Pulitzer Prize author Jack E. Davis speaks at LSU's College of Coast and Environment

Darian Graivshark
Jack E. Davis

The Gulf of Mexico is ranked as Earth's tenth largest body of water, and recently, Jack E. Davis explored related themes contained his new work with the Baton Rouge community.

On January 11, Davis spoke at the LSU College of Coast and Environment in the Dalton Wood Auditorium. Here, he discussed the book that received a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, calledThe Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.

Another book he has written that has received an award is calledAn Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglass and the American Environmental Century. Davis has done presentations both professionally and to the public.

To bring everyone into the mindset of the presentation, Davis decided to read a three minute excerpt fromThe Gulf book. Davis said the book has been described as scholarly and readable. The excerpt he read is from Chapter Nineteen of the book, calledLosing the Edge, which focuses on coastal marshes.

"They generously hug bays and islands . . . If you allow, the marsh can be a sanctuary in a world full of people. It reaches fifteen miles inland, with no single word to really describe it," Davis said. "Nature is ever-present, and is always trying to reclaim its territory. I am mostly interested in the relationship between humans and nature, and how they affect one another."

Inspiration forThe Gulf piece came forth after Davis recognized that there was a need for information on it, because many other historians seem to ignore it, or just mention it in passing. Davis wanted to create an image that was more clear about it, because the image became very narrow in the understanding of it. For example, many people will associate the Gulf of Mexico with oil and hurricanes. It was important to him that he share how all Americans are connected to the Gulf, historically and ecologically.

"Ecological connections with the Gulf includes estuaries. The Gulf of Mexico has some of the richest estuaries, reaching around 200. The magic ingredient for those? A mixture of fresh water and salt water. Then, how do we get that fresh water in the Gulf? There are some 116 rivers that flow to the Gulf, which bring about 85 percent of the fresh water to it. Not only do the rivers bring fresh water that allow for estuaries to thrive, though, but they bring nutrients and sediments.," Davis said. "With of all this combined, 80 percent of domestic shrimp in Louisiana come from the Gulf. Then, 40 percent of domestic oysters come from there, too."

With the realization that the Gulf was so rich in estuaries, which supported other life, the launch of sport fishing began. The fish that really ignited the want to fish for sport, though, was the tarpon. The first tarpon that was caught was in 1885 in Fort Myers in Tarpon Bay by a New York Architect named William Halsey Wood. When Wood hooked that first tarpon, everyone wanted to do the same.

What was great about tarpon, too, was that you didn't always have to go deep sea fishing to catch them. In the spring time, the tarpon would move closer inland in the Gulf to feed in the estuaries.

In the 1960's, however, virtually every bay or lagoon was polluted and on the verge of a collapse.

"Between 50 to 80 percent of the sea grass was lost, which is important to the coast and the estuaries. Luckily, in 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed by Congress. This helped clean up the bays, and some have seen more than 100 percent regrowth of the sea grass," Davis said.

This isn't to say we still do not have problems in the Gulf, because there are still toxic spills. We even have the dead zone, which can reach up to the size of the state of Delaware at times.

"As I was doing research for the book, I actually found a connection between the dead zone, the baby boomer era, and Saturday morning cartoons," Davis said.

He explained to the audience that originally cereal was considered a healthy food, and there weren't as many options as there are today.

Once cartoons started to become popular, though, cereal companies decided to make themselves more appealing to the general public by adding more sugars. In a majority of cereals, sugar will be either the first or second ingredient.

What's the correlation? Many of the fields where they harvest the products for the cereals are near the Mississippi River basin. Thus, the by-products of harvesting leak into the river, which have helped in the creation of the dead zone.

"Humans, nature, and history all play a factor in what has happened to our world today," Davis said. "Nature will always want to reclaim its place, too. It doesn't necessarily care about us in its process of doing so, just as humans have not played a big role in caring about nature in return. Although, we are seeing more awareness in improving nature today."

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