Think about the Gulf of Mexico for a minute.
Maybe what comes to mind is a friend who works on an oil rig, a fishing trip, a beach vacation, or a big storm.
No matter what your idea of the world’s 10th largest body of water, Jack E. Davis’s splendid new book, “The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea,” will deepen your knowledge of and respect for its importance.
Davis is a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida, and his book is both broad and deep, taking us back to the first settlements on the Gulf, then to a moment in 1543 when Spaniards saw oil on the Texas shore and used it to seal their boats, the flora and fauna, the development of commercial and recreational fishing and tourism, the history of hurricanes, the devastation of the BP oil spill and the need for conservation.
Davis has done his homework in Louisiana.
“I tell my students that research is both an intellectual pursuit and a tactile one,” he said. “I emphasize the importance of physically interacting with a place … Just being there was invaluable. Feeling the air and taking in the light, observing big things (washed-out roads, the built environment on stilts) and little things (like all those damn white pickup trucks I mention in the epilogue — some 70 percent of the pickups we counted were white; can you explain that?) helps me become better attuned to what I'm writing about.
“I want my readers to be transported by a place just as I have been,” Davis continued. “What surprised me (besides the white pickups) — mesmerized me — was the scale and infinite beauty of the watery landscape and how people integrate their lives into it, have adapted to it, and continue to adapt as it changes, and stay with it.
"It's heartening to see these powerful connections, but sad to see forces that may eventually sever them.”
Some great Louisiana characters appear in this book — Edward McIlhenny for one. “This guy knew a lot and he knew how to revive the egret population after it had been shot out for the women’s hat industry. This horrified Edward McIlhenny, and he wanted to do something about it, and he did. He set the standard for others in establishing bird sanctuaries.”
Meteorologist Nash Roberts plays a part. “Is there a better name for a weather forecaster?” Davis said. “It was perfect for who he was. Here was another person I knew nothing about until I started searching hurricanes Gulf wide — look at how accurate he was, out-forecasting everybody. And he was just doing his job because he cared about people. I loved knowing that people would ask ‘What does Nash say?’ ”
Davis draws on many storms in this history. “I did not want Katrina to be the hurricane of the Gulf any more than I wanted the spill to take over it,” Davis said. “Others have written extensively and often eloquently about Katrina and I didn't want to rehash what their work already says. I wanted to focus on the back story to Katrina with an epic hurricane, and here was another, Audrey, a hurricane that few remember, outside Louisianans, that I thought was a good, including dramatic, starting point for the back story, which is about amnesia following hurricanes.
“And after I began writing the chapter, Nash Roberts presented himself to me, and I saw him as an ideal subject to carry the narrative. He brought it all together for me when he gave the talk on the Mississippi coast, amidst the fleet of floating casinos, and questioned the population advance on hurricane country despite all the trauma the coast had suffered just in his lifetime.”
Davis has also drawn from his own experiences, growing up on Santa Rosa Sound, then living in Mississippi and now in Tampa.
As a teacher, he’s a writer with a mission.
“I want this book to encourage Americans to connect with the Gulf in a mutually wholesome way by reminding them that we have this marvelous sea in our backyard that is more than an oil sump and a sunny beach,” Davis said. “It's a sea that has shaped our history, enriched our lives, and freely given to us. Indeed, we've taken much from it, and that's OK, but to continue doing so we have to give something back, and it's not a lot, just our respect for what makes the Gulf a living and a giving sea — its estuaries, rivers, natural coastline and diversity of life, including us.”