Crude truths in the Gulf of Mexico
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