It started as a routine class project.
Tom Hallock, an assistant English professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, had his grad students explore the rivers of Florida. They had so much fun that the following spring Hallock assigned them to focus on the rivers of the Green Swamp: the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Peace and Ocklawaha.
Hallock then combined the best student essays with contributions from professional writers and academics, including St. Petersburg Times outdoors writer Terry Tomalin, history professor Gary Mormino and nonfiction writer Bill Belleville, author of River of Lakes: Journey through Florida's St. Johns River.
The result is a 120-page anthology of essays, Rivers of the Green Swamp, which paints a hopeful picture of the four rivers and serves as an invitation for the rest of us to explore these vital waterways.
"It's not the doom and gloom story. That surprised me," Hallock said. "It's not yet time to write the epitaph on Florida's tombstone."
Each waterway has its own unique personality: the Withlacoochee, which begins near Pasco, is incredibly wild as it winds north.
"You never feel like you're crossing the same river twice," Hallock said. The Hillsborough has a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality. It flows from a natural setting before becoming an urban river in Tampa. The Peace is beautiful but flows through an economically depressed area and is vulnerable to a particular industrial waste. The 110-mile Ocklawaha travels north from Central Florida to meet the wide St. Johns.
It might stand to reason that the best way to protect these gems would be to keep people off them. Hallock drew the opposite conclusion, as did his students. Get people to connect with the rivers and they will appreciate what makes Florida so special.
The essays, as you might expect, focused largely on wildlife and water quality, but students also took the opportunity to get to know people whose lives touch the rivers every day.
One student wrote about the "bar fly" tour along the serene, slow-moving Peace River. She and her boyfriend visited a series of rundown bars along the river, which over the years has been degraded by runoff from the phosphate industry.
Another student wrote about how novice canoeists are terrified of alligators when they sail down a Florida river for the first time. "She turned that fear into good prose," Hallock said.
But the overriding tone of the work is a respect and a reverence for what these rivers mean historically and culturally, said Belleville, who contributed an essay about the Ocklawaha, a prime destination for steamships and tourists during the 1880s.
"If we don't have a connection," Belleville said, "we won't fully appreciate the worth of these rivers."
Or be ready and willing to fight for them.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.