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“The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea”
By Jack E. Davis
Reviewed by Tom Henry
If only more books about ecosystems could be this good.
University of Florida environmental history professor Jack E. Davis has received mighty praise for his “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea” from some of the top names in our business: legendary Harvard University scientist-author Edward O. Wilson, nationally known climate activist-author Bill McKibben, Rachel Carson biographer William Souder, and noted water author and fellow faculty member Cynthia Barnett, to name a few.
He’s likewise received kudos from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other high-profile, national publications. He’s won the $50,000 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and is up for several other major awards.
But what really fascinates me about this book is an intangible: His writing tone.
Davis is a history professor, but — with apologies to history professors worldwide — he doesn’t write like one. Nor is this anything close to resembling a heavy-handed, syrupy and preachy activist rant.
The immense passion Davis has for the Gulf of Mexico, and his deep concerns about the onshore and offshore decisions impacting it are obvious, yet Davis writes with a tone that is eloquent, balanced, soulful and moving without being sentimental or stuffy.
His book is a fine example of storytelling, a great piece of journalism and an incredible overview of one of North America’s most important bodies of water. Davis effortlessly takes the best qualities of being a historian rooted in depth and perspective, and weaves those with the eye for detail and quest for accountability of a journalist into a narrative that reads like a well-thought out and intense, 530-page essay about a sense of home and place. It is rich in detail, far from being staid, and certainly not anything resembling academia.
From the first line of the prologue, when Davis begins the book with a beautiful anecdote of painter Homer Winslow fishing in 1904 near western Florida’s Homosassa River (for which I have a soft spot in my heart, as my wife used to live in that area), I was hooked.
The narrative that follows blends a fine mix of history, insight into what makes the Gulf ecology unique and — more importantly — why people should care.
Tales of European colonizers, Louisiana Cajuns, Texas roughnecks and Florida’s tourists abound, as do stories of overfishing, oil spills, hurricanes, explosive growth, poor land-use decisions from poorly-sited development, and destruction of valuable wetlands, coastal marshes and wildlife habitat.
In weaving the story up to modern times, Davis includes a cautionary note about BP’s disastrous 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, which he prefaces by acknowledging it “would be foolish to minimize the initial impact and the decades-to-come aftershock” of that historic event.
Some experts he interviewed expressed concern about the public being lulled into complacency and losing sight of the “day-to-day, fairly routine assault from in- and onshore support infrastructure” that doesn’t have the drama of accidents.
“[The book] blends a fine mix of history, insight into
what makes the Gulf ecology unique and
— more importantly — why people should care.”
Davis makes a point that humans are almost like dinosaurs when it comes to large ecosystems such as the Gulf of Mexico “only passing through, minor characters making a brief appearance, almost certainly briefer and in some ways no more important than our extinct predecessors.”
Preservation of a system as important as the Gulf, for Davis is not about control, especially when it comes to issues such as aquaculture.
“It means managing our own behavior, not nature’s. It means letting go, allowing nature to find its resonating beat,” Davis writes, adding that people sometimes need to “abandon the impulse to lead and instead follow, holding ourselves to the precept that nature takes better care of itself than do humans.”
An extra bonus of this book is the collection of quotes at the beginning of each chapter from luminaries such as Wilson and Carson, as well as Joseph Conrad, Jimmy Stewart, Rick Bragg and Aldo Leopold, as well as several not-so famous, yet influential thinkers and public officials.
Tom Henry is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 9. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.