Book Review: The Gulf
by Jack E. Davis
Prolific author and editor Jack Davis opens his magisterial new book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea with a quick account of a fishing trip made to “the sea in America’s backyard” by iconic painter Winslow Homer in 1904, a trip that gives Davis the ideal occasion to give his readers a sweeping, evocative description of the sheer natural wonders of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a canny move, this linking of the Gulf’s glories with the sensibilities of the region’s most famous painter, and it works especially well to share those glories with the many readers who will never have seen the Gulf, much less seen it in Homer’s pristine days:
Behind reedy coastal marshes rose a dense woodland – a jungle of green, as Homer portrayed it – where splaying air plants and ferns hung in mottled sunlight, and the scent of aromatic cypress and red bay trees vied with traces of rotting organic muck. Homer likely listened for the double knock of ivory-billed woodpeckers sounding from interior corners, and studied the stealth pose of herons and egret quietly fishing in the water. Its sweeping, calm surface was the perfect vision of contentment, though a deceptive veneer over the restless energy below. Wherever Homer drifted with bait and tackle, the water beneath his rowing skiff was clear several feet to a grassy bottom, flush with crabs, mollusks, and a thousand living things unseen. Among the most scintillating of sights were fish in school as long as freight trains, running with the invisible Gulf tide. Their imposing numbers invited eagles and ospreys that circled overhead, and the wading birds tending to the shallows. They invited Homer, too, on return trips for years after.
Davis, the author of an excellent book on the great Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the Everglades, here concerns himself with the natural, social, and ecological history of the entire Gulf region from the Pleistocene to the present, and he’s a lively and practiced guide to that broad tapestry of colorful characters and sometimes surprising incursions of the region’s history into the larger national picture. Davis regularly, and one senses sometimes playfully, takes pokes at the complacency of the typical historical overview. “Our school books,” he mentions at one point, “taught us that there were thirteen British colonies caught up in the war for American independence, yet in truth there were fifteen: the forgotten two were the Gulf colonies of East Florida and West Florida”
Naturally, however, the association of most readers with the Gulf will be entirely and specifically contemporary: the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, in which a BP oil rig experienced an explosive blow-out that maimed the platform and pumped an unprecedented amount of oil into the Gulf’s already-battered ecosystem. The Deepwater Horizon catastrophe forms an inevitable if gloomy bookend to the story Davis has to tell about the escalating impact humanity is having on the American sea:
Since the Deepwater Horizon tragedy of 2010, oil has hijacked the Gulf’s identity. It frames how we – from journalists to policy makers, even scientists and tourists – perceive the American Sea. That eighty-seven-day nightmare, including the loss of eleven lives and the ominous sinking of the ruptured platform on Earth Day, represents the worst accidental spill in history, and perhaps the most poorly conceived cleanup response. The Gulf, as a result, will be living with fatal and unknown consequences far into the future.
The deeper point Davis isn’t a bit more optimistic but at least more of a springboard for action. “Every day in the Gulf is an environmental disaster,” he writes, “originating from sources near and far, that eclipses the spill.” He wants this reminder, running at varying volumes throughout his book, to serve not only as a warning but as a motivation: despite its ruinous history, despite its rotten luck to be a known location for oil, despite a string of modern disasters, the Gulf can be saved if enough people want to save it. The Gulf gives its readers a full and energetic portrait of all that would be lost if such efforts fail.