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Likely Stories - The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E Davis

I’m Joe Riley with KWBU. I’ve loved Likely Stories from the beginning, and always looked forward to hearing Jim McKeown’s recommendations. Now I’m grateful for the privilege of sharing one of my recent reads.

Earlier this year my wife and I visited Padre Island National Seashore. We stopped into the Park Service store to buy a hat, and on a nearby shelf was a book: The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. It intrigued me; I bought a hat and the book.

To say I enjoyed it would be an understatement. I have yet to wear the hat, but I could hardly put down the book. It’s like a print version of a driveway moment.

The book’s author, Jack E. Davis, grew up on the Gulf of Mexico. He is a professor of history and sustainability studies at the University of Florida. The Gulf was published in 2017.

Davis takes the reader on an epic journey, through time and place. Quickly moving from the geological formation of the Gulf, to indigenous tribes, to colonizers from Spain and France and England, exploration and exploitation, international politics, wars and rumors of wars. Then the Americanization of the Gulf – fishing and tourism, development and industrialization. Big oil.

All the chapters are organized around facets of nature – estuaries and beaches, fish and birds, sea currents and weather – often told through stories about and the words of people of the Gulf. His writing is lyrical and compelling and sometimes exhilarating, even unsettling. Davis describes schools of fish so plentiful they jump into boats. He writes of birds journeying every spring to the shores of the Gulf, arriving daily by the tens of millions.

In the chapter “Wind and Water,” we read the story of the Griffith family during Hurricane Audrey. Davis writes, “D.W. cut a hole in the kitchen ceiling, and three generations scurried up into the attic, grandmother and grandfather too. All the furniture below washed out of the house, lined up at the door like cattle moving through a chute. The bathtub followed. The water rose to the plasterboard ceiling, dissolving it. Then D.W. cut a hold in the roof, and the family climbed out, holding tight whatever they could.”

Throughout the book, Davis contrasts the beauty and power of nature with human efforts to outsmart nature – usually with disastrous consequences – and of the tendency of government and big business (paraphrasing an old quote) to privatize profit and socialize pollution. But Davis is hopeful as he describes the immense ability of nature to return to health given the chance.

In 2017, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea was a New York Times Notable Book, and it was on numerous “best of” lists, including The Washington Post, Forbes, and NPR. It won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for History and the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis is available at the Waco McLennan County Library. Check it out – or buy your own copy! I HIGHLY recommend it.

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Prior to joining KWBU in 2009, Riley served at Maine Public Broadcasting Network as Vice President Director of Television and at Nashville Public Television as Director of Local Programming and Production, and had earlier been Director of Production at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Raised in South Carolina, Riley holds a bachelor's degree in English from Furman University. Joseph_Riley@Baylor.edu 254-710-7888