Old meets new -- a moss tree representing Florida's natural beauty sits amongst urban sprawl in downtown Orlando.
ORLANDO – In his book “Salvaging the Real Florida,” nature writer Bill Belleville evokes memories of a tourist state more than a century ago, when people came here not for theme parks and man-made atractions, but for natural wonders – the shoreline, the silver springs, the rivers that are set in a tropical paradise that hardly ever sees a hint of winter.
Silver Springs, he noted, “is the archetypical Florida theme park.” Another great example, he added, is the beauty of the St. John’s River.
“I’ve been using the river for years to flyfish,” he said.
What’s surprised Belleville isn’t how much natural beauty Florida has – “We almost have a third of our land that’s publically-owned,” he said – but rather how few people he meets seem to be aware of that. Everyone knows about Disney and the other theme parks, he said, or about the big cities and the nightlife they offer. But the older Florida, still preserved from development? Perhaps not as much, he added.
“It takes more time to get to know,” he said, “but it’s there and it presents a lot of opportunities.”
Those opportunities won’t last, he added, if suburban sprawl keeps chipping away at it.
“Folks have been taking liberties with Florida for a long time,” he said.
On Saturday, Belleville was the guest speaker at the Orlando Public Library’s ongoing Second Saturday program, which included a reading from his book, images of the state’s rural areas, and a discussion on how Florida has coped in the past decade as urban sprawl pushed out more and more of the rural spots that Belleville, a conservationist, loves so deeply.
At times, he said, it’s been a bumpy transition.
Kris Woodson, the library’s programs and promotions development manager, said the library was pleased to welcome this Florida-based author to share his writings on Old Florida, and why it’s worth preserving.
“His genre is creative non-fiction,” Woodson said.
Belleville said the sections of Florida that still look the same as 100 years ago represent a rich history that’s been chronicled for decades, often in popular fiction like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic book “The Yearling.”
Although essentially a work of fiction, “It was very much based on real stories and very much based on real geography,” he said.
Across Central Florida, there are still opportunities to explore Old Florida, he said, including along the Wekiva River.
“If you’re looking for a place to get lost and found, this is a great place,” he said. “Any place is mythic if we want it to be. We try to define sometimes what it is that makes Florida attractive to folks. Sometimes there’s myth woven into it, and that’s okay.”
Florida, of course, has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation for decades, and growth brings with it development, as the cities continue to expand outward, taking in more and more once-rural enclaves.
“I believe this change is unending,” he said, and may be in part a result of the fact that too many newcomers don’t fully understand — or appreciate — what it is they’re losing as urban and suburban sprawl march on. Belleville said he witnessed this first hand while living near Sanford. As the region underwent a commercial and residential building boom, he felt the sprawl closing in on him.
“I was living in an old Cracker house outside of Sanford for 15 years, and I saw sprawl start to encroach on me,” he said. His first option was to move, but then he changed his mind, and instead decided to chronicle the changes happening all around him.
“I wanted to address what happens to a sense of community, a sense of neighborhood that is impacted when sprawl encroaches,” he said. “So I stuck it out. I wanted to try to communicate what is out there and to try to communicate how it impacts us.”
Belleville said he hopes more Floridians take the time to begin exploring what’s left of the Old Florida – the natural beauty that might inspire them to start working to keep it preserved for future generation.
“We can find joy in the relic wilderness here,” he said. “Why, then, acknowledge a sense of place? If you don’t know where you are, then it’s likely you don’t know who you are.”

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