608 pages, 26 illustrations
The tragic collision between civilization and nature in the Gulf of Mexico becomes a uniquely American story in this environmental epic.
When painter Winslow Homer first sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, he was struck by its "special kind of providence". Indeed, the Gulf presented itself as America's sea – bound by geography, culture, and tradition to the national experience – and yet, there has never been a comprehensive history of the Gulf until now. And so, in this rich and original work that explores the Gulf through our human connection with the sea, environmental historian Jack E. Davis finally places this exceptional region into the American mythos in a sweeping history that extends from the Pleistocene age to the twenty-first century.
Significant beyond tragic oil spills and hurricanes, the Gulf has historically been one of the world's most bounteous marine environments, supporting human life for millennia. Davis starts from the premise that nature lies at the center of human existence, and takes readers on a compelling and, at times, wrenching journey from the Florida Keys to the Texas Rio Grande, along marshy shorelines and majestic estuarine bays, profoundly beautiful and life-giving, though fated to exploitation by esurient oil men and real-estate developers.
Rich in vivid, previously untold stories, The Gulf tells the larger narrative of the American Sea – from the sportfish that brought the earliest tourists to Gulf shores to Hollywood's engagement with the first offshore oil wells – as it inspired and empowered, sometimes to its own detriment, the ethnically diverse groups of a growing nation. Davis' pageant of historical characters is vast, including: the presidents who directed western expansion toward its shores, the New England fishers who introduced their own distinct skills to the region, and the industries and big agriculture that sent their contamination downstream into the estuarine wonderland. Nor does Davis neglect the colorfully idiosyncratic individuals: the Tabasco king who devoted his life to wildlife conservation, the Texas shrimper who gave hers to clean water and public health, as well as the New York architect who hooked the "big one" that set the sportfishing world on fire.
Ultimately, Davis reminds us that amidst the ruin, beauty awaits its return, as the Gulf is, and has always been, an ongoing story. Sensitive to the imminent effects of climate change, and to the difficult task of rectifying grievous assaults of recent centuries, The Gulf suggests how a penetrating examination of a single region's history can inform the country's path ahead.
"Jack Davis has delivered a unique and illuminating history of the American Southern coast and sea as it should be written: how humanity and the environment evolved over ten millennia as a single system."– Edward O. Wilson, author of The Social Conquest of Earth
"A sensitive and sturdy work of environmental history [...] [Davis] has a well-stocked mind, and frequently views the history of the Gulf through the prism of artists and writers including Winslow Homer, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway and John D. MacDonald. His prose is supple and clear [...] A cri de coeur about the Gulf's environmental ruin."
– Dwight Garner, New York Times
"This vast and well-told story shows how we made the Gulf of Mexico, in particular, into what local activists have begun to call a 'national sacrifice zone,' at enormous cost to its residents of all species. It's a sobering tale, and one hopes that reading it will help us hit bottom and acknowledge the need to change."
– Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"A wide-ranging, well-told story, by turns informative, lyrical, inspiring and chilling for anyone who cares about the future of 'America's Sea.'"
– Gerard Helferich, Wall Street Journal
"A tremendous book. Davis is not only one of our preeminent environmental historians, but also a first-rate storyteller and prose stylist. Lay readers and scholars alike will be delighted by The Gulf, a lovely evocation of the natural world and the problematic ways our nation has profited from it."
– Blake Bailey, author of Cheever
"In the tradition of Jared Diamond's best-seller Collapse and Simon Winchester's Atlantic comes Jack E. Davis' nonfiction epic, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, which strives both to celebrate and defend its subject – the Gulf of Mexico [...] Detailed and exhaustive, written in lucid, impeccable prose, The Gulf is a fine work of information and insight, destined to be admired and cited."
– William J. Cobb, Dallas Morning News
"The Gulf takes on troubling environmental issues with a lyrical voice and a steady appreciation of history."
– Mark Kurlansky, author of Paper: Paging Through History
"Splendid [...] 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."
– Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
"Like its subject, The Gulf is big, beautiful, and beguiling. Meticulously researched and sparklingly written, it is also a cautionary tale about a paradise ill-served by humankind."
– William Souder, author of On a Farther Shore
"An incisive, comprehensive and entertaining portrait of the world's most diverse and productive marine ecosystems – from its lusty birth in the chaos of shifting continental plates to its slow and agonizing death of a million cuts inflicted by oil and gas extractors, dredge-and-fill operators, 'condo-canyon' developers, industrial-scale fishers, fertilizer-dependent farmers, chemical plant entrepreneurs, love-it-to-death snow birds and so many more [...] Amid all of the pollution and exploitation, this could easily have been a grim history of 'Paradise Lost.' But in Davis' skilled hands it as much love story as tragedy."
– Ron Cunningham, Gainesville Sun
"An astonishing work of environmental history, sweeping in its narrative scope while also being wonderfully intimate in its richness of detail. The march of history and the vibrancy of place live on its every page, and the environmental story it tells could not make for more urgent reading in these perilous times."
– Darcy Frey, Harvard University
"Steering seamlessly between nature writing and historical narrative, Davis offers an elegant epic of how America's relationship with the Gulf of Mexico defines our character and our future."
– Cynthia Barnett, author of Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
"With the narrative force of the Gulf Stream, Jack E. Davis takes readers to an unforgettable geography of wonders, oddities, and characters famous and unknown. Davis's writing shimmers with salt haze, delights like a flock of pelicans, and threatens like oil on a white sand beach. If you thought you knew the Gulf, guess again. If this is your introduction to it, lucky you."
– Jordan Fisher Smith, author of Engineering Eden and Nature Noir
"The Gulf starts with the geology of plate tectonics, proceeds through Indian settlements before the arrivals of Europeans, advances to hurricanes, the Dead Zone, and oil pollution, then analyzes the future. And it does all this very, very well. Books which attempt such comprehensive treatments of a subject are too often, as the saying goes, a mile wide and an inch deep. This book is 1,000 miles wide and 10,000 feet deep. It's an extraordinary achievement."
– John M Barry, author of Rising Tide and The Great Influenza
"[A] magnificent chronicle of the Gulf of Mexico [...] A work of astonishing breadth: richly peopled, finely structured, beautifully written. It should appeal equally to Gulf coast residents and snowbirds, students of environmental history, and general readers."
– Robert Eagan, Library Journal (starred review)
"Vivid [...] As Davis demonstrates in this absorbing narrative, the history of the Gulf teaches us that nature is most generous whenever we respect its sovereignty."
– Henry L. Carrigan, Bookpage
"A perceptive historical survey of America's Gulf Coast, this fascinating work accents the region's nexus between nature and civilization [...] Marked by thorough knowledge and fluid writing, this work will enhance any collection of American and environmental history."
– Gilbert Taylor, Booklist, Starred review
"Comprehensive and thoroughly researched [...] Davis makes the convincing argument that wiser, far-sighted practices – including those aimed at combating climate change – could help the Gulf region to remain a bastion of resources for the foreseeable future."
– Publishers Weekly, starred review
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Jack E. Davis is the author of the award-winning An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century. A professor of environmental history at the University of Florida, he grew up on the Gulf coast, and now lives in Florida and New Hampshire.