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Friday July 19th 2019

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A Living, Giving Sea

By Sydney Robinson

The Gulf of Mexico is many things to many people here on the Gulf Coast—a place to relax, a source of income, somewhere to catch dinner, a perfect vacation spot, a natural icon in need of protection, a place to call home. But to author and educator Jack Davis, it is a lot more than that—it is a ‘living, giving sea,’ which deserves praise and attention on a national scale.

Davis, a history professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville and Pulitzer-winning author of “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” will be visiting Northwest Florida on Tuesday, Feb. 5, as part of the WSRE Public Square Speaker Series to discuss his book and the Gulf of Mexico’s rightful place in American history.

Mary Riker, WSRE Marketing and Communications director, shared a statement on the series and Davis’s event.

“WSRE Public Square was launched in 2015 to bring noteworthy people to Pensacola for public talks around the arts, science, education and media. This year, we are fortunate to be the beneficiary of a Florida Humanities Council grant awarded to Pensacola State College,” said Riker. “[This month,] Jack Davis will present a great history lesson about our own Gulf Coast region.”

The bulk of Davis’s academic studies and lectures feature his area of interest—history through the lens of the environment and sustainability. His lecture will focus primarily on the history of the Gulf and how the rest of the United States owes a great debt of gratitude to this under-appreciated body.

“I wrote [the book] for a general audience and because I wanted my readers to know that we are all connected to the Gulf of Mexico. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you have a historical and ecological connection to the Gulf.”

In a review of “The Gulf,” the New York Times called it a “beautiful homage to a neglected sea,” a sentiment echoed late last year when the nonfiction book was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for history.

“To me, the Pulitzer is less about me the author and less about the book and more about the Gulf of Mexico,” said Davis. “The Pulitzer is just this wonderful affirmation that Americans care about the Gulf of Mexico, [that] there’s a sea on their southern borders that they didn’t know much about.”

While a great deal of discussion on the environment is doom and gloom (and for good reason), in the Gulf, Davis sees reason to hope.

“I like to think that [my lecture is] an optimistic talk because in the late 1960s, every bay [in the area] was on the verge of death. Escambia Bay had record fish kills in the 1970s; everyone was disgusted by it,” Davis said. “Since then, everybody’s pitched in, and we have cleaned up the bays and bayous. Pensacola Bay is coming back to life, and downtown Pensacola has come back to life after the removal of the wastewater treatment plant. [It’s] such a wonderful place now, just alive and fun, and the downtown economy is robust again.”

As for predictions for the future of the Gulf of Mexico, Davis will quickly tell you that he’s a historian first.

“History is a prelude and an indicator of what might happen in the future. [The book] covers the period from geological formation to the present, but I think you can get some sense from the book what the future might look like, what has been good and bad with our relationship with the Gulf of Mexico, what adjustments we might make or should make to make that relationship more mutually beneficial.”

In “The Gulf,” Davis discusses how a healthy estuary results in a healthy economy, which, ultimately, results in a healthy environment for all. During the WSRE event, Davis will dive into the mutually beneficial relationship humanity has shared with the Gulf of Mexico and how residents and visitors can give back.

“[The Gulf is a] ‘living, giving sea.’ We’ve taken a lot from the Gulf of Mexico, and that’s okay just as long as we give something back, and that means recognizing the importance of a healthy estuarine environment.”

Considering that the Gulf of Mexico is closely tied to the economic and environmental success of Pensacola and the surrounding areas, anyone from lifetime local to visitor will find something valuable to be gained from the event.

“I think my audience cares about the Gulf and appreciates the Gulf, and everybody benefits, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, when we have a healthy estuary.”

Davis’s talk is the first of three monthly talks presented by WSRE. Be on the lookout for talks by Ersula Odom in March and Cynthia Barnett in April.

WSRE PUBLIC SQUARE PRESENTS JACK DAVIS
WHAT: Jack Davis lectures on “The Gulf: the Making of an American Sea”
WHEN: 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 5
WHERE: WSRE Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio at PSC, 1000 College Blvd.
COST: Free
DETAILS: wsre.org/events/public-square-speakers-series