By Feiyi Xu
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Feiyi Xu, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Jack E. Davis about his book The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea (Liveright), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
In his book, The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea, Jack E. Davis explores and reveals the Gulf’s diverse world in a unique perspective by combining its history and natural environment. He grew up on the Gulf, knows the Gulf, and loves the Gulf.
Feiyi Xu (FX): When did you have the idea of this book?
Jack E. Davis (JD): 2010, months before the BP oil spill.
FX: What is your primary motivation to write this book?
JD: I grew up on the Gulf and wanted to write a cultural and natural history of a sea largely overlooked in in the traditional narrative of American history. After the oil spill, I believed it was especially important to recapture the true identity of the Gulf, to present it for what it is, which is more than an oil sump and sunning beach.
FX: Did you choose the title, “The Gulf: The Making of American Sea”? Could you please explain it?
JD: Yes, I chose the title. As I explain in the book, there are both historical and ecological reasons for why I call the Gulf an American sea. When Thomas Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, giving the US its first Gulf-front property, the Spanish, French, and British were freely sailing the Gulf. He and other elected officials believed the Gulf was rightfully an American sea, the control of which would solidify American dominion in the region. He wanted the US to acquire Cuba, and other presidents tried. Eventually, the US secured half the shoreline of the Gulf, sharing the other half with Mexico and Cuba, but the US has since controlled the sea, dominating the seafood industry, for example, and oil extraction.
As for the ecological reason, the Gulf is one of the richest estuarine environments in the world, and the estuaries of the Gulf tend to concentrate around the five US states. Most of the freshwater that flows to the Gulf, and that is central an estuarine environment, comes down rives from the US states. The best sport and commercial fishing has always been around the US states, which is not to say one cannot find good fishing off Mexico.
FX: The Gulf is a massive work with substantial history, topics, and other information. What did you do before you start writing?
JD: I have been writing books since the 1990s. The Gulf is my third solo-authored book. I have also been a history professor since the 1990s. Before then I worked in the business world, attended college, and served in the navy, which I joined out of high school because I wanted to go to sea and travel the world.
FX: Could you please give a brief introduction of the history of the Gulf of Mexico? For example, the history of the Gulf of Mexico is a history of…
JD: My book is a history of the human relationship with Gulf nature over the course of nearly ten thousand years. It focuses on the five US states and gives most of its attention to the 19th and 20th centuries and how the American relationship with the Gulf evolved over time. The book is not just about people who lived beside the Gulf and their interactions with the sea, but how all Americans interacted with the sea, even from distant places. People of the Northeast and Midwest are just as relevant in the history of the Gulf as those who have lived beside it.
FX: Your book has a unique perspective on exploring a landscape by digging into its history. You have published several environmental history books. What attracts you to combining nature and humanity? How do nature and humanity cooperate with each other?
JD: Landscape is a place constructed by humans. I am interested in nonhuman nature as a historical agent, how it has shaped the course of human history. Most historians treat nature as a physical backdrop to a human-driven story and disregard how nature impinges on human activities. I organized the book’s chapters around natural characteristics of the Gulf to emphasize the power and influence of the nonhuman world in the human experience.
FX: In your book, you discussed the growth coast, with houses, hotels, and condominium towers replacing vital natural vegetation in less than two decades. It has become a controversial topic that how can we balance environmental protection and economic growth. Could you please share your thoughts on this topic?
JD: We know how to achieve that balance; we just don’t give it much priority. As a common practice, the Gulf states and others connected to the Gulf by rivers, for example, dumped raw sewage into the bays and bayous of the Gulf until the 1970s and the Clean Water Act. We nearly killed many of those bays, wiped out the greater majority of their seagrass beds—vital to healthy productive estuaries. When we stopped, when we cleaned up these waters, they came back to life. More people live on these waters today, but nearly all are healthier than when fewer people lived beside them. Bird life I never saw as a kid, including the bald eagle, returned to Gulf shores because sea life was thriving again. We could roll back the Gulf of Mexico dead zone quite easily if we stopped sending agricultural effluent down the Mississippi River. We have learned to protect mangroves and coastal mashes and recognized the benefits to ourselves when we do. What we lack is the political will to be smart about living with nature by not polluting it, not managing it, not altering it, not re-engineering it, not putting concrete and asphalt where the living shoreline exists or should exist.
FX: In July 2017, Premier Oil said that about 1 billion barrels of oil had been discovered off Mexico’s coast. What will the oil discovery bring to the Gulf of Mexico?
JD: In a word, controversy. More oil will mean not only more drilling and platforms over the water but an expansion in the onshore infrastructure that supports extraction. As I argue in the book, the real environmental damage from the oil and gas industry comes from the onshore facilities.
Jack E. Davis is the author of the award-winning An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, a dual biography of the America's premier wetlands and the woman who led a movement to save it. His latest book, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, to be published by Liveright/W. W. Norton in March 2017, is a comprehensive history of the Gulf of Mexico from the Pleistocene to the present.
Davis, who writes mainly for an intellectually curious audience rather than an academic one, has been teaching history at the university level for more than two decades. In 2002-2003, he taught on a Fulbright award at the University of Jordan in Amman. He is now a professor of environmental history and sustainability studies at the University of Florida.
Feiyi Xu is a First-year MFA student in Fiction at The New School.