Sunday, May 6, 2007

My mind's on the water today

Shannon's photos of the tide pools reminded me of one of my favorite books, Steinbeck and Rickett's Log from the Sea of Cortez. For a biologist, it's a wonderful book. Ed Rickett's was an interesting fellow. Steinbeck used a lot of who Rickett's was in his great book Cannery Row, another favorite. Ed Rickett's worked in a wooden building, positioned between canneries. He stored the specimens he sold to school labs -- frogs and cats and the tiny marine creatures he collected during hours spent in the tide pools off Monterey. Ricketts was a character who more or less lived in his lab and in the company of caged snakes. He liked wine, women and song and he liked to philosophize. Steinbeck said the novel should be read as if set in a human tidepool teaming with life, fascinating in all its aspects.

Ed Ricketts made his first appearance in Steinbeck's 1935 short story "The Snake": "It was almost dark when young Dr. Phillips swung his sack to his shoulder and left the tidepool. He climbed up over the rocks and squashed along the street in his rubber boots. The street lights were on by the time he arrived at his little commercial laboratory on cannery street in Monterey."

Ricketts followed a live-in-the-moment philosophy and he viewed everything as interrelated parts of a whole. This worldview also set Ed Ricketts apart from his peers in the world of marine biology. He was an ecologist who placed the organism in its natural habitat and looked at the relationship with the habitat. In 1939, Ricketts published an elegantly written textbook called Between Pacific Tides.

Steinbeck and Ricketts were not only friends, they were collaborators. Steinbeck and Ricketts embarked on a six-week marine expedition to the Gulf of California. During the trip, which covered 4,000 miles of coastline, they discovered 35 new marine species. The following year, the book based on their expedition, Sea of Cortez, was published.

Tragically, Ricketts died at the age of 50 when his car was hit by a train. In Cannery Row, Steinbeck left behind a poignant epitaph: "Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you into a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon and his sympathy had no warp."

The quote that I put below sums up a great philosophy on life. It's about living life and not being afraid to venture forth, sometimes into unknown territory. I hadn't read the passage in several years and every time that I do, it resonates with me because I know and feel what they are writing about. Fear is an awful thing because it holds you back. It's a straight-jacket on the soul.

I guess that I'm in a great mood, albeit philosophical, because I'll be happily spending a couple of weeks at sea starting May 15. I'm looking forward to the work and the time spent on the water. In the meantime, I'm heading out to the beach today. It's a good day to see what floatsam might have been washed up by the tides.

"We sat on a crate of oranges and thought what good men most biologists are, the tenors of the scientific world - temperamental, moody, lecherous, loud-laughing, and healthy. Once in a while one comes on the other kind - what used in the university to be called a `dry-ball'- but such men are not really biologists. They are the embalmers of the field, the picklers who see only the preserved form of life without any of its principle. Out of their own crusted minds they create a
world wrinkled with formaldehyde. The true biologist deals with life, with teeming boisterous life, and learns something from it, learns that the first rule of life is living. The dry-balls cannot possibly learn a thing every starfish knows in the core of his soul and in the vesicles between his rays. He must, so know the starfish and the student biologist who sits at the feet of living things, proliferate in all directions. Having certain tendencies, he must move along their lines to the limit of their potentialities. And we have known biologists who did proliferate in all directions: one or two have had a little trouble about it. Your true biologist will sing you a song as loud and off-key as will a blacksmith, for he knows that morals are too often diagnostic of prostatitis and stomach ulcers. Sometimes he may proliferate a little too much in all directions, but he is as easy to kill as any other organism, and meanwhile he is very good company, and at least he does
not confuse a low hormone productivity with moral ethics.

-- J. Steinbeck & E.F. Ricketts,
Log from the Sea of Cortez.


  1. What a lovely post. Thought provoking and well written. Thank you Syd.

  2. I like a good Steinbeck read every once in a blue moon...

    I should have become a marine biologist...doh! lol
    I love this post..and I appreciate you sharing this side of you .Explains a! hehehehe

    I was wondering..will you be bringing us on board your trip ?
    we all fit nicely in a lap top..just be sure to keep it off when the seas get one likes sea sickness.

    I think I will try to put some video on my blog from our trip to Vancouver Island...I can relate to seeing what washed up on shore.
    The Pacific ocean along Long Beach often brings in shampoo bottles etc from Japan! Not exactly treasure and Bob is still dreaming of the day he discovers a Japanese fishermans ancient glass ball floater thingy..!

    holy long comment..can you tell I just had my cup of coffee..? lol
    Happy beach combing:)

  3. "his mind had no horizon....." ah Steinbeck - such a simple way to say such profound things

  4. I really enjoyed your post today. I haven't read a lot of Steinbeck, but you whet my appetite. I had no idea he was into biology. When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. The New England Aquarium remains one of my favorite places to visit. I used have this made up character that was a combination of Howard Cosell and Jacques Cousteau that roamed around the ocean in a glass elevator a la Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I wrote about his adventures undersea each week. Usually I made up creatures that were partially based on real ocean life.

    I was also Cortez for Halloween when I was in 2nd grade. I wore a shower cap with a red feather pinned to it as a hat.

    Now that I think about it, I ought to cut my parents some slack on thinking that I was a weird little girl.

    Man, am I envious about your trip out to sea.


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