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Voices of Water: Bill Belleville

Award-winning author Bill Belleville on the enduring draw of nature and rivers

20100917 Florida 0860 OD© Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

Bill Belleville, award-winning nature and adventure writer, came out to the lakeshore clean-up in his hometown of Sanford, Florida.

Lake Monroe is a dilation along the 310-mile long St. Johns River, the first great North American river to be explored by Europeans and one that still holds much mystery in what Bill describes as its “medieval gothic jungles”.

Bill explores, among other topics, our deep affinity for nature, which we often deny to our detriment in his articles and books. The highest goal of great nature writing, he reveals, is to get readers to understand something about nature beyond natural history and to do so through vivid story telling that forges a connection between reader and the topic at hand. But don’t be didactic, he cautioned. That kills the mood.

What have we lost along this river?

The river in some ways hasn’t changed dramatically, particularly when you get into areas where there aren’t people.

What’s not here are the virgin old growth cypress, three thousand year old trees that were logged.

There used to be panthers that you could see swimming across the river, but now they’re mostly a much smaller population farther south. You don’t see the flocks of Carolina Parakeets, which are extinct. And you don’t see the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Tell us a bit about your book River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River.

It’s written as my experiences on the river from where it begins to where it ends. I’ve woven in cultural and natural history along the way and I’ve tried to see as much of the river as I can by paddling by scuba diving in places that are clear enough to scuba dive like the springs. So I’ve brought that all to bear in this book.

You chart the course of this river’s relationship with man over many centuries. Do you think the draw of nature has shifted across history? 

There are essential truths that you’ll find in the idea of humans and their innate affinity for nature.

Our ancestors grew up in and around nature for a long, long time - far longer than we’ve been civilized - so our feelings are more aligned with nature than we want to admit sometimes. And what we’ve done intellectually because we think we’re so clever is we’ve kind of ignored our feelings.

So is there a bond between mankind and rivers? 

That’s a very fundamental question really because the people who were first here, the Paleo-Indians, the archaic Indians, the Timucua, the people who lived around this river system for 7-9,000 years, they had a sense of respect for it. The river gave them sustenance; the river gave them food; it gave them transportation.

What’s happened in the interim is Europeans came in, they settled the area and they vanquished the Native Americans.

Steamboats began to run on this river in the 1830s and they did so until the 1930s but when those steamships stopped running and the utility of the river was lost, the river system also seemed to lose its connection with man.

Now we’re just starting to regain our sense of connection with the river.