pull together so many different aspects history, cultural, people, environment and weave it into a story," says Clay Henderson, a former president of the Audubon Society who has known Belleville for a decade. Henderson places Belleville next to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in the category of classic nature writers, and believes the author is required reading for those interested in Florida's environment.
Belleville has become something of an intermediary between nature and man. It's a fitting role for a shy spiritual poet who finds God in nature and religious experiences "not in a pew, but next to a cypress tree."
The author is a proponent of a "slow down" philosophy of living: He encourages readers to turn off their computers, go outdoors, take a deep breath and just relax. Belleville's presence alone provides a sense of relaxation. A reserved man who doesn't squander excitement easily or often, Belleville makes minipilgrimages to a forest, spring or swamp a few times a week just to "get out of the sound of traffic and be someplace near water."
In Sunken Cities, Belleville laments that he is a "nature-minded guy ... adrift in an industrialized world bereft of connection." This connection is exactly the thing he wants his readers to have with Florida before it's too late.
"I don't have the conceit that anything I write is going to give them that," he says. "I feel that if I tell the story well, they'll want to go out and have an experience with nature themselves, and from that will come an honest-to-god connection."
For him, telling the story well is to write as a literary journalist who explains observations while honoring metaphor and the rhythm of a story. A dose of excitement injected into those literary techniques never hurt either.
Belleville says the best compliment he's received about his work is that is has a calming effect, but his writing is far from "Prozac for readers." When a man is willing to drop five stories down into a dark ancient sacrificial well to dive in a spring littered with bones and artifacts, or has had to file articles from a satellite connection in a submarine, the resulting tale is more exhilarating than subduing.
Citing a statistic that 20 acres of natural land is lost in Florida every hour, Belleville concedes he could proselytize with scary figures on a moss-covered soapbox. "I could blather on about 'We should save this tree' or 'We should save that lake,' but it wouldn't get anything done," and it wouldn't draw in readers.
Belleville is getting things done in his own way. His focus on "connection" sells books and earns him accolades. Already, River of Lakes is in its sixth printing after being released in 2000. While the Tampa Tribune called it a "superb book," the Miami Herald said it was the "definitive book on the St. Johns." That's saying something since the last real "definitive" book on the river was William Bartram's Travels, released in 1791.
His work has also earned him multiple awards and grants including a Suncoast Emmy and the Environmental Writer of the Year award from the Florida Audubon Society and the Florida Wildlife Federation.
In the community, Belleville serves as a board member of both the Friends of the Wekiva River and the Citizens Advisory Board of the Seminole State Forest. He also co-founded a nonprofit called Equinox Documentaries to promote environmental education via films and related media.
"He's going to be remembered as someone who reminds us that each of us has a role to play in the larger picture," says producer and Equinox co-founder Bob Giguere. "That each of us is responsible to take care of and sustain our habitats ... . He seems to get that it's not about issues, it's about us."
BIKERS TO NAZIS
Glance around Belleville's property in Sanford, and you won't conjure an image of a distinguished environmental writer, much less one of a guy that's poked his head underwater enough to encounter moray, piranhas, alligators and golden hammerhead sharks. Judge the man solely by the land that used to be orange groves and farmland, and most people would label him a good old boy or a Floridian who was here long before Mickey.
His house is an old Florida Cracker affair, sitting up off the ground with windows positioned on opposite ends of the structure to capture a cross breeze. When it was built in 1928, there were no digital thermostats for climate control, and it was designed to stay cool all year. An electric fan was almost decadent then.
But Belleville has only lived in Florida since 1973. As a boy he visited and couldn't wait to come back to a place "where you can play outside year-round." When he graduated from the University of Maryland with an English degree, he did just that.
When he moved to the Sunshine State more than 20 years ago, he had it in his head that he wanted to learn how to write. So Belleville got a job as a journalist at the Kissimmee Gazette, a weekly newspaper. After moving around to a few local papers, he began writing part-time at Newsweek as a special correspondent for 10 years while freelancing for other publications.
"I sort of segued into features from there, which had always been my goal. I wanted to write longer-form creative work." As a creative nonfiction writer, Belleville covered everything from biker gangs to the American Nazi party. As it happened, Harleys and swastikas didn't feel like the right material for the writer.
"It turned out that the stories that gave me the greatest pleasure were the ones that had to do with the environment. So, about 15 years ago, I made the conscious decision to specialize." Since then, Belleville has avoided "bullshit" assignments that haven't put him outdoors.
Before he ever puts on a scuba regulator or hiking boots for a project, Belleville steeps himself in research, like any good newspaperman. What may have served as a dining room ages ago is now an office in Belleville's house. About a half-day of research takes place every day in this wild habitat of books, articles, notes and a computer. After waking up early, he spends about four or five hours in the morning writing, focusing on one project at a time.
"I work very hard on my writing skills and take the 'job' of writing very seriously. My body of work hopefully reveals that," he says. Further, Belleville claims that by doing his homework, he is able to achieve a quiet authority in his writing.
By afternoon, Belleville begins to wrap up his work for the day and often tries to return to those green scenes that inspire his work.
"I make a point to get out a couple times a week," he says. "That's part of the process for me ... to remind me how important these natural places are, and to reinvigorate myself."
In addition to the Seminole State Forest, "these natural places" include Avon Park, Cedar Key, the Suwannee River and locales that act as a reminder to Belleville of what Florida once was. In a June 27 editorial for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, he calls such locales "time machines, places that can transport us back to the geological beginnings."
According to his partner, Belleville's personal attachment to nature is what makes him matter more as an author and filmmaker than some other eco-authors and environmental organizations.
"He cares," says Giguere. "He's in the environment all the time; he sees it, feels it, lives it. Bill doesn't go out once a year, he goes out almost every day to do research firsthand in the field."
"In terms of heart, I admire them," Belleville says of the tree-hugging granola groups. "You need people in the trenches raising red flags." Beating people over the head with a message and preaching to the choir "isn't going to do anything except make the preacher and the choir feel good," he adds.
While not quite spending time at the pulpit, Belleville frequently gives talks at bookstores and for local community groups, and he has appeared on WMFE-TV and C-SPAN's Book TV.
Additionally, he was honored this year as a "Champion of Sustainability" in the field of Nature by the Healthy Community Initiative of Greater Orlando, a nonprofit organization.
"The panel of judges included attorneys and developers as well as environmental leaders," says Belleville of the HCI honor. Despite skepticism for what he calls "establishment approval," he nonetheless says, "this award was a very important one."
The stroke of irony here is that HCI is underwritten by developers. According to Belleville, the underwriters of HCI Miller Sellen Conner & Walsh aren't the dastardly kind of developers who would bludgeon baby seals to make room for condos. Instead, they follow a philosophy he shares of responsible development, i.e. long-term planning and sustainability of the entire community.
"I'm not antidevelopment. We have 700 new people coming here every day, but we don't have to live everywhere because of cheap land."
As an alternative to cutting down native lands, Belleville says he'd like to see more redevelopment of areas that are "already trashed," like Baldwin Park (formerly the Orlando Naval Training Center). "Make it look 'chi-chi,' and they'll be happy."
Then again, when developers and politicians don't act responsibly, Belleville is not afraid of a fight.
"Despite the gentleness of my writing, I don't back down from these assholes," he says as he smacks at a deerfly lunching on his arm. "A lot of these guys are bullies."
He doesn't think of himself as a troublemaker. "Honestly, I am too busy making a living" to stir up trouble, he says. But Belleville is definitely opinionated and isn't timid about assigning blame where blame is due.
One Equinox film, Wekiva: Legacy or Loss?, was picked up by PBS affiliates in Florida and dealt with the diminishing springs of the titular river, indicting the Seminole County government for allowing illegal development. Then last summer, Belleville and partner Giguere conducted a scientific test at the Apopka Blue sinkhole that made a big point and ruffled some mayoral feathers.
Essentially the dye-drop test they conducted demonstrated a link between the sinkhole and Rock Springs. When they dropped dye in at one end, traces of it showed up on the other.
"The point of the test was to illustrate that land the city of Apopka was planning to annex from Orange County in that area was in prime recharge for that spring," says Belleville. "Mayor John Land of Apopka, which owned the land around the sink, then tried to bar us from future dives there."
A public debate took place in the Orlando Sentinel, and the mayor eventually relented. Belleville admits, "We did indeed make trouble for the mayor." He adds, "That was our intent. But given the context, it was hardly the sort of mindless shenanigans associated with 'rabble rousing.'"
Instead, Belleville says the test was backed up with good science. "I try to stand behind what I write and produce. I am passionate about what I write and don't equivocate or apologize for it."
That passion and the desire to effect a connection with nature keeps him occupied with no less than six projects currently in the works.
Belleville is contributing to two photo books, including one on the St. Johns' influence on art, titled Art and Artifacts of the St. Johns River, and another based on the Econlockhatchee River. In addition, his fourth full-length book will focus on sprawl and will feature the history of his house and its original occupants.
In late June, the Sunshine Network will begin airing Off the Map, a 13-part Equinox series on kayaking Florida's rivers. Also, Belleville is working with environmental filmmaker Wes Skiles on a documentary about the St. Johns called The River Returns, to be completed in early 2005.
If these projects are pressing on Belleville's mind as he sits on the furry green ledge in Blackwater Creek, it's impossible to tell. He says that when he first discovered the area he had to brush through spider webs and hold onto branches to prevent a fall, and it's much the same today.
At this moment, Florida's adopted son seems only interested in the spring bubbling up from the ground as it streams past a rock formation resembling a bear cub bending to have a drink.
He writes that he'll always return to this tiny spring "down the wooded slope to the hidden springs, because it is a place that can never be replaced or even imitated."
"Maybe if I don't neglect it, it might reward me by continuing to flow and to enchant."
If his success as a writer and filmmaker were to fade away, it seems that the most important thing to Belleville would be to continue to have the experience of nature he wishes for his public; to be in the outdoors, near a body of water and away from the cacophony of civilization.
Bill Belleville's made that connection.