Interview Picture

To the Edge of a Swamp: a Conversation with Bill Belleville - 2006-12-01

Interviewer: Jeremy Jones
Interviewee: Bill Belleville

Floridian Bill Belleville’s essays, books, and films might lead his audiences to the swamp, the sea, or the jungle. He has toured the world, recording his travels and revealing remote places. Yet, his writing does not only highlight his adventures to exotic locales; it reveals a vision of the world that is clear and honest.

Jones: You mention on the Southern Nature Project website that you need to have a "gut relationship" with a place. Can you elaborate some on your gut relationship with Florida?

Bill Belleville: As a boy, I figured nature simply went on forever, no beginning and no end, just one wild landscape, veined by creeks and rivers and punctuated every now and then by farmhouses and open fields and sometimes, gridded with roads. Much of what I experienced as a boy was simply intact and healthy because there were so few people around at the time. As my understanding of nature has grown over the years, so has my understanding of non-fiction writing.

When I try now to reach deeply into the essence of a place, I do so first as one who is experiencing that place. I don't first try to imagine what that experience could be like. I simply go out and do it--a long hike into a state forest, a 120 mile paddle through the Everglades, hundreds of scuba dives onto the reefs off Florida, by day and by night.

My relationship with natural places in Florida then becomes a sensory one--one in which I try very hard to open up my senses and feelings to the place itself, to be fully in the moment when I am there. Many folks would call that a gut relationship because it relies on the emotional component of a life, rather than on the intellect.

For me, this is a tremendously powerful relationship because it cuts deep into the core of what we as animals are about. We were creatures of feeling and of senses long before we were creatures of intellect. As the essayist Edward Hoagland once wrote: "Nature predates thought."

I can identify the names and types of animals and plants, can recognize habitats, and see trends in ecology--including both destruction and restoration. But those are intellectual concepts. For me, they are added on after the emotional experience itself takes place. The large bushy clumps of Carolina aster I saw on the St. Johns River the other day awed me not because of their name, but because of how their beauty and existence touched me--a fragile tiny flower in an untended wild swamp. The dead female black bear I saw floating in the river a few weeks earlier awed me not because it was a mortality statistic, but because it was majestic and singular and strong, and now it was forever gone from our world.

I often take notes in the field and take photographs to help me remember the visual elements of the experience, but those are reminders and clues--and not an ends in themselves. In keeping field notes, I try not to let the behavior of recording notes overwhelm the more important behavior of being fully immersed in the sensory glory of a wild place.

Finally, my understanding of "place" from my gut also hints that most people--including readers--likely enjoy the most powerful moments when they learn also to trust their own emotions, and to allow nature to unfold around them.

I don't think my writing or filmmaking alone will change anyone's mind. I think, if done right, it can surely entertain. But in terms of rousting readers to pro-active behaviors for conservation and restoration, well, I feel it can only lead them to the edge of a natural place. There, they can begin to have that "gut experience" for themselves, and from that experience may arise a true ethic and caring. From that ethic may come the motivation to affect change, and to encourage others to do likewise.

Jones: Could you elaborate a little on how your understanding of the way non-fiction works has changed over the years?

Bill Belleville: What was regarded as revolutionary and radical in regard to non-fiction thirty and forty years ago has become much more widely used now. What I knew as a young boy as non-fiction was mostly expository stuff--which is how we learned how to write term papers in high school. It was told by a remote or distant persona who never made his/her personal preferences known, nor dealt a great deal with the wonderful variety of senses a writer has at their disposal.

Nature writers tend to concentrate a bit more on the personal than most--and that is a delicate line to walk. It is very compelling to take the reader into an internal vision of the writer's world. But the story or theme can be lost because the writer becomes so self-absorbed that he/she loses track of the higher need to communicate.

I enjoy the genre of "adventure-travel" writing because it allows the story telling and the color and energy of it all. And it surely has a large personal component. But, in most successful adventure travel writing, the author moves the story because he/she often is moving (physically) over the landscape, trying to get from one place to another. Adventure travel writing appeals to me because it allows me to have an adventure--to get to a remote place. And then to take the reader there. The catch is nature is often involved, and a reader who otherwise might not have an interest in natural history and conservation and related local culture is then immersed in all of this as a result of the story.

Jones: It seems like fighting the desire to create artifacts--take notes, shoot film and miss the experience--would be a huge challenge, especially if you go into nature knowing that you will be producing a piece based on your experiences. How do you still manage to capture the intensity of those "powerful moments" without killing them, without pinning the metaphorical butterfly inside the shadow box?

Bill Belleville: You sort of train yourself to observe. As Emerson once wrote: Books and nature belong to those who see them. Something like that. And, there's the other quote--source unknown: To become a better writer, we must become better observers. So the trick is to get in and out without disrupting the true dynamic of the moment.

I don't think there's any set-in-concrete technique for this. Everyone has a way that works for them. For me, when I first started, I was wed to a tape recorder. That was okay for the sort of interviews I was doing as they were more journalistic in style. Now, I only use tape when it's really key--such as when I was in Cuba and spent two hours listening to Fidel Castro hold court on ecology, conservation, Yankee imperialism, science fiction, deep water fish, etc. al.

Mostly what I do is to simply go into the field with a notebook and digital camera. I will jot down raw and spare notes every once in a while. When there is a quiet moment, I might take a photo. When I am home, I will take the relatively spare notes and then, while the moment is still fresh, will elaborate on what the moment was about. That way allows me to most experience the moment as fully as I can as a writer.

I have scuba dived a lot, a behavior I use not as an ends in itself, but to tell a higher story. You can only write so much on an underwater slate. If it's at night, you are really limited. And if you are deep, you might be a bit narced by it all.

You learn to write down key words, to say the thing silently to yourself--you see, for instance, a Galapagos shark begin to swim wide circles around you. You watch as the larger reef fish begin to hide. You feel the surge of the current and wonder how that is disabling your own motion underwater and how it also might be attracting the attention of the shark.

So, you want to experience this as fully as you can. You tell yourself what is happening (as per the last few sentences) and then write down key words to use as memory tools: Emerging Shark; Grouper hiding; My Trim is off; Shark notices.

You do a similar version back on the surface--you tell yourself what is happening. It tends to burn itself more fully into your mind if you just think: Gee. Neat dive.

Jones: So the strategy, then, is not to preach or get in the reader's face, not to hammer the issue, but to try to provide enough sensory information, enough imagery that the reader can recreate the experience in their imagination and then go outside and have their own experience with nature.

Bill Belleville: EXACTLY. I have said many times I do not have the conceit that what I write will change anyone's mind. My greatest hope is to lead a reader to the edge of a swamp, a river, a spring, an ocean, a rainforest. And then to provide them enough information so they will want to take the next step in order to forge their own experience with that place. That is where I believe the strongest ethic is born--not in the mind, but viscerally, in the heart.

Jones: As sprawl consumes Florida, how can you possibly remain calm enough to simply enjoy "now". I have found my ability to enjoy my native state all but ruined by its imminent demise. Everywhere you look, especially in the area of South Florida where I grew up, you are reminded of the past--what is gone--and of the future--what is so quickly going away.

Bill Belleville: If you are a writer and you have rendered yourself useless by ranting and raving, then what is the point? It's a lot more effective to keep balanced because then you can tell the story that gives us all hope. And sometimes if it does its job, it engages and brings others into the fold. That's the strength of writing and documentary filmmaking, to me--to build consensus. And in the long run, it will piss off the legions of unethical developers, etc. al more than anything else. And that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

Finally, no matter how bleak it looks, there is always hope. I believe we each can make a difference, and that difference can be profound. It works on the most personal level, too.

Jones: But what if people refuse to see the problem? Humans do have a tendency to refuse to understand and refuse to accept.

Bill Belleville: I think that refusal is a sort of "denial". It explains why otherwise intelligent and well-educated people can deny the logic of, say, global warming, or the development impacts that lead to an unsustainable world. To rephrase the old Emerson quote: Most people live quiet lives--not of desperation--but of delusion. To acknowledge a certain logic or truth may conflict with a fundamental change so profound that the contrary evidence and knowledge simply doesn't penetrate.

As writers, we're just going to have to accept that no matter how effective we are, we simply won't be able to reach everyone. If we can accept that, then we'll be a lot happier in the long run, and take more solace in realizing the worth of what we have done. I do think there's a wee too much hang-wringing going on among us nature writers. We ought to just be happy we can make a difference on some level, that we can affect personal change on some level, and that we can have the wonderful opportunity to also spend great stretches of time in nature. If I were constricted to a cubicle inside a corporate office of some sort, that would be worth hang-wringing about. And more...

Jones: Still, it is the depth of your restraint I admire. To find balance, to find calm in the chaos. I wonder if you have to rely heavily of revision to achieve this balance. Do you allow yourself more leeway in early drafts?

Bill Belleville: Do you mean: Do I start out ranting and raving and then tone it down?

No, not really. I process an awful lot of information in my head before I begin to write the first word. And, I also realize that if I rant, I immediately lose a large segment of my audience--and lose a chunk of my worth as a writer who cares about the natural world. I think the experience that I rely on many times is that I did grow up in the country and so I do understand how people react who always don't have access to the best information. I am more sympathetic, I think, as a result.

This doesn't mean I “back down” though. I do a lot of speaking at public events, both through the Florida Humanities Council, and on behalf of my new book on sprawl. Developers and the people they nurture can be bullies and if one of those guys shows up and wants to press a point by getting personal, well, I figure he's already "lost" and nothing I can say will matter. So, I am bluntly honest in my responses. These people, being affluent bullies, think "environmentalists" are push-overs personally. It is fun to show them otherwise.