Monday, January 16, 2012

Losing It All to Sprawl

The title and cover of this book tell you what you're in for: a story of change and loss. And it only takes the first sentence of the preface to tell you everything else you need to know.

That first sentence describes the author's yard in early morning, with "everything all silver now from the reflection of the new sun, small cobwebs left in the shape of tents between the blades of grass from last night's tiny business." Along with change and loss, you'll be reading about charm and beauty -- and living them in perfect detail.

Belleville lived in a 1928 vernacular house while a large indoor mall and its outlying strip malls were planned and built around him. He stayed as long as he could, determined to record what happens to a community -- not just the human neighborhood, but also the animals, birds, plants, water and earth of the entire community -- when development takes over.

Along the way, he blends in state and local history, natural history, politics, his own encounters with "progress" and "civilization," and restorative forays with friends into Florida forests and on and under Florida waters. Facts and figures are smoothly included for background without ever stopping the flow of the story. When the subject is nature or his own handcrafted home, he relates his careful observations in gorgeous prose that dilates to suit his subject.

Hemingway famously said that you don't have to tell the ending to include the emotional weight of the ending in the story -- you just have to know what the ending is while you write. Belleville doesn't tell the ending here, but he knows it, and reading this book delivers his experience -- savoring the feeling of being at home in a place that you love, hearing the growl and ping of heavy machinery, and knowing that no matter how good this moment is, it cannot last.


Now that malls and box retailers over on Reinhart occupy the uplands, the [gopher tortoises] are seeking refuge anyplace they can. There is no way to ask them where they came from with any certainty; we speak a different language. Regardless of their origins, they are here, and today I count six burrows, each with a mound of dirt nearly a foot high at each entrance. As usual, I see no tortoises, but the portals to the burrows seem well-used, shaped by the coming and going of their shells, dorsal-round on top and plastron-flat on the bottom. Perhaps, like the chuck-will's-widow I hear at night, the gophers have returned home to reclaim an ancient territory. But the territory is under duress now, and it's missing a lot of essential things that once bound it -- not the least of which are the Crackers who once lived here.

Disclosure Note: This author is a friend of mine. But this is still a really good book.


  1. I have to admite that I think I would find this too depressing. I'd just lie awake nights....

  2. Yes, it really brought home what we give up for progress. Makes what remains that much sweeter, though.

  3. What a challenge for us humans: to balance it all. This sounds like a must-read for those of us who are part of the pipeline debates in both the US and Canada. Not really all that different, is it?

  4. Stephanie, it is indeed about balance, and having a long and broad view of the pros and cons in all areas, not just short-term economic benefits. That aspect of this book would apply anywhere.


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