“The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea”

I finished reading this book about a month ago, but it has taken me some time to organize my thoughts and decide how to summarize such a thorough and entertaining piece of non-fiction. If you don't read any more of this post, my take home message is: go read the book! Even if you have never been to the Gulf of Mexico, there are so many important lessons throughout its history.

It is rare that you get to read a book that covers so many different and often dense subjects in such an effortless and entertaining manner, but that is exactly what Jack E. Davis has accomplished in “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.” The book brings to life historical figures that shaped the Gulf and weaves in fascinating information about the ecology and geology that make the Gulf coast such a biologically rich area.

The first chapters summarize the various European expeditions made to map and explore the Gulf coast. In many cases, the first navigators of the Gulf had no idea what they were doing – errors were made mapping the location of the Mississippi River, and Spanish settlers did not know how to live off the productive estuaries as the Native Americans did. This lack of Gulf survival skills came from the settlers’ inability to observe and adapt to this landscape that was very different from their homeland. The chapters often mention an ethologist named Cushing, and Davis uses a unique writing style to summarize information through the lens of a sleuth uncovering clues about how the native cultures lived.

A character that periodically comes up is the artist Walter Anderson who lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and the author regards Anderson as one of the first Gulf coast naturalists. Anderson loved the barrier islands and would make the 12-mile paddle out to them regularly, often staying for several days. He was particularly fascinated with Horn Island, and even survived a hurricane there. While residing on the island, he would paint the natural beauty and became acutely aware of changes caused by pollution. I can’t wait to take a trip out to Horn Island (the largest Mississippi barrier island) at some point.

In many ways, the history of the Gulf is a series of tragedies. I found myself wanting to go back in time to see the expansive, pristine pine forests that once thrived along the Gulf coast before shipbuilding led to their demise. During the bird feather fashion craze in the late 19th century, large birds, such as herons and egrets, were mercilessly shot along the Gulf coast. Upon the sound of gunfire, the parents would instinctively guard their nests, making them easy targets for slaughter. Mangroves were unwisely destroyed to make room for coastal development – people were not aware of their critical ecological role at the time. But every time the Gulf ecosystem seemed on the verge of destruction, a hero emerged to stand up for the thing that originally drew people to the Gulf coast: its natural beauty.

The most concerning and relevant material (when it comes to environmental management) comes in the final chapters where we learn about various instances when long term environmental sustainability was sacrificed for short term economic gain. This is common theme along the Gulf coast (Louisiana, in particular) as well as all over the country. I enjoyed the scientific history of the discovery of the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” (area of low dissolved oxygen bottom waters) and its mechanisms of formation. It is a bit sad because we have known about the dead zone for decades now (as well as the processes that influence it), yet it continues to expand in size. This summer of 2017 has the largest dead zone on record. The book overall is an extremely valuable, holistic treatment of environmental history, and I hope it will be read by many, so we can learn from the mistakes of the past and preserve the Gulf for future generations.