The Gulf; The Making of An American Sea by Jack Davis. Liveright, 2017.
Professor Jack Davis covers a relatively short period in the history of the Gulf of Mexico – from the Pleistocene, two million years ago, to the Twenty-First Century AD. The Gulf is an enormous body of water that drains an even vaster land area, the basins of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the rivers that deliver fresh water to the Gulf from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. His study of the Gulf is modeled after Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.
Davis keeps his sense of humor despite the bad news that flows from his word processor. The subject of his history, he laments, has been “a sandbox for the earth-sculpturing [by the] US Army Corps of Engineers.” Their dike building along the Mississippi is only a small part of the trouble, however. The Gulf has also become a dump for the numerous industries that have clustered around our waterways. Add to that the more recent discovery of off-shore petroleum deposits and their exploitation.
In April 2010 Deepwater Horizon, one of those off-shore oil rigs, blew spewing two hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf. But that is less, Davis reminds us, than the annual dose of poisons that comes down the Mississippi River from our Midwestern agricultural heartland. Nor was this the first time that the Gulf has been contaminated by discharge from an off-shore oil rig.
Those ‘tarred and feathered’ birds that attracted so much attention during the press coverage of the Deepwater Horizon spill should remind us that the Gulf is a major path for migrating birds. Billions of birds cross the Gulf of Mexico twice a year. It is a six-hundred mile trip for many of them, but shorter “as the crow flies” than any passage over land.
Many of the birds caught in the spill were in their breeding plumage. Look back at photographs of fashionable, turn-of-the-last-century females and you will find their hats decorated with plumage, feathers from egrets, herons, spoonbills, and other mostly wading birds. They were harvested by shooting, hence a rapid reduction in numbers. (Fortunately women’s hat fashion changed during WWI.) Their men folk joined clubs and hunting lodges and, for the sport, aimed their guns at those same migrating birds.
Wading birds may have seemed like ‘small potatoes’ to some hunters, but there were alligators. They were fashioned into ‘big game’. They would likely serve as a prop in a photograph of the dead animal and its hunter. For fishermen, tarpon were the popular fish; their size, according to Davis, would satisfy the national masculinity zeitgeist.
The hoteliers, Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, were happy to supply these gentlemen and ladies with luxury accommodations. Both were railroad men, presiding over a transition in the Florida tourist trade. From vacationers arriving by rail, many were now traveling to Florida in automobiles but still staying in their hotels.
The Gulf of Mexico became a second home on or near the beach, which in turn led to rows of high-rise condominiums. With them more roads, more malls, more fast-food restaurants. And more up-rooted mangroves.
Meanwhile the Gulf of Mexico was becoming a major docking facility for container ships. The widening of the Panama Canal resulted in a major transformation of shipping in the Gulf. Huge new machinery, lifts, etc. were necessary to handle these containers.
Sand has always been a tricky foundation for a building of any size. And that became a problem as condo’s etc. were allowed closer and closer to the edge of the water. Moreover, existing regulations, if enforced, have not made allowances for sea level rise. Hurricanes and tropical storms add mother-nature to the mix of good and bad advisors. So the slowly-disappearing beach needed to be armored and replenished.
Gambling. It was decided that the best way to add gambling to the Gulf and keep it more-or-less out of sight was to position it off-shore. That particular gamble however, did not pay off. It didn’t count on an uninvited guest – Hurricane Katrina. The casinos, washed out to sea, were rebuilt. They are now anchored on land near the condominiums and their towns.
Jack Davis ends The Gulf; The Making of an American Sea on a positive note. When the State of Florida banded gill-netting in 1994, Cedar Key fishermen began exploiting a new fishery, clam farming. And the town changed from one where fishers have lived and worked to a successful town of second homes for well-off Floridians. Most of the employed population live inland. They still make their living in Cedar Key, but in the restaurant and souvenir businesses, trading off what used to be. But so be it.