Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Blog From the Sea of Cortez
In 1939, the writer John Steinbeck set off from Monterey for the Sea of Cortez on a marine collecting expedition. Seems like an unlikely activity for a fiction writer, but he had fallen under the spell of an unlikely companion, a biologist named Ed Ricketts. For two months the two of them, along with a small crew, scoured the shores and reefs of the Sea of Cortez on a sardine boat.
If you have read Cannery Row, you will know that Ed Ricketts ran a biological supply company in Monterey (the character “Doc” was modeled on him). He was a man who loved beer, women, music, and (especially) the inter-tidal world. (He wrote one of the first field guides to marine life of the North Pacific, Between Pacific Tides).
He had the sort of fascination with hidden and inconsequential creatures that most of us lose as children, when we realize that they are not important to most adults. Studying biology can give you permission to continue to love these things and I’ve noticed that many biologists, especially the ones who still deal with animals and plants in the wild, have a child-like love of their subject.
It was this passion that seduced Steinbeck. The book he wrote about that trip, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, came out in 1941. Any edition after 1948 (when Ricketts was killed in his car at a rail crossing) includes a forward on him by Steinbeck: a funny, affectionate, and complex character sketch, which resonates with sadness.
The book is a contemplation on many things, including diesel engines, navigation, social engineering, and philosophy. Occasionally Steinbeck pauses to paint portraits of his quirky shipmates. But mostly he writes about the journey, the smells and tastes of the sea and land, and the collecting expeditions to fill jars and buckets with crabs, shrimps, nudibranchs, snails, worms...
I can’t help but compare that journey, almost exactly 70 years ago, with our own. As they set off from Monterey, Steinbeck writes about not only the material provisions (cans of peaches, crates of oranges, bottles of whiskey) for their trip but the spirit with which they set off: "We suppose this was the mental provisioning of our expedition. We said 'Let’s go wide open'.”
I think about that term mental provisioning often. Wondering what our own is. Certainly to “go wide open.” Maybe also, as Steinbeck writes “to re-align ourselves with light and tides.” Perhaps, like he and Ricketts, to “re-acquaint ourselves with laziness” as “only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighing of oneself against the world and the world against itself.”
But also, with a different spirit—a little sadly—to try to see things before they disappear. Part of our mental provisioning is a feeling that something is coming to an end. Not the world of course, it will go on with our without us. But rather, diversity, effortless flourishing. An end of abundance.
We haven’t seen the air bright with leaping swordfish, the great pods of dolphins and schools of tuna thrashing the water to life that Steinbeck described. Today, day after day, many of the beautiful creatures which Ed Ricketts lovingly collected on specially chosen sites and tides are dredged up by the shrimp trawlers we have seen moving like slow combines up and down the coast.
Still, taking Rickett’s cue, perhaps the secret to happiness is finding great pleasure in the small cogs of the living world, a burrowing owl fixing you with a yellow gaze, a tarantula ambling across a sandy wash, a tiny ruby-coloured hawkfish darting among the coral.
In the end Steinbeck found more than specimens on his expedition. He collected holiness in the tide pools of the Sea of Cortez:
…If one observes in the relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And that not only the meaning, but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical out-crying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known as unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.