Review: Jack E. Davis' 'The Gulf' is an enthralling history of the Gulf of Mexico

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by University of Florida historian Jack E. Davis informs in a graceful, clear and, at times, lyrical way.
Published March 2 2017
Updated March 5 2017

Most of us who live around the Gulf of Mexico take it for granted.

If we ask questions about it, they're quotidian: Are the fish biting? Is the water warm enough to take the kids swimming? Do I smell another Red Tide?

Occasionally, they're life or death: Will that hurricane come my way?

Jack E. Davis, it seems, had as many questions about the gulf as there are sand grains on a beach (mostly quartz, washed down over millions of years from faraway mountaintops, plus finely ground shell) or feathers on a snowy egret (one of many bird species nearly wiped out by the plume hunters of a century ago, now happily recovered). He has answered a tide of those questions in his splendid new book, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.

Davis is a professor of history and sustainability studies at the University of Florida. His 2009 book, An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, received the gold medal in the nonfiction category of the Florida Book Awards.

The Gulf takes on a larger subject with a sweeping history from the sea's formation to its state in the 21st century.

Davis explains his approach in the prologue with a description of a 1904 work made by the great American painter Winslow Homer during one of his frequent sojourns to Homosassa, just up the coast from Tampa Bay: "In one such painting, Shell Heap, sabal palms shade an aboriginal mound spilling discarded oyster shells down to the water's edge where two anglers float in a skiff, suggesting a continuity between the ancient and the recent. Like all of Homer's Homosassa paintings, Shell Heap conveys an intimate and vital connection linking humankind, nature, and history. I call this triad Homer's truth, and it lies at the heart of this book."

Davis begins with the gulf's origin — not a meteor impact, as was once thought, but something much slower. It began to form 150 million years ago, "midwifed by the breakup of what was then Earth's sole landmass, Pangaea, surrounded by a single global ocean, Panthalassa." That origin, he notes, was confirmed by geologists using core drillings made by petroleum hunters in the 20th century.

Gulf waters rose and fell over eons, sometimes sinking 250 feet lower than they are now, sometimes rising until they reached up to modern Illinois. As it settled into its modern form, the 10th-largest body of water on the planet, the gulf's depths and shores became home to a rich assortment of plants and animals, and eventually human inhabitants.

Davis writes about several of the indigenous cultures that flourished around the gulf for thousands of years, notably the Calusa. He describes the discovery of artifacts by a worker digging peat on Marco Island in 1895, artifacts that excited the attention of legendary archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing and led to modern understanding of that ancient culture. The Calusa built cities and towns atop shell mounds they constructed all over southwest Florida, dug miles of canals and artificial lakes, and traveled around the gulf by canoe. The gulf provided them with such a rich diet of fish and shellfish that when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they described the tribe's members as giants, glowing with strength and health. Yet the Spanish saw the region as worthless — they sought only gold, silver and slaves — and many conquistadors starved amid its plenty.

About 20,000 indigenous people lived in the Calusa lands then, about 350,000 around the gulf's shores, most of them near resource-rich estuaries like Tampa Bay. Davis writes, "The Apalachee, Tocobaga and Calusa in Florida, Karankawa in Texas, Mobilian in Alabama, Biloxi in Mississippi, Houma in Louisiana, and all other Gulf aborigines stood up to Spanish swords and missionaries for more than two hundred years. But they could not resist the diseases, and their once-powerful chiefdoms collapsed."

Davis covers shifting European control of the gulf coast: Spanish, English, French. The Spanish first seized control of the Panhandle but abandoned it for more than a century after a hurricane flattened their settlements in Pensacola. When the Revolutionary War began, England actually had 15 colonies. East Florida and West Florida get left out of our national origin narrative because they remained loyal to the crown.

The bulk of the book focuses on the gulf coasts of five U.S. states in the 18th to 21st centuries, and Davis brings that history alive by couching it in the stories of individual people. When he writes about the importance of sport fishing, especially for tarpon, in how the gulf coast changed in the 20th century, he frames it with the story of novelist Randy Wayne White, a Sanibel resident and former fishing guide who has been involved in changing rules about how the "silver king" of the gulf is fished. Railroad magnate Henry Plant, inventor Thomas Edison and (of course) Ernest Hemingway are part of the tarpon story, too.

Chapters about the terrible depredations of plume hunting during the fad for feathered women's hats include such figures as Alfred Lechevelier, a.k.a. the Old Frenchman, who slaughtered millions of birds up and down Florida's west coast; Katherine Tippetts, a wealthy St. Petersburg woman who presided over the city's Audubon Society chapter for 33 years; and Ned McIlhenny, heir to the Tabasco Sauce fortune and a creator of bird sanctuaries.

Davis' chapter about Mississippi artist Walter Anderson and his long, intimate relationship with a place called Horn Island is an enthralling miniature biography about a fascinating man, and about the heartbreaking fates of man and island. That chapter also wraps in gulf pirate lore (much of it phony) and the short military history of Fort De Soto.

The history of the gulf is also a history of harmful human impact, whether motivated by profit, like the oil industry's destruction of the Louisiana coast, or simply unintended consequences, like the countless dams, seawalls, jetties and levees that hasten erosion rather than prevent it, or the waterfront subdivisions on dredged-up land cut by finger canals with such poor water circulation they turn into silted-up trash chutes.

Davis takes apart the history of fertilizer use, for everything from Florida lawns and golf courses to Midwestern cornfields, and explains how fertilizer runoff is among the biggest threats to life in the gulf and the economy of states around it.

Davis recounts stories with happy outcomes as well, like the return of so many of the bird species almost erased by plume hunters, action to protect the coast's essential mangrove hem and the return to health of Tampa Bay, which four decades ago had been rendered nearly biologically dead by pollution but has been restored by concerted political and volunteer action.

There's more, so much more. Davis is a historian, and this book is packed with research, but The Gulf does not read like a textbook. He is a graceful, clear, often lyrical writer who makes sometimes surprising, always illuminating connections — it's not a stretch to compare him to John McPhee.

And he is telling an important story, especially for those of us who live around what he calls the American Sea. What happens to it happens to us, and the more we know, the better equipped we'll be to deal with a future on its shores.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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