In November 2011, Professor Jack Davis took a “toxic tour” of Florida’s Fenholloway River. Up stream from Buckeye Technologies, which manufactures cellulose used in disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, sausage casings, and ice cream, Davis filled a bottle with spring-clear water. Down river from the plant, he put on surgical gloves and topped off a second bottle. The water sample was as dark as coffee. For twenty-six miles to the Gulf of Mexico, the Fenholloway meanders between greasy-black banks and emits a noxious odor. Buckeye has been pouring industrial waste into the river since 1954, up to 60 million gallons a day–more than the daily discharge of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Today, an ecological dead zone occupies ten square miles of the Big Bend sea-grass beds, the Gulf’s most important and vital marine habitat.
The tour of the Fenholloway was part of the research Davis is conducting for his next book, “The Gulf of Mexico: History, Nature, and the Destiny of an American Sea.” The book will cover the five U.S. Gulf states from the period of pre-Spanish coastal Indians to the present. Hired in 2003 as UF’s first environmental historian, Davis is interested in more than the ecological consequences of human activity. He argues that the history narrative is incomplete when it ignores the agency of nature. Nature, in other words, shapes the human experience.
The Gulf’s rich marine life (which today yields more than the combined fisheries of the U.S. East Coast) allowed indigenous peoples to develop complex, sedentary societies without the benefit of agriculture. Later, fisheries largely determined U.S. settlement of the region (today, four of the seven most productive U.S. fishing ports, by weight of catch, are located on the Gulf Coast, and 56 percent of the nation’s commercial oysters and 83 percent of its shrimp come from the Gulf.) In the nineteenth century, Gulf tarpon drew the first tourists, sportsmen and -women from the Northeast and Europe, to Florida’s coast.
The book will map the Appalachian origins of Gulf Coast sand, regarded as some of the finest in the world, and explore how Gulf beaches helped soften cultural biases that evoked notions of the threatening sea and undesirable seashore. By the early twentieth century, beaches had moved to the center of what is today a $20-billion tourism industry.
Storms are an obvious example of the power of nature in human history. Davis’s book will look at the longue durée impact of Gulf storms, which influenced patterns of Spanish settlement, the outcome of international rivalries, architectural and infrastructure designs, and popular-cultural expressions.
By the 1950s, the Gulf was beginning to feel the effects of human activity, primarily unregulated development, excessive wastewater and industrial discharge, and offshore oil drilling (pioneered in the Gulf). Davis, who next year will teach a senior seminar on the history of the Gulf, argues that these collective impacts have greatly diminished the Gulf’s enriching presence in American society. The result leaves an important question, whether civilization or nature controls the destiny of the Gulf of Mexico.