The vastness and untamed energy of oceans, seas and lakes both fascinate and frighten us. Two new books explore our complex relationships with iconic American bodies of water.
In his vivid The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, University of Florida historian Jack E. Davis narrates the history of the Gulf of Mexico from its origins in the Pleistocene epoch and its flourishing aboriginal cultures—still evident in burial and ceremonial mounds. Davis traces various eras of exploration and conquest by Spanish, British and French explorers, the development of towns on the Gulf as tourist destinations in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and oil booms and ecological catastrophes of the late 20th century. Along the way, we meet figures who shaped the history of the Gulf: ethnologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who explored the ancient mounds; 16th-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; and Randy Wayne White, the fishing guide (and bestselling author) whose promotion of the tarpon lured hundreds of anglers to the Gulf Coast.
Though Gulf waters once teemed with “crabs, shrimp, and curious jumping fish called the mullet,” by the mid-20th century, the thirst for development had disastrous consequences. In the 1960s, many scientists recommended eradicating mangroves, which prevent erosion, in order to build condominiums closer to the water. When beaches began to erode, communities built seawalls, which actually worsened the problem. As Davis demonstrates in this absorbing narrative, the history of the Gulf teaches us that nature is most generous whenever we respect its sovereignty.
The Great Lakes span 94,000 square miles and provide 20 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. Yet, as award-winning journalist Dan Egan points out in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, these inland seas face challenges unimaginable when explorer Jean Nicolet first paddled across Lake Huron in the 17th century. At that time, the Great Lakes were isolated from the Atlantic, unreachable by boat not only because of their unnavigable shorelines but also because of the challenges of crossing waterfalls. With the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, begun in 1955, ships gained what Egan calls a “front door” to the lakes, turning cities like Chicago into inland ports.
By the mid-20th century, industrial and municipal pollution created dead zones in the lakes. While the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 prompted some recovery, the law didn’t prevent ships from dumping contaminated ballast. Egan chronicles the ways that such pollution has decimated native fish populations, created toxic algae outbreaks and introduced the DNA of non-native species into the lakes. In this compelling account, Egan issues a clarion call for re-imagining the future of the Great Lakes.