Jack E. Davis | Conversations with Jeff Weeks | WSRE

Jack E. Davis | Conversations with Jeff Weeks | WSRE


– [Announcer] This
original WSRE presentation is made possible by
viewers like you. Thank you. – He won a Pulitzer
Prize for his book The Gulf: The Making
of An American Sea. Jack Davis is on this
edition of Conversations. (upbeat music) Jack Davis’ day job
is that of a professor at the University of Florida. But a quick glance
at his resume reveals an impressive career
outside of the classroom. In 2018, he won a Pulitzer
Prize for his book The Gulf: The Making
of An American Sea. But he is far from
a one-hit wonder. His books, Race Against
Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930, and
An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman
Douglas and the American Environmental Century have
earned their own place on the literary landscape,
garnering an array of awards and accolades. He is currently working
on a book about one of our nation’s great symbols,
the bald eagle. We welcome the
Pulitzer Prize winning Jack Davis to Conversations. Thank you for joining us. – My pleasure. – Well, first of all,
congratulations on the Pulitzer. That’s a big deal. – Thank you, yes. – I read something. I want you to tell the story then I’m gonna
get into the book, but when you found out that
you had won the Pulitzer Prize, take me back what
you were doing. How did you find out about it? – So, I was on campus in
my office in a meeting with a graduate student
and it’s near the end of the semester and I was
reading him the riot act about his sloppy writing
all through the semester, and my office phone started
ringing off the hook, my cell phone started
ringing and of course exploding with texts and I
had no idea what was going on. I wasn’t aware that my book
had even been nominated. The Pulitzer wasn’t on my radar. Now, I’m getting a little
irritated because I’m having a good time reading the
riot act to this guy. You know, all semester I’ve
been dealing with the same mistakes and finally
I started worrying about the possibility
of an emergency, so I turned around and
picked up my cell phone and saw a text from my
editor saying I had won. – Wow. – And I stood up and I said,
holy, you blank, blank. – Uh-huh (affirmative). – And then I literally
went speechless. I don’t think that’s ever
happened and I couldn’t tell the graduate student what
happened, so I had to slide the phone across the desk
so he could read the text. His eyes bugged out and I
know what he was thinking. He was thinking, meeting’s over. (laughing) And so that’s how I learned. – Wow, that’s a funny story. So at that point he had to
think, well, maybe I should pay attention to what
this guy’s telling me. – You know, the final
draft was due the next week and it was perfect. – Really? – Yes. – That was probably a
big impression on him, I would imagine. That’s pretty neat when
you think about it. – Yeah, it’s pretty neat. It’s been life changing. People ask me, how does it
feel to win the Pulitzer? I said it feels like
somebody else’s life. – Yeah. – Yeah, it’s pretty
extraordinary. Beyond all my expectations
for this book. Or for myself. – Wow. So that was not something
you thought of coming up as a young student that,
wow, that’s a goal for me. – No, no, absolutely not. You know, in high school
if somebody told me I was going to write books,
I would say, you’re crazy. And if they’d say, had told me, you’ll win the
Pulitzer Prize someday, I would have said,
what’s a Pulitzer? (laughing) And no, I never, I don’t allow
myself to think that highly of myself and again,
the book had done well, even before the Pulitzer,
it had gotten wonderful national reviews. It had won another
major award, but again, I had no expectation
that the book would even be in the
running for the Pulitzer. The thing about Pulitzer
is they don’t announce the finalist in advance
of announcing the winner. So nobody knows who’s
actually in the running until the day they
are announced. And a lot of people
learned before I did. – Wow. Well, congratulations.
– Yeah, thank you. – That’s a wonderful
accomplishment. – You know, Jeff, for
me it’s less about, the Pulitzer’s less about me
than it is the Gulf of Mexico. It’s less about the book than
about the Gulf of Mexico. I think this is wonderful,
positive national publicity for the Gulf of Mexico which
it doesn’t get all the time. – Right. – It gets the headlines
when there’s a hurricane or and oil spill and
that’s one reason why I wrote this book. – Well, speaking of that,
what was the inspiration for you to write this book? – Well, I grew up on
the Gulf of Mexico and so I have this lifelong
intimate relationship with the Gulf of Mexico. When I realized that nobody
had written a comprehensive history of the Gulf of
Mexico, I saw a need there but I also a natural fit for me. And writing this book was
really a labor of love and a true privilege because
the Gulf has meant so much to me as most people in
your viewing audience. – Absolutely. – And I spent part of
my early pre-teen years on Santa Rosa Sound
in Fort Walton Beach and then later on
Choctawhatchee Bay. And as I was writing this
book, I was revisiting my childhood in Okaloosa County. Almost every day when
I’d sit down to write, I was revisiting that childhood
and really understanding how important those
years on those two waters were to me. Living on Santa Rosa Sound, I
didn’t live in a baby boomer neighborhood, so there
were no kids to play with. – Right. – What I had was the sound. I like to say that the
sound was the cul-de-sac of my youth and the docks
were my streets and sidewalks. A little boat was my
bicycle and my rod and reel were my bat and ball. – Right. – And it was just so
wonderful, what a wonderful way to live those early years. – When you said that,
it made me think back just on some personal stuff,
do you have a favorite time of day to be on the Gulf,
whether it’s on the beach or actually in the water? – Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it has changed
over the years. I think now my favorite time
to be on the Gulf is sunset. – Yeah. – You can’t, there are no
better sunsets in the world. But sunset and early morning
because early morning, both early morning, sunset
the birds are more active. And I love to sit there and
watch them as I’m waiting, watching the light change
as the sun is rising, or watching the sun
fall behind the Gulf. – Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that’s my
favorite time as well. – But in my youth, of course,
it was beer drinking time. (laughing) – That was from sun-up
to sun-down, right? – That’s right. – That was funny. You know, we were talking
offset, or off camera and you said that you spend
a good portion of your time writing this book actually down in South Walton County, right? – Yes, I had a
Fellowship for a month, Escape to Create,
which is in Seaside. And it’s a wonderful program
for, Fellowship program for artists and writers,
creative people. – Yeah. – Thus the name
Create to Escape. So I spend a month
there writing. I wrote chapter five
while I was there. And what happens
in Escape to Create is the people that own
the homes in Seaside, the majority of them
are absentee owners or part-time or seasonal. And so in the wintertime,
which is not a great season necessarily for people from
other states to be there, they let the Escape to Create
program use their houses or the cottages. Each one has a cottage behind
the house for a Fellow. – Awesome, that’s neat. As you were doing your research
and as you were writing this book, what did you
learn that most surprised you that you just didn’t know? You go, wow, I didn’t know that. – I learned so much but
I suppose what I learned, this is environmental
history, of course, focusing on the five U.S.
states, covering the period from geological
formation to the present, so not very ambitious. – Yeah. – And I think what surprised,
what impressed me, I’ll say, there are a couple things. One is how important
the estuary environment is to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s one of the richest estuary
environments in the world. And it’s not just
ecologically important, it’s economically important. – Yeah. – We’ve got a $20+ billion
commercial fishing industry in the U.S. Gulf because
of those estuaries. We have a $5+ billion
sport fishing industry because of those estuaries. The Gulf is the most popular
salt water sport fishing area in America because
of those estuaries. But those estuaries
are connected to 60%
of the lower U.S. by way of rivers that drain the majority of the lower U.S. And so whatever goes in
those rivers comes down to those estuaries, good or bad. – Right. – Course the good is the fresh. The good is the nutrients. And the good is the
sediment when it gets there. – The bad is the
pollution, unfortunately. – And you talked
about that some, and fertilizer in
particular, right? – Yeah. – What’s the story with that? What’s going on? How much of it is
getting into the Gulf? – Well, unfortunately
fertilizer, both agricultural and home use fertilizer doesn’t
stay where it’s put down, or at 100% doesn’t stay. It washes away in the rain,
ends up in streams and rivers and fertilizer from as
far away as the Dakotas or Minnesota will find its way
down to the Gulf of Mexico. Or, fertilizer from as
far away as the foothills of the Rocky Mountains will
wash down to the Texas coast. And of course, in
Florida, we have the issue with Lake Okeechobee and
the Caloosahatchee River. Lake Okeechobee drains a
significant, a very large agricultural region of
Florida, or principle agricultural region and the
fertilizer, the cow waste, washes into Lake
Okeechobee and then the Army Corps of Engineers
and state water engineers send that down the
Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie on
the Atlantic side, down into those
estuary environments and it has a horrific impact. Again, not just ecological,
also economical. – Right. – Now, let me state that
the majority of farmers are have a very
close relationship
to the natural world and they are as keen
supporters as anybody else of a clean environment. But there are some challenges
and I think agriculture is facing those
challenges and starting to try to do the right thing. – Right, right. I think there’s a lot of
move on these days too with like the no-till farming
and things of that nature, which, I guess, perhaps
cuts down on some erosion, but then probably more
chemicals are involved, huh? – With no-till it’s
generally less chemical because you are keeping the
nutrients that would normally be taken off the
land, on the land, or on that crop field. And so you, ultimately what
happens is you can often use less water and less
fertilizer, in some cases no fertilizer at all. Some people are going
to no fertilizer and going to what’s called
regeneration farming, not just sustainable farming,
but regenerative farming or permafarming. And so, your input is actually
greater than your output. In other words, you’re
putting more nutrients into the land that
what you are removing, or more choloric
substance in the land that what you are removing. – And we’re veering off
course here just a little bit, but you’re environmental with
the University of Florida, so now I’m curious, so
how are they doing that? How is that happening? I’m familiar to some
degree the no-till stuff, but what you’re talking
about, how is that working? – Well, part of it,
and most farmers have now moved to no-till or
less-till, or minimal-till. – Right. – And the way to regenerate
a lot of those nutrients is through using cover crops
and many farmers do that. But also rotating,
if you have them, rotating your livestock. – Okay. – Your grazing livestock. So they can move
also, the nutrients, from one place to the other. – Makes sense. Makes a lot of sense. Here’s the other
question I have for you about the Gulf of Mexico. We take a tremendous amount
of pride in how beautiful our beaches are from
Pensacola to Destin, South Walton
County, Panama City, on down and around Florida. Why is there such a different
between how our beaches look on the Gulf
Coast of Florida here and say Corpus Christi, Texas. – Those rivers. Because where does that
beautiful while quartz sand that we have on our
beaches here come from? The top of the
Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachians were as tall
as the Himalayas at one time. And glaciers and rain and
winds brought that quartz down to the Gulf of Mexico
by way of rivers, the Apalachicola
River for instance, has been a major
deliverer historically of that white quartz. But in Texas you have the
Rio Grande, the Brazos and the Colorado primarily
bringing sediment from as far away as the
foothills of the Rocky Mountains and whatever terrain
those rivers pass through, they pick up sediment. The sediment, the mineral
content is different over there than from over here. We just happen to be
lucky enough to be endowed with white quartz on this
side of the United States. – Interesting. – Now, and of course you’ve
seen beaches in Louisiana. Louisiana has this
beautiful coastal marshes unsurpassed in
the United States, but it has the ugliest beaches. – Yeah. – I like to say, have you
ever seen a plowed field in Iowa, well that’s the
future of Louisiana’s beach. (laughing) – That’s the way it looks. – Yeah. – How much damage
did the BP oil spill do to the Gulf of Mexico? – The BP oil spill
did significant damage and the jury’s still out
because we don’t know necessarily what will
happen in the future. There’s still a lot
down there at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. But, you know, as I
write in the book, as I say in my talks, the BP
oil spill is not the worst environmental disaster that the
Gulf of Mexico has suffered. Every day is an environmental
disaster that exceeds the BP oil spill. – Really? – When we factor in everything
that is put into those rivers from far away places,
again, from as far away as western New York to North
Dakota to the Rocky Mountains, whatever’s put in those
rivers makes its way down the Gulf, and
that’s on a daily basis. The infrastructure for
the gas and oil industry is more destructive
than oil spills, than the offshore facilities. And then of course you
have all sorts of industry and agriculture around
the Gulf of Mexico. But also you have engineering
projects that have disrupted the currents, the
inner shore currents, which redirects the
sediment that revitalizes our beaches, the psychology
that is our economy, and of course can diminish the
health of an estuary as well. So when you factor all
that in, the daily insult is more significant,
unfortunately. But let me emphasize,
I’m optimistic, I have a positive outlook
on the future of the Gulf. I think we are,
for the most part, moving in the right direction. Virtually every bay and bayou
around the Gulf of Mexico by the late 1960s was
on the verge of death because of pollution. We fixed that,
for the most part. Most of those bays and
bayous have been brought back to vital life, teeming
with fish once again, teeming with birds
as a consequence. Some of them have enjoyed
100% sea grass regrowth when they’d lost 60,
70% of their sea grass. We did the right thing
with the Clean Water Act. Everybody pitched in, business,
agriculture, volunteers. And if we did it once,
we can do it again. And every nearshore
body of water around the Gulf of Mexico has one
or two non-profit group that works very hard to
maintain the health of those, or to restore it, of
those bodies of water. Right here in Pensacola you’ve got the Bream
Fishermen Association which dates back to 1969, 1970 during the massive
fish kills here. They’ve just done
tremendous work as well as many other people. – Absolutely. – Yeah. – What does a hurricane
do to the Gulf? – Well, the hurricane
obviously causes, as far as ecological,
we know what it does to our infrastructure. – Sure. – To the built environment. – Right. – As far as ecologically, it
can obviously have its impact, but nature does that to itself. It will destroy in some
way a vital ecosystem or diminish its health,
but with destruction there’s always rebirth
and it’s immediate. Walter Anderson, the
famous Gulf artist who lived in Ocean
Springs, Mississippi, he spent most of his
time on barrier islands, he was painting and
keeping a journal. He loved intense weather
because he was so curious about the rebirth that
came after the destruction. And it always amazed him. – And you focused
on him in the book. – Yeah, chapter 12. He’s the narrative driver
in chapter 12, if you will, and that was the first
chapter I wrote for the book. I knew that Walter would show
me the way into this book. He showed me how to write
about the Gulf of Mexico. I knew about him long before
from one of my previous books, Only in Mississippi, a back
roads travel guide to the state. I knew about Walter
Anderson from that, a book I coauthored
back in the 1990s and I knew he was the
guy to start with. – What kind of character is he? – He was a reclusive artist. He had a family, but
he, which he loved and his family loved him,
but he a second family, if you will, and that
was the Gulf nature. He spent most of his
last 20 years of his life on these barrier islands off
the coast of Mississippi, not populated by humans,
but very inhabited. There’s no such thing
as an uninhabited island because there’s life on there. – Right. – And this is what Walter
Anderson understood and appreciated and that’s
what drew him to those islands. He wanted to be there. That was very much his
islands and that wildlife were his second home and family. – Right. And you’re quite fascinated
by barrier islands. – I am fascinated
by barrier islands. They play an important
role in the Florida economy and the Gulf economy. They are important to
the estuary environment because they help cordon
in the fresh water and salt water mix. And they are stop over
areas for migrating birds. A billion birds migrate across or around the Gulf every year. – A billion? – Yes, and a lot of those go
direct over the Gulf nonstop. They can be in the
air 25, 30 hours. I’m talking about
little song birds. I’m talking about warblers, I’m
talking about humming birds. I’m not talking about
these big sea birds that spend their life over
the water for years at a time. – Wow. – Yeah, it’s pretty remarkable. – That is remarkable,
it’s quite amazing, yeah. – And I love writing about
that and learning about that and writing about it. But you know, ornithologists
didn’t believe that song birds could fly directly across
the Gulf until 1945 and a ornithologist from
LSU proved that indeed birds did fly direct across the Gulf. – How did he prove it? – Well, he got out
there in a boat. He hopped a ride on
a Norwegian freighter that was crossing the Gulf
and during the springtime, during the migration season
and he literally watched them crossing the Gulf of Mexico. – Wow. – Yeah. – That is fascinating. Speaking of fascinating
flying birds, if you will, you are working on a new
book as I understand it about the bald eagle. – I am. – Tell me about that. – Well, so the title of the
book is Bird of Paradox: How the Bald Eagle Saved
the Soul of America. It’s a natural and cultural
history of the bald eagle which, of course is
our national bird, has been since 1782. And everyone tells me about
their Ben Franklin stories, they all get it wrong. So I’ll correct it in the book. – Okay. – But, in any case, everybody
thinks that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey as the
national bird and he didn’t go that far, he just didn’t
want the bald eagle. But in any case, this is a
bird that everybody loves. I don’t know care what your
political background is, you love the bald eagle
and it’s a fascinating conservation success story. We almost wiped it
out in the lower U.S. But it also, the bald eagle
represents, in its comeback, represents our own connection
to the natural world. We’ve cleaned up its waters, thanks again to the
’72 Clean Water Act. We protected its habitat
and it is the most popular wildlife cam, the bald
eagle nest cams are, most popular wildlife
cams in the world. We’ve shared our environment
with the bald eagle and we love doing that. – Yeah. – We haven’t diminished
our quality of life, if anything, we’ve improved it. And if you go back to the very
beginning of this country, our national identity is
directly linked to the natural endowments of this
country because that’s
what distinguished us, made us different
and better, I should say, than European nations. They didn’t have the natural
endowments that we had. And they would come visit
and see what we had in terms of our natural environments
in terms of our woodlands and our rivers and our
streams and our lakes and the wildlife and
it blew their minds, they had never seen
anything like it. – What’s your favorite
part about writing? I’ve asked a lot
of writers this. Is it the actual sitting
down and writing, or is it the research part. – For me, it’s an actual
sitting down and writing because that’s where
most of the creative, that’s most of the
creative exercise comes in and I love, I revise and
I revise and I revise. I’m recrafting all the time. And I just love that part. I love looking for different
ways of saying things. I love looking for
good action verbs. I’ll read somebody’s book. Lauren Groff, a lot of people
know her, the bestselling fiction writer, I love her work. She’s a neighbor of
mine in Gainesville. And I came across a word she
used in one of her stories, gambol, G-A-M-B-O-L. A journalist once quoted
me saying, gamble, as in let’s go to the casino. (laughing) And I just love that word. I said, oh, my god,
I love that word. I’m gonna find a place
for it in the Gulf book and so I do little
things like that. – Neat, neat. What’s your process? Are you one of these folks
that are very, very structured, get up at six o’clock
in the morning and write for a couple hours
every day, or is it just when the mood hits ya? How do you do it? – I am very
disciplined by writing. I write every day, even on
holidays, and I get up early in the morning, no
later than five o’clock. Five o’clock is late. And my mind is fresh
then, everything’s quiet. And I’ll write for
as long as I can. I may have class that day,
so I have to go onto campus, but I won’t pump myself dry, as Ernest Hemingway used to say. I’ll stop at a good
place and so I’ll have a good writing
day the next day. As far as outlines, I don’t
create rigid outlines. I’ll put my outlines for
each chapter on Post-its and put them on my
file cabinet next me. That way I can
shift things around. I don’t have to
follow an outline like you’re following
a traffic cop. – Right. – For some writers
that works wonderfully. For me, I like the surprises. I like to get up in the
morning, start writing and not be quite clear where I’m going
into indeed let the writing show me how it wants, what
direction it wants to go, let the history show me
how it wants to be written. And I come across all
these wonderful surprises all the time. – What do you do if you’re
out and about or in class? Do you ever have a situation
where something’s like, wow, that’d be really
good for the book? – Write it down. – Go write it down? – Or now with the– – iPhones, dictate. – The iPhones, I
text it to myself. Yeah, that happens all the time. – What makes a good writer? – I think what
makes a good writer is someone who’s committed. Somebody who reads
a lot and who reads, not just for the
pleasure of reading, but studies the
reading of others and takes lessons
from the reading. You know, writing is similar
to becoming a good pianist, it takes practice and it
takes repetitive practice. So three R’s. Here are the three
R’s to writing. – Okay. – Revise, revise, revise. (laughing) – I like that, I like that. Well you would certain know. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. The book is The Gulf: The
Making of An American Sea, Jack Davis is the
author of that. He won a Pulitzer Prize for it. He’s got several other books
in his repertoire as well. And of course go to Amazon,
you can find them all and I’m sure where else? – Or support your
local bookstore. Page and Pallete has sold
hundreds of this book and the other independents
around the Gulf. – Absolutely. – Absolutely, yes. – I agree, yeah, support ’em. And you’ve got a new book
you’re working on about the bald eagle, so what’s, ballpark me timeframe
when that’ll– – I’m hoping it’ll be
out in 2021 because 2022 is the 240th anniversary of
the adoption of the bald eagle as the national bird, to
Ben Franklin’s chagrin. – Awesome. Well, Jack, all the very
best, it was a pleasure. – Yeah, thank you, my pleasure. – Enjoy it and have fun down
at the University of Florida, go Gators, huh. (laughing) We’ve been visiting with
Jack Davis and, again, the book is The Gulf: The
Making of An American Sea. It is a Pulitzer
Prize winning book and Jack is a Pulitzer Prize
winning author obviously. You can see more of our
conversations online at wsre.org/conversations
as well as on Facebook and YouTube. I’m Jeff Weeks, hope you
enjoyed the broadcast. Take wonderful care of yourself
and we’ll see you soon. (upbeat music)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *