The writer, naturalist Bill Belleville was not a resident of Jacksonville, but he did a helluva lot for this community, and the St. Johns River.
In fact, in the 17 years I knew Bill, I’m not sure he ever pledged allegiance to any political boundary. He was a citizen of natural boundaries-spring sheds, natural areas, aquifers, forest boundaries, and watersheds. He was a resident, in full standing, of all the real places. Bill Belleville was a man of the natural world.
Bill entered my life in the winter of 2003, when I became the second St. Johns Riverkeeper. Roger Bass, a founding member of the group, handed me a book entitled, River of Lakes, and told me to read it. The author was Bill Belleville.
I hit town, fresh from New Orleans, knowing three people, and with a 20-year old memory of the River from my US Geological Survey Days. Turns out Bill, the book, and his love for Florida’s lands and waters, taught me almost everything I needed to know about the St. Johns.
“River of Lakes” became my guide; I’ve read the book at least three times, and individual chapters dozens of times. During those reviews, I not only learned about the watershed I took an oath to protect, but I learned a great deal about the man. The way to really know Bill, and understand him, was through his words. Simply put, he understood Nature and all her connections; he had a beautiful mind.
Many don’t know, Bill helped save St. Johns Riverkeeper. Like many new non-profits, we were struggling to survive. Roger and Beverly Fleming had an idea to create a boat trip between Jacksonville and Sanford to educate people about the River. The trips were a way to get people on the River. Turns out the marketing wasn’t so great, and few weeks before the trip, we had only a few takers.
I called Bill, and asked for his help. He had a friend, Lisa Roberts, who was the travel writer for the Orlando Sentinel. She wrote a Sunday piece about the trip, featuring Bill. When we arrived at the office on Monday, the message box was full of reservations for the trip. Those first trips saved us financially, and today, serve as a legacy of Bill, and his ability to reach people -their souls, their natural selves.
I made over 26 trips on the St. Johns with Bill. What a gift. The trips also featured Folk Historian, Bill Dreggors. They spoke on the same day every trip. Introducing the two Bill’s, I would tell the passengers that anytime one could spend a day on the St. Johns River with the two Bills was a once-in-lifetime experience. Hell, yeah. I loved them both, and know how blessed I am to have shared that time with them.
I’m still coming to terms with a life without Bill. He has been a constant in my life for a long, long time. We traveled together, laughed together, drank together, and on more than one occasion, cried together. I loved him like a brother I never had.
I’ll end with a thought from Bill’s favorite, naturalist, artist, philosopher, and writer, William Bartram, who believed a hero was someone who came to commune with nature and not to exploit it. Bill always loved to tell people Bartram was the first European explorer who described nature as “sublime”. Indeed.
Rest in Power, my Brother. I love you. Tell Dreggors I said hello. Save me a seat next to you guys.
Neil A. Armingeon
Former St. Johns and Matanzas Riverkeeper