Photo Credit: Walter Coker

Bill Belleville Tribute to Neil Armingeon

If there has ever been an orphan of a natural system in Florida, it's the St. Johns River. Once worshiped by the Timucua and later, revered by the white settlers who floated their economy atop it, the St. Johns flowed tentatively into the late 20th century with scant real-life stewardship.

Technology and institutionalized "caring" simply weren't cutting it. This river— which had given so much to so many for so long— was sick. It didn't need officious help. It needed a deep-hearted guardian, one who would transcend safe, socialized behaviors and stand up for it, like a good parent would stand up for their child.

Certainly, "Father of the River" wasn't in the job description when Alabama native Neil Armingeon was hired as the St. Johns Riverkeeper in early 2003. Neil had been educated with a masters in environmental management at Duke, had been trained as an ecologist and hydrologist, and had spearheaded support for Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.

For most, that would have been enough. Many would have been content just to give public talks and ride up and down the river in a spiffy RK boat.

But Neil—with his very real down-home Southern style, his energetic caring, and inextricable sense for fairness— realized that getting the job done was far more than repeating the steps of a meaningless socio-political quadrille.

Sadly, many veterans in science, law, and resource management in Florida had danced this Orwellian charade for decades. With rare exceptions, most simply repeated that two-step with little regard for whether it made a difference in the health of the river.

When Neil figured out what was going on and called them on it, they seemed outraged that anyone would dare question their short-term motives. Rocking the boat wasn't safe economically, they cried. Jobs are at stake. We're doing what we can, and that's good enough.

But those platitudes were disturbingly hollow. The truth is Florida is a place where promises are routinely bought and sold—regardless of what is needed to sustain the ecological wholeness that really underpins the economy.

We live in a time when real heroes are rare. If you revisit the words and deeds of our earlier champions of nature, it becomes apparent what a hero might be.

For 18th century artist-philosopher William Bartram, it was someone who came to commune with nature and not to exploit it.

For the great Florida naturalist Archie Carr, it meant a person who had the passion to really care about what lived or died—one who "preserves things that stir him.”

And for Edward Abbey—the gutsy, iconoclastic bard of wild places–it was this: “Caring without action is the ruin of the soul.”

As a corollary, I’m figuring that Neil Armingeon's soul is incandescent and righteous and true. It’s a courageous, real-world soul that’s been put to the test—one that's scarred and weathered and character-driven, with little danger of ruin.

I steadfastly believe that Neil’s spirit—and the spirit of all who care in their hearts for this river— will prevail.

Thanks for being here as long as you have, Neil, and for working and feeling as fully as you could to "parent" our river, to be confident enough to allow yourself to be stirred by its liquid embrace.

Your caring and ethic will endure, buddy, as long as folks have the courage to listen to what their own gut-driven conscience has to say.