The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. – Marcel Proust
As I read Jack Davis’ new novel, “Gulf, The Making of An American Sea” this quote by the seminal French novelist Marcel Proust repeatedly came to mind. Having lived on Florida’s Gulf coast for close to 40 years and been privileged to explore its rivers, bays and enigmatic estuaries, I have been captivated with its beauty and the fish that swim its waters. Over the years I’ve also explored the coastal waters of the Bahamas, Belize, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama and other more far-flung destinations. The opportunity to expand my vision of the coastal resources we are blessed with and having the luxury of time to see them in decline has spurred an interest in working to protect this watery world. Still, being immersed in this wonderland, my sensibilities have been unknowingly dulled by the familiarity of place. Reading “Gulf” shined a brighter light on what we have, what we’ve lost and the importance of protecting and enhancing our beguiling home.
Davis’s novel begins 150,000,000 years ago when the geological forces of an evolving Earth began shaping the Gulf we know today. In part one, he introduces us to the Calusa in Florida and the Karankawa, who inhabited present-day Texas, original natives of “one of the largest estuarine regions in the world, encompassing more than two hundred estuaries and occupying nearly eight million acres.” The book then traces the impact of the early Spanish explorers, who led the way for the French and British. The descriptions of the vast schools of fish and flocks of birds that would “blacken the sky” hint at the incredible diversity and density of marine life and wildlife that once inhabited the Gulf and its estuaries.
In a chapter entitled “The Wild Fish That Tamed the Coast” Davis recounts how the tarpon, not warm weather and white sand beaches, brought the first tourists to Florida. The records are unclear about who took the first tarpon with a rod and reel. Some say it was New York Architect William Halsey Wood fishing in Pine Island Sound in 1885. Others claim it was Anthony Weston Dimock with a fish he caught at the mouth of the Homosassa River. That first tarpon aside, the great silver fish was the impetus that introduced wealthy adventurers, artists and, indirectly, a wave of tourists to the Gulf coast.
In subsequent chapters, the influx of humans into the Gulf region begins a period of intense exploitation in the 1800s that continues to this day. Davis recounts records of armed passengers – “tourists” – on the Ocklawaha River that shot birds and wildlife indiscriminately for sport. At the same time, the plume trade was responsible for the killing of huge numbers of birds Gulf-wide. In 1902, one trade house reported an inventory of 50,000 ounces of feathers. At about that time ornithologist Frank Chapman spent two afternoons walking Manhattan’s retail district counting 542 feathered hats representing 174 species of birds.
During this same period, the harvesting of eggs from seabird nests exacerbated the decline of the once vast flocks of birds. Davis paints a picture with words that makes it hard to overstate the effects of this dark period. Fortunately, this gloomy picture is brightened by the light ignited by the resulting outcry from conservationists and birders. As a result, bird sanctuaries were set aside by an executive order from President Theodore Roosevelt for the protection of birds, and chapters of the National Audubon Society were born, including the Florida Chapter in 1900. During that period Roosevelt fostered the creation of 51 bird reservations, including Passage Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay.
As the history of the Gulf unfolded, the exploitation moved from birds to oil and then chemicals that devastated the coastal estuaries of Louisiana and Mississippi. Davis then recounts the effects of pulp mills, oil spills, and hurricanes before the rush of development that resulted in massive dredge and fill operations. This rush to the Gulf coastal areas scoured seagrasses from bay bottoms and leveled thousands of acres of marshes and mangroves creating islands and communities – Marco Island, Cape Coral, Bird Key and Terra Verde – where natural abundance once dominated.
While much of the book centers on the degradation of the Gulf and its bays, estuaries and barrier islands, it also points out its resilience and serves as a cautionary tale of the importance of protecting, preserving and enhancing it today. As a result of reading this book, I’m reminded that most of us who call the Gulf home today and consider it paradise have no idea of the paradise that’s been lost. “Gulf, The Making of an American Sea” is helping me to see my home with new eyes.