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Author: Jack E. Davis.

Title: "The Gulf – The Making of an American Sea."

Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corp. 530 pages of text with a black and white photo at the beginning of each chapter.

Jack E. Davis has written a wide ranging history of the Gulf of Mexico and the impact of development over the centuries on the environment. It is not a detailed history of any particular event in the environmental history of the gulf; rather it is an excellent introduction to the many aspects of its environment.

Davis reviews the explorations of the gulf by the Spaniards, the French, the British and the Americans, all of whom are tied together in the exploration of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Spanish found the delta, but improperly located it on their charts. The French came down the Mississippi River from the north, but did not make it through to the sea. The British found the mouth of the river through the delta, but it was the Americans who exploited the Mississippi River all the way through to the sea.

Davis gives a good overview of the continual exploration of the Gulf of Mexico from Florida through Texas, and he notes how the Gulf of Mexico is hemmed in by Cuba, Mexico, and the United States, with the Americans having the most coast line. He describes the adverse contacts between the native peoples occupying the coast, and their destruction and removal as more and more non-native people moved into the coastal areas. But the main point of his history is the environment of the American side of the Gulf of Mexico, and how for better or worse it became an American sea.

Davis writes, “The Gulf of Mexico is one of the largest estuarine regions in the world, with more than two hundred estuaries … occupying nearly eight million acres around it shores. Densest around the five US states, these cradles of life give the American Sea its distinct ecological quality.” The estuaries and how they have been exploited over the centuries are the main themes of this book.

Davis does not dwell on every event, but he discusses many exploitations such the excessive and unlimited sport fishing for tarpons nearly wiping out this species of fish, and the killing of so many birds for their feathers used on women's hats so as to endanger several species. “(I)t was nearly impossible to find a bird for a photograph. At the height of the slaughter, more bison survived on the Great Plains – eight hundred tops – than snowys (Snowy Egrets) on the Gulf.” Tarpons were great fun to catch as they put up a tremendous fight, but they were fished nearly to the extent they were dramatically reduced in numbers. “From the Dakotas to the Gulf, nonhuman life in the late nineteenth century didn’t stand a chance against the casual toxicity of human indifference.”

As more and more people came to live on the gulf, particularly in Florida, mangrove forests were cut down and bays and marshes filled without regard to the nonhuman life which thrived in these areas. “Americans had always lived wherever they wanted. In a swamp, out in a desert, at the edge of a rock, in a floodplain, on an island, and where it was bitter cold or hellaciously hot. They always brought their way of life and expectations with them, preferring not to adapt to the local environment so much as to retrofit it to them.”

The Mississippi River’s enormous drainage basin and the other rivers draining into the gulf bring pollutants impacting nonhuman and human life. The building of dikes and the draining of swamps and marshes have caused land to be destroyed. Pollution has impacted communities all along the Gulf coast. In the 1960s and 1970s “for the first time America’s principal killing waters were not rivers and lakes, but coastal estuaries. The blind pursuit of economic growth had transformed cradles of life into chambers of death.”

Davis does discuss off shore oil drilling and its contributions to pollution, such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout which was “spilling 2.6 million gallons of oil into the Gulf a day, for eighty-seven nightmarish days.”

Davis’ epilogue is very compelling as he cites many environmental disasters and a few successes. “We will live longer on this planet if we take command of our excesses, align ourselves with the natural balances that predate us and the biosphere that supports us, and understand that nature is most generous when we respect its sovereignty.”

This is an excellent book, particularly from an environmental standpoint, as it gives the reader a broad survey of the impacts of people, pollution, hurricanes, oil, and overfishing/overhunting on the Gulf of Mexico. But as interesting as this book is, for me it was not a page turner as it took me longer than usual to plow through it. If you are at all concerned with the environment, even if you live nowhere close to the gulf you will gain much understanding from reading this book.

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Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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