Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Jack E. Davis on the Gulf of Mexico, History and Hope

Before Davis, no one had told the story of the Gulf.

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t feels like 100 degrees and it’s not yet 10 in the morning. Without a cloud to hide behind, Jack E. Davis is wearing a black shirt, brown pants and no hat, his freckled scalp left to simmer in the sun. He never once complains about the heat—a Florida boy through and through. We’re on Cedar Key, a barrier island three miles from the mainland, about an hour west of Gainesville. The island city is a vestige of Old Florida, where some parts are only accessible by boat and generations of fishermen still ply their trade. The key is also the subject of the final chapter of Davis’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, a book The New York Times called “a beautiful homage to a neglected sea.”

Davis is bringing me here because this place gives him hope, a necessary coda to his heartbreaking history of the Gulf of Mexico. Davis writes of the Gulf’s once Eden-like abundance—the waters brimming with fish and the sky full of birds—a world so teeming with life that it seemed inexhaustible and eternal. Of course, every story needs conflict, and there is no lack of strife in The Gulf. Davis writes in excruciating detail how each provision of the Gulf’s bounty was met with the insatiability of human greed, so a hopeful end was a necessity, and he wants me to see it for myself.

“Even though I’m a historian,” Davis says, “people always ask me about the future. They want to know what’s going to happen. I preach the gospel of the living shoreline.”

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