Crude truths in the Gulf of Mex­ico

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of hu­mans and tech­nol­ogy.

In Jack E Davis’s sprightly and sweep­ing new his­tory, The Gulf: The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Sea, the spill is both cul­mi­na­tion and foot­note to five cen­turies of rest­less hu­man en­er­gies. The largest gulf and 10th-largest body of water on earth, it be­gan form­ing 150 mil­lion years ago, af­ter the breakup of the su­per­con­ti­nent Pangea. Its depth and breadth have fluc­tu­ated over the en­su­ing eons: Its north­ern tides once lapped shore­line in present­day Illi­nois. In its cur­rent con­fig­u­ra­tion it touches more than 3,000 miles of main­land coast along five Amer­i­can states and six in Mex­ico, and sup­ports a com­mer­cial fish­ery worth three-quar­ters of a bil­lion dol­lars in land­ings rev­enue an­nu­ally.

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.

It was the ru­mour of gold and sil­ver that caused the first Euro­peans to probe gulf waters. Many met with ship­wreck and star­va­tion, even as a na­tive cul­ture thrived along the coastal estuaries, feast­ing on that boun­teous sup­ply of seafood. De­spite their com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works and end­lessly re­new­able source of protein, the na­tives were de­stroyed in the blink of an eye. Mostly it was the new­com­ers’ pathogens that did them in, al­though some were vic­tims of an at­ti­tude that viewed them as “art­less and lazy” for not ex­ploit­ing their ma­te­rial abun­dance for pur­poses of com­merce.

Al­though the gulf re­gion har­boured no gold, it pos­sessed as­ton­ish­ing riches of bird life. Davis, the au­thor of “An Ever­glades Prov­i­dence,” re­counts “one of the blood­i­est crimes com­mit­ted against wildlife in mod­ern times,” the slaugh­ter of plumage birds for feath­ered hats in the 19th cen­tury. The killing got so out of hand that the gulf’s pop­u­la­tion of snowy egrets dipped be­low the pop­u­la­tion of the en­dan­gered Amer­i­can bi­son. Five mil­lion birds an­nu­ally fed the hat busi­ness, leav­ing the gulf with a mere 10 per­cent of its pre­vi­ous num­ber of plume birds by the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury.

Like­wise, oys­ter beds were scoured and per­ma­nently dam­aged, and shrimp pop­u­la­tions were hit hard by the in­tro­duc­tion of in­no­va­tive seafood-har­vest­ing meth­ods like the seine net. New laws and a dawn­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness helped cur­tail the worst abuses of com­mer­cial fish­ing, but in Davis’s reck­on­ing, one prac­tice in par­tic­u­lar changed the gulf for­ever: the pur­suit of tar­pon. Sport fish­ing brought waves of tourists to the water, all of whom re­quired ho­tels, restau­rants and water­side pavil­ions for danc­ing, drink­ing and swap­ping tall tales of grap­pling with the great sil­ver mon­sters of the sea. First rail­roads and later high­ways con­veyed sporty types to and from the gulf.

The 20th cen­tury ac­cel­er­ated the changes. On the gulf’s eastern shores, de­vel­op­ers dredged and filled marshes and estuaries in or­der to sell a slice of spoiled par­adise to North­ern trans­plants. On the western side, in­dus­try took hold with the dis­cov­ery of oil in 1901 at Spindle­top in Texas, and oil soon be­came a ma­jor gulf re­source. By the end of the cen­tury 181,000 wells had been sunk on- and off­shore in Louisiana alone, and more than 70,000 miles of pipe­line right of way had been se­cured to trans­port oil and gas through the state’s marshes. Denuded of its wet­lands and man­grove forests from Texas to Florida, much of the coast­line started slump­ing into the sea.

It is a sad story well told — al­though I should con­fess I be­gan the book scep­ti­cal of be­ing en­ter­tained and ed­i­fied by 592 pages about a body of water that has come to be used like a sump for the wastes of in­dus­try. My doubts proved un­war­ranted. Davis has writ­ten a beau­ti­ful homage to a ne­glected sea, a lyri­cal paean to its re­main­ing estuaries and marshes, and a mar­vel­lous mashup of hu­man and en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory. He has also given us the story of how a once gor­geous place was made safe for the depre­da­tions of the petro­chem­i­cal age. How it was made safe from petro­chem­i­cals is a book I look for­ward to read­ing. The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Sea Jack E Davis Liveright Pub­lish­ing Il­lus­trated; 592 pages; $29.95

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