Wednesday, December 14, 2011
River of Lakes
Having recently had the good fortune to meet this author through work, let me say up front that I am thoroughly unable to be impartial about his writing. He and his books are directly responsible for my new "Florida reading" obsession, which has been budding for a while now and has finally burst into bloom.
It pains me to realize that I know more about the literature and culture of various distant lands than I know about my own home state. What is the fiction equivalent of "A prophet has no honor in his own country"? Whatever the answer, that pretty much sums up my experience with Florida literature -- and the reason for a slew of new, local entries on my TBR list.
While this book isn't fiction, it is a dynamic introduction and motivation to learn more about what is essentially my backyard. In surehanded, sometimes lyrical prose, River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River chronicles the flow of the St. Johns River from its origins in Indian River County (where I used to live) northward through Brevard County (where I grew up) and Central Florida (where I live now) until it joins the Atlantic near Jacksonville.
If you have any impulse, however slight, to see beyond a superficial view of Florida as the home of Disney World, outlet malls, relentless development, and election fiascos, this is a perfect place to begin.
Reminiscent of Steinbeck's tale of finding America in Travels with Charley, this account traces Belleville's journey along the length of the St. Johns, accompanied at times by various experts, locals, and friends who know it well. Along the way Belleville draws biology, anthropology, ecology, literature, history, popular culture, and politics into a well-rounded, erudite narrative.
It's to his credit that even with those multiple perspectives, he still has the time and talent to include personal reflections, a dose of humor, thoughtful turns of phrase, and the simple joys of being out on the river -- and to make it all read as coherently as a single flowing waterway, shifting and changing but never off course.
The water around us now is full of swirling eddies where the outgoing downstream current introduces itself full force to the incoming tides, the last noble molecule of upland St. Johns marsh meeting the indomitable sea. Some months ago, I stood in the headwaters of this river, up to my waist in a matrix of sawgrass and rain-driven water and peat. And now here the rest of it is, churning under me for thirty and forty and fifty feet, as realized as any river could be, dancing a complex and final jig of tides and currents, a last sweet memory dance of consummation. I have gone from where there is no measurable current--except perhaps the longing for one--to a place where hydrologists say 58.4 million gallons of water a minute swirl back and forth between the river and the ocean.