Monday, July 26, 2010

A human tidepool

One of my favorite books is 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." When I visited the Monterey aquarium, I spent about an hour standing at the exhibit about Ed Ricketts.  It fascinated me to be able to see photos of this interesting larger-than-life character. 

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've just gotten off the boat.  I seem to feel better when I've been out on the water.  And I walked several times on the beach each day, looking to see what had washed up.  There is usually something exciting about what the tide brings.

"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. I heart Steinbeck & I heart Syd too!

  2. You might like to check out the biography that I wrote about Ed Ricketts, and his influence on John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell. You can find more information at http://www.beyondtheoutershores.coom.

    Warmest regards,
    Eric Enno Tamm

  3. You, Steinbeck and Ricketts -- a great threesome!

  4. Excellent!
    And have you read any of Jack Rudloe's books? I do believe he would have fit right in with those men. He's a marine biologist here on the Gulf coast.

  5. Lots of good reading in your line of work.

  6. I love that quote, Syd. Great stuff.

  7. Syd. Even I, who "read a book once" enjoyed and understood this post.
    Thank you.

  8. fascinating. thank yo for sharing!

  9. This blog was a little different from many of your blogs and I admit to finding it thoroughly enjoyable and interesting.


  10. that's an interesting and inspiring read Syd... another piece in the "puzzle of Syd" that I am glad to have revealed to me.

  11. This is a lovely post. It motivates me to ask whether those of us who admire Ricketts and what he stood for also romantisize or ignore his apparent alcoholism?

  12. This post enthralls me -- I have copied it into a folder just to have it at hand to read again and again.

  13. An inspiring reflection on the life of "Friend Ed." Thank you!


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