by Bill Belleville
August 1, 2010
It was 25 years ago when Wes Skiles first led me down the slope of a steep sinkhole somewhere in the rolling karst terrain of north Florida. He knew I was a writer and a diver, and he was doing his best to convince me of the singularity of our aquifer.
At the bottom of the sinkhole was a transparent pool of water, and inside that pool, a fairyland of labyrinthic chambers secretly snaking their way through the soft limestone.
Wes was animated, unaffected. Without the protocol that sometimes constrains scientists, Wes — who didn’t bother with college — seemed intent on two things: allowing his sense of awe and imagination to fully roam; and educating the rest of us to the phenomenon of our springs.
“I’m just a redneck cave diver,” Skiles drawled, with his trademark grin. “If I haven’t been there, I don’t know anything.”
As much as anyone I’ve ever met, Wes was shaped by where he lived — smack in the midst of one of the richest troves of springs in all the world. When he started cave diving at age 16, that sport was still in its infancy, and many spring-cave systems were still being explored. Wes, athletic, savvy, virtually fearless, could have had a great time doing nothing more than logging a bunch of cave dives — of “laying line” into newly discovered tunnels.
But he wanted so much more: He wanted us to feel the magic he had felt. More urgently, he wanted us to know how ephemeral that magic really was. He helped us understand springs didn’t begin where the water bubbles out of the rock, but came to life in distant recharge lands we now know as springsheds. “You can’t protect one and not protect the other,” Wes would say.
Like philosopher Joseph Campbell’s “heroic traveler,” Wes journeyed to exotic and dangerous and distant places. And then, he returned with invaluable information to share with his clan, his community.
Wes became a forthright champion for our rare Florida landscape, producing national documentaries and images illustrating the finite dynamic of our aquifer. And he evoked the very best of what every little kid first feels when unlocking the door to nature’s secrets.
When I try to figure why Wes’ death had such a profound effect on so many, I realize an essential truth. His love for springs was informed — but it was, at the very core, a child’s pure gut fascination for a secret world. It was only natural he would want all the rest of us to see, to believe and to care.
This “redneck cave diver,” this big kid with a cave light and a dive line and a generous, old-fashioned heart, not only wanted to dream big; he wanted to include every single one of us in his dream.