The tragic collision between civilization and nature in the Gulf of Mexico becomes a uniquely American story in this environmental epic.
Jack E. Davis hits close to home with THE GULF: The Making of an American Sea. Please join us for a special event with the author presenting this important book.
The American landscape is often framed by its bordering seas and dueling coasts—and defined by a romance of western expansion. But forgotten, or more accurately, unappreciated, is that third coastline named for our southern neighbor. Jack E. Davis’s THE GULF colorfully reinstates this region within the American narrative, arguing that its sinuous contours, bountiful waters, and warm currents have long seduced and tricked the human species—from the age of Spanish conquistadors to the present day—into a disastrous pattern of exploitation.
How humans have impacted the Gulf of Mexico is a far larger story than a Corps of Engineers levee or a BP offshore oil rig. Beginning in the age of exploration, Davis reveals the fragile borders of a wild battleground that would soon serve as a larger map for America’s fraught relationship with the environment. When the Spanish and the English first ventured tentatively within, they discovered a native population taller and heartier than themselves. Arrogantly looking for the land resources mined in Mexico (i.e., gold and silver), they were confused by indigenous cultures who hid behind and thrived off the Gulf’s peculiar ecosystem. In the two hundred years following Columbus’s fateful voyage, aboriginals were subdued along the Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas coasts.
In vivid and rich prose, Davis writes about the Gulf’s natural splendor and the inevitable tension between the siren song of this natural landscape and the various industries that have made their homes here (commercial fishing, oil, shipbuilding, natural gas, and tourism). These industries have been altering and engineering the environment in profound and tragic ways that anticipate both Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Indeed, throughout the book we see a tragic pattern emerge: humans being bowled over by the Gulf’s natural beauty and incredible bounty, and then taking—for their survival, for their sustenance, for their amusement and for profit—more and more until there is nothing left. Davis describes in frightening detail the wholesale extermination of migratory birds, a mass culling fueled by a rapacious demand for feathers to adorn ladies’ hats at the turn of the last century.
And of course there is oil. Its extraction and production for the last century has done untold damage to the Gulf, but for every dramatic Deepwater Horizon there are the silent killers, like nitrogen-rich agricultural runoff from as far away as people’s lawns in Atlanta filters, creating algae blooms that suck all the oxygen out of the water and create literal dead zones as large as the state of Connecticut.
But, as Davis writes, the Gulf is an ongoing story. In the longer scheme, human beings are of little importance. We are only passing through. “We cannot destroy or control the sea, although we can diminish its gifts, and when we do, we turn away from our providence and diminish ourselves.”
Jack E. Davis is the author of the award-winning An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century. A professor of environmental history at the University of Florida, he grew up on the Gulf coast, and now lives in Florida and New Hampshire. (photo by Ed White)
When painter Winslow Homer first sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, he was struck by its "special kind of providence." Indeed, the Gulf presented itself as America's sea--bound by geography, culture, and tradition to the national experience--and yet, there has never been a comprehensive history of the Gulf until now.