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Guardians of the Gulf

UF professor writes first history of the tug-of-war between humans and nature in the Gulf of Mexico

Story by UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences November 7th, 2017

Jack E. Davis, professor of history and sustainability studies, has won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction for his environmental history book, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. The $50,000 prize, given by literary publication Kirkus Reviews, honors exceptional books that meet Kirkus standards of excellence.

The Gulf offers a comprehensive cultural, political, and natural history of the Gulf of Mexico and is the first such history of this important waterway. The book has been well received by readers and benefits from native Floridian Davis' passion and appreciation of the Gulf. After attending Largo High School, Davis studied at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He intends to use part of the Kirkus Prize to support his mother, who still lives in Largo, Fla. "Living on the Gulf is what inspired this book, having that intimate relationship with it," Davis told the Tampa Bay Times. "I just want everyone to know what it is, and what it has the potential to be."

Gulf pub photo by Lynn Weir.jpg
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Davis meanders through the early history of this fascinating sea, which became a kind of graveyard to many early marooned explorers due to shipwrecks and run-ins with natives. Yet the conquistadors took little note of the abundant marine life inhabiting the waters and, unaccountably, starved. A more familiar economy was established at the delta of the muddy, sediment-rich Mississippi River, discovered by the French. The author focuses on the 19th century as the era when the Gulf finally asserted its place in the great move toward Manifest Destiny; it would “significantly enlarge the water communication of national commerce and shift the boundary of the country from vulnerable land to protective sea.” The Gulf states would also become a mecca of tourism and fishing and, with the discovery of oil, enter a dire period of the “commercialization of national endowments.” The story of this magnificent body of water and its wildlife grows tragic at this point—e.g., the “killing juggernaut” of Gulf wading birds to obtain fashionable feathers. Still, it remains an improbable, valiant survival tale in the face of the BP oil spill and ongoing climate change.
– Kirkus Reviews
The book begins with a description of Winslow Homer's "Shell Heap," a painting that inspired Davis.
Girls climb an oyster shell midden left by Calusa in Apalachicola, 1956.
A historical map of Cedar Key, Florida.

publisher description

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.

In Davis’s hands, the story reads like a watery version of the history of the American West. Both places saw Spanish incursions from the south, mutual incomprehension in the meeting of Europeans and aboriginals, waves of disease that devastated the natives and a relentless quest by the newcomers for the raw materials of empire. There were scoundrels and hucksters, booms and busts, senseless killing in sublime landscapes and a tragic belief in the inexhaustible bounty of nature. A few artists and eccentrics fought to preserve the ecology of the place and sometimes succeeded. Whereas the West was re-engineered to account for a shortage of water, the Gulf of Mexico was re-engineered to account for a surfeit of oil.
– The New York Times

Davis' fellow UF professors chimed in with their support:

Davis' previous book, An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, was also well regarded and received a Florida Book Awards gold medal. His next book focuses on the conservation and symbolism of the bald eagle.

The Gulf has also been longlisted for the American Library Association's Carnegie Medal.

further reading