The winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for history, Jack E. Davis’ “The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea,” is an epic account of the Gulf of Mexico and those who inhabit it. A wildly ambitious book — Davis traces the history of the Gulf region from its geologic origins to the present day — it deals with an incredible variety of issues, from the flora, fauna and wildlife of the Gulf, to its human inhabitants and how they interact with and influence each other.
As with all good environmental history, Davis, a professor at the University of Florida, weaves how both the natural environment shapes those who live here, and how humans alter their environment to fit their needs (and wants). “The Gulf” is therefore both a natural history of the region — of its rivers and estuaries, its birds and fish, grasses and trees — and also the story of people who made it home over the centuries.
Along with the mollusk, the tarpon and the pelican are the stories of both familiar and unfamiliar characters, including the native Mobilians and Biloxians, the explorers La Salle and D’Iberville, the pirate Jean Lafitte and the angler Leonard Destin, the writer Wallace Stevens and the artist Walter Anderson.
Davis repeatedly chronicles the tension between economic development and environmental degradation, be it the overfishing to near extinction of certain species, the overdevelopment of coastal land, especially on fragile barrier islands, or the massive impact of the petrochemical industry along the Gulf Coast — bringing jobs to thousands, but to the detriment of the health and living conditions of its workers.
A recurring theme in environmental history is the impact of unintended consequences, and Davis’ book is not without numerous examples of how by “improving” nature, unintentional ecological damage is done, such as how the Army Corps of Engineers’ construction of levees along the Mississippi River accelerated the loss of wetlands in Southeast Louisiana, or how building seawalls actually contributed to, rather than prevented, erosion.
While a history, much of “The Gulf” reads as if it was pulled from today’s headlines, with tales of red tides, battles over red snapper fishing, oil spills, industrial pollution, beach nourishment, dead zones and stormwater runoff. What makes “The Gulf” so fascinating — especially for those of us who live along it — is that it provides the backstory for many of the issues we deal with today. This context, of course, is what good history should always do, and Davis does it expertly. From the development of the first offshore drilling rigs at Goose Creek, Texas (and the first Gulf oil spill) to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the impact of paper mills over decades on the decline of fisheries, Davis ties together the past and the present in a cohesive narrative.
“The Gulf,” however, is more than just of a history of this area we love and call home — it is also an urgent call to action. Many current and forthcoming environmental crises — including pollution, climate change and sea level rise — have a direct impact on the Gulf states. Davis notes that the impact of climate change on migrating wildlife can already been seen, and sea level rise is already at crisis stage in both South Florida and the (vanishing) boot of Louisiana.
Davis also illustrates how what happens in other parts of the country directly affect the Gulf Coast’s environment and, in turn, our economy, health and quality of life. For example, he describes how excessive precipitation in the central part of the U.S. in 2016 caused fertilizer from Midwestern farms to empty into the Gulf, resulting in a “dead zone [that] expanded to a larger-than-average mass, nearly sixty-five hundred square miles … about what you’d get if you merged Rhode Island with Connecticut.”
At over 700 pages, “The Gulf” may seem intimidating, but despite his academic background Davis writes for a popular audience here; his prose is accessible, making for an easy and enjoyable read. If there is a criticism of “The Gulf,” it is — especially for a Lower Alabamian — that it seems to be a bit too Florida-centric at times. This situation perhaps could not be avoided because of the size of Florida’s Gulf Coast, and Davis’ own Florida roots, but many of the issues he explores could have used some more specific Alabama examples — our slice of the Gulf may be small, but it is significant.
Jack Davis will be speaking in Mobile at Spring Hill College on Thursday, Oct, 18, at 12:15 p.m. in Byrne Auditorium. His talk, sponsored by the Alabama Coastal Foundation, is free and open to the public, but ACF asks those interested in attending to register at joinacf.org by Tuesday, Oct. 16. Doors open at 11:30 a.m., and lunch will be available for $20 for those who preregister, or bring your own lunch if you like. That evening, Davis will be in Fairhope at Page and Palette from 6-7 p.m. This event is also free and open to the public, but you must register at pageandpalette.com.
Tom Ward is chair of the history department at Spring Hill College, where he teaches American environmental history. He is also a board member of the Alabama Coastal Foundation and a regular contributor to Lagniappe.
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