The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, by Jack E. Davis - Book Review

Phew. Four months after starting this deeply researched and richly written tome, I turned the last page. Ironically, I did so after having spent my first weekend in Cedar Key, Florida, an island which Pulitzer Prize winner Jack E. Davis uses as an example of a current success story of gulf coastal sustainability and reasonableness.

With tens of pages of citations, this book was not written quickly or haphazardly. Honestly, knowing the Gulf is a place near to Davis’ heart, a place he grew up on as a boy, it’s hard to believe he actually finished it.

The man-driven destruction of the Gulf, its coastline, its estuaries and the rivers which flow into it is legendary. And almost all of it is related to capitalism and industry or the direct result of greed. Dead zones, red tide, algae blooms….all man-made disasters.

And none of this is new. When Europeans arrived in Florida way back when, there were some 20,000 Calusa Indians living there sustainably. The natives harvested and ate from the riches of the sea. Instead of following their lead, Europeans “introduced a future of imprudent relationships with nature in place of successful ones.” And we all know what happened to those original Americans.

Did you know that wading birds would be extinct now except for the voices of Audubon groups, women’s clubs, Edmund McIlhenny (the tabasco guy) and President Teddy Roosevelt? All of them squawked so loudly – pun intended - about the killing of the birds by the thousands just for the feathers for women’s hats that they were able to turn the tide.

Reading about the depths of the damage and the frequency of those in power either turning a blind eye or encouraging the destruction is beyond depressing. I think that’s why it took me so long to finish the book. Because with each new chapter, Davis delved into yet another way we’re destroying our most valuable assets.

But his research and story-telling are extraordinary. In the midst of the destructors, he highlights real life heroes that you might easily find in a Carl Hiaasen or John MacDonald book. Nash Roberts, the Louisiana storm watcher, who more precisely predicted hurricanes in Louisiana than any official weather agency. Walter Anderson, the painter, who rode out some of those hurricanes that Nash predicted on an uninhabited Texas island with nothing more than his paints and a homemade raft. Mcllhenny, who established an egret colony on Avery Island that is still thriving today. Diane Wilson, from Texas, who successfully spear headed efforts to reduce chemical dumping into Lavaca Bay.

And, as I mentioned above, he ends the book lauding Cedar Key in its efforts to figure out how to be sustainable in the modern world without ruining the natural environments that were here long before we were. Even if you think you’re an environmentalist, this book will educate you further on coastal conservation. It is a history lesson, a warning and a how to, all rolled into one. Long, but worthy.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Liveright

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars