Carl Wernicke: The Story Of The Gulf Of Mexico Is Our Story

Jun 28, 2017

Although the news these days tends to be depressing, there is good news if you know where to look. And one of those items is the resurgence of the book, both the electronic version and the old-fashioned kind printed on paper.

I still prefer the old-fashioned kind of book; there’s just something about its physical presence. And it remains a marvelous piece of technology: mobile, durable and supremely easy to use. But the printed word is good wherever you find it. When my Kindle malfunctioned I downloaded the Kindle app onto my iPad, and I read my share of electronic books as well.

But when I come across an important book, I usually want it in printed form. I recently acquired one: The Gulf, the Making of an American Sea. It is the first comprehensive look at the Gulf of Mexico that I am aware of, and was written by Jack Davis, a professor of environmental history at the University of Florida.

The book is almost 600 pages, but there is a lot of ground, or water, to cover. You get a good look at the history of Florida and other Gulf Coast states as well as a basic primer on the Gulf itself. He makes a valiant effort to be comprehensive, covering native Americans, European exploration, fishing, trade, hurricanes, the origins of tourism, beach renourishment, at times the book seems to jump around, but he correctly aims to show the Gulf and human society intermeshed. His tales about the early European exploration of the Gulf Coast alone makes for fascinating reading.

Much of the book covers the environmental abuses the Gulf Coast has suffered, and it is stomach turning. The sheer folly man is capable of remains stunning; it’s hard not to read about the staggering waste involved in the fashion feather trade, which left Gulf Coast bird populations on the verge of collapse, without feeling sick. And to read what was lost of natural Florida to the dredge and fill mentality before national and state governments imposed some limits makes clear what was stolen from future generations, likely never to return. The story of Florida’s mangrove coast, and its impact on marine life, is a tragedy all its own.

An almost offhand anecdote that back in the day of sailing vessels schools of fish could impede the progress of a boat hints at what was lost.

Given the dominating presence of the Gulf on Florida, and Pensacola, I had to read it. And Pensacola certainly has a prominent place in the book. Davis reminds us of Pensacola’s place as one of the most polluted cities on the Gulf Coast, and devotes pages to the near death of Pensacola Bay, and the efforts to revive it.

I regret having missed Davis when he was in town earlier this year to speak to the Bream Fishermen Association. The founders of the BFA, people like Charles Lowery, J.D. Brown, and Ernie Rivers, led the effort to reverse the destruction of Pensacola Bay and have a well-deserved place in the book. So do other local environmental activists, such as Jackie Lane on Perdido Bay, and Linda Young, who published an environmental newspaper, the Pro Earth News. And he introduces you to a string of courageous, often heroic individuals over the centuries who recognized what was being lost, and worked to save it.

If I have a quibble, I thought Davis underplayed the story of Tristan de Luna, briefly focusing on it in the hurricane section rather than in early history. With the University of West Florida’s discovery and ongoing excavation of the Luna settlement site in Pensacola, it deserves better treatment.

But as I said, that’s a quibble. I highly recommend the book.