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From the Tidepool to the Stars: Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez

Eric Murtaugh Tidepool Steinbeck Sea of Cortez
steinbeck log sea of cortez

What was the story that began this journey? That question has been on my mind since I reflected back on the past year of Ekostories. What tale triggered this exploration of nature, culture, and self? After some thought, one story came to the forefront, a surprise contender. It is a work that straddles the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. It is a story that melds science with literature, philosophy with social commentary, art with ethics and adventure. It is John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

That’s not entirely true. While the cover bears the name of the author of Cannery RowOf Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, The Log from the Sea of Cortez was a collaboration between the Nobel prize-winning novelist and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The book chronicles the two friends’ six-week, four thousand mile marine specimen collecting expedition in the Gulf of California, detailing the adventures, discoveries, and camaraderie as they travel from site to site, passing towns, reefs, isles, and sea.

Like the voyage itself, the travelogue allows time and space for observation and thought, linking real experiences to meditations on humanity’s place in the world and universe. For me, the book’s ability to spark curiosity and expand horizons makes it a natural history classic, and the perfect tale to kick off a new year of Ekostories. 

A Natural History Classic

Images from madrabbit, terrybone, and wikimedia commons.

The Sea of Cortez was my first encounter with Steinbeck’s work, and after the first few pages, I knew that I had found someone worth reading. Few books fuse the life sciences and philosophy with such skill and scope, and even fewer crafted with prose by an accomplished novelist. In The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck effortlessly shifts from vivid descriptions of sea and shore life to philosophical musings on a range of subjects. Back and forth this goes, ebb and flow, smooth and sure. The narrative feels leisurely and unhurried, but is also dynamic and purposeful, with sentences like threads of thoughts woven together to form a grand tapestry:

“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.”

– Sea of Cortez, p.178

Time and again I am mesmerized as Steinbeck moves from the tide pools to the cosmos and everything in between. One moment, observations about pufferfish abundance in an area; the next, speculation on the inevitable rise and fall of power in human civilization. Unlike the pickled and preserved specimens described in the book’s introduction, the narrative is never static or predictable.  Instead it resembles the fish in the sea and on the line, leaping off the page with each reading, colours shimmering, alive.

The Art of a Good Saga

Sally Lightfoot crab grapsus grapsus
“With reasonably well-balanced and non-neurotics Lightfoots we stood no chance.” (p.53).  Sally Lightfoot crab image, by Kenwalker.

As I reread The Sea of Cortez in preparation for this piece, I’m reminded by a passage from last month’s The Left Hand of Darkness, that the art of telling a good saga involves including details exact and vivid, along with interludes both comical and mystical. There is no shortage of any of those elements in The Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck’s sense of humour and deadpan wit, aided by his faculties of observation, makes the book a constantly amusing read. One of my favourite funny moments involves his thoughts on the Hansen Sea-Cow, an outboard motor that is completely unreliable :

“And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred. A soul and a malignant mind have been born. Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing. In the six weeks of our association we observed it, at first mechanically and then, as its living reactions became more and more apparent, psychologically. And we determined one thing to our satisfaction. When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed.”

– Sea of Cortez, p.18

Then come the moments of pure awe.  I find myself captivated by the wave-beaten littorals at Cape San Lucas, home to a community of ferocious life; the camouflaged menagerie lurking in the rich reefs at Pulmo, secret and treacherous; the odious mangroves of La Paz that are full of “stealthy murders”; inexplicable isles that repeal life with a mysterious burned quality. My background in biology may skew my judgement, but I think Steinbeck succeeds not only in conveying life in all its splendour – scurrying Sally Lightfoot crabs, hard-hitting skipjacks, devilish fire worms, “sloppy guts” anemones – but also in linking it all brilliantly and inextricably to mood and place.

San Carlos Sonora
San Carlos, Sonara, by the Sea of Cortez. Image by Samuel Oth.

The Sea of Cortez’s juxtaposition of fact with speculation, clinical description with tall tale, humour with awe, life with place and emotion is what gives the tale its vitality and richness. This approach to storytelling reinforces the holistic vision of the book, conveying the idea that “good and bad, beautiful, ugly, cruel all are welded into one thing.” (p.101)

Philosophy on the Beach: Beyond the Because

“The lies we tell about our duty and our purposes, the meaningless words of science and philosophy, are walls that topple before a bewildered little ‘why’.”

– Sea of Cortez, p.171

In the middle of the book, disguised as an Easter Day sermon, is a philosophical essay authored by Ed Ricketts. Revolving around the concept of “non-teleological thinking”, it’s a fascinating but dense piece that would take more time and mental energy than I have now to fully unpack. Suffice it to say that in it, Ricketts argues for the need to see the world differently. To him, conventional teleological thinking, or cause and effect thinking, is limited because it probes the world with questions of “why” to which there can be no satisfactory answer. Curious children often remind us of this. Faced with their innocent, incessant inquiries, we eventually resort to the only response possible: Because.

Pacific Biological Laboratories Ed Ricketts

Pacific Biological Laboratories where Ricketts and Steinbeck did a lot of their thinking. Image by Amadscientist.

Ricketts argues that an overemphasis on teleological thought can be problematic. In our desire to seek purpose and cause, we often conjure up certainties and absolutes when there are none. “These mind things,” he writes, “are very strong; in some, so strong as to blog out the external things completely “(p.148), leading to belief without basis and the hardening of stances, elements at the core of most, if not all conflicts.

Ricketts proposes another way of thinking about the world with his non-teleological approach: To let go of questions of why, to accept things as they are without seeking explanation. This way of thinking dwells less on finding meaning and more on presence and appreciation. There is an amusing bit when he realizes that his philosophy, summarized by the catchphrase “it is what it is”, applies both to enlightened and ignorant ways of thinking:

“Understandings of this sort can be reduced to this deep and significant summary: “It’s so because it’s so.” But exactly the same words can also express the hasty and superficial attitude. There seems to be no explicit method for differentiating the deep and participating understanding, the “all-truth” which admits infinite change or expansion as added relations become apparent, from the shallow dismissal and implied lack of further interest which may be coined in the very same words.”

– The Sea of Cortez, p.113

Non-teleological thought may seen like a strange approach for a man of science, but upon reflection I see it as the reverse. For Ricketts, his attempt to accept the world is accompanied by an insatiable curiosity to “break through” to see what the greater picture is. His essay provides insight into how he became a pioneer in intertidal ecology, a discipline that looks beyond the individual to focus on relationships and patterns across space and time.

Different Ways of Knowing

Images by Zac WolfBrocken Inaglory, and Daderot.

Ricketts’s non-teleological thinking colours much of The Sea of Cortez. The narrators observe and describe creatures, people, and landscapes, but little judgement is ever rendered on anything. As they encounter strange animals or different people, they do so with an open and receptive mind. Nothing is claimed either good or bad: They just are.

The duo do make some cultural assumptions and generalizations, but these seem more the products of their times rather than ideas borne out of contempt or ignorance. Space is always made for other ways of seeing and knowing. Ricketts and Steinbeck are sincere in their belief that a variety of approaches can offer a more complete and accurate picture than through any single lens or discipline.

“There are three ways of seeing animals: dead and preserved; in their own habitats for the short time of low tide; and for long periods in an aquarium. The ideal is all three.”

– The Sea of Cortez, p.155

The preserved specimen collection. The fish thrashing on the line. The anemone in captivity. Different lifestyles, attitudes, and worldviews: All provide insight into the bigger story, the greater pattern, the grand reality.

Steinbeck vs. Ricketts: Acceptance vs. Action

Forewords aren’t usually very memorable, but the one for The Sea of Cortez by Richard Astro proved intriguing and insightful. In it I discovered that while Steinbeck sympathized and helped develop Rickett’s form of holistic thinking, the two men’s worldviews differ in one major way. While Ricketts was content with “breaking through” to see the bigger picture, this passive understanding and acceptance was not enough for Steinbeck: He saw the need to use this knowledge to affect meaningful social change. This aspect of his worldview, according to Astro, comes across in Steinbeck’s most famous works:

“In his best fiction, Steinbeck worked out the conflict between primitivism and progress, between his own view of the world and that of Ricketts – both of which were based, of course, on a scientific view of life organized around the concept of wholeness which is as spiritual as it is biological. And the Ed Ricketts characters in Steinbeck’s fiction (there are several and are usually named “Doc”) are those who are somehow cut off. They see and understand, but they cannot act on the basis of that understanding for the betterment of the species.”

– Sea of Cortez Introduction

Perhaps what I find most fascinating about The Sea of Cortez is this clash of worldviews, between the scientist content to focus his energy in the tide pool and the stars, and the novelist whose seeks to know human hearts and minds and that innate desire we all have to reach out and connect with others. Rickett’s philosophy is profound but detached, fit for a sage who shields himself from human concerns in order to seek enlightenment, whereas Steinbeck’s intense compassion for the plight of humankind can come across as overly sentimental. I know, on a personal level, the appeal and perils of both.

Perhaps this is why I love The Sea of Cortez, a middle space where Steinbeck, working with Ricketts, finds a balance for conveying the miracles of both the human and natural world. In its pages, I find compassion and empathy for the powerless and the other. I see an unabashed love of and zest for life in all its forms. I see a work that strives to be see and accept the world, whole.

Conclusion

John Steinbeck quote

The Log from the Sea of Cortez is not without its flaws. It is not true non-fiction. Steinbeck’s use of the plural narrative, “we”, both adds and subtracts from the book. On one hand, “we” reinforces the collaborative nature of the venture between Steinbeck and Ricketts. On the other, it silences one member of the crew: Carol Henning, Steinbeck’s wife at the time. Speaking from personal experience, I have learned that this form of omission can drastically alter the tone of a narrative, and ultimately diminishes the work’s power.

Yet despite this, The Log from the Sea of Cortez still stands as one of my favourite tales, an unparalleled fusion of travel literature, biological record, and philosophical meditation that epitomizes what Ekostories is all about. There’s nothing quite like it, and I hope you have a chance to check it out. Until next week.

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Reference

Steinbeck, John. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, narrative portion. New York: Penguin Publishing. Kindle ebook edition. 1941.

20 Comments

  1. As always, Issac, I enjoy your posts and insights. I love the way Steinbeck writes. One of my all time favorite books is “Travels with Charlie”. He drove across America with his standard poodle Charlie in his old age. To this day I get tears in my eyes thinking about the eloquence of his words. Truly the man could bring you into his world so effortlessly. Happy New Year!

    • Thank you for reading, Nancy.

      I must confess I’m still not well read on him, not being in the right headspace to engage with new works. But I’ve heard nothing but good things about Travels with Charlie, and I will check it out. A very talented, interesting and complicated man, Steinbeck is. 🙂

  2. I’ve never heard of this book before, so thank you so much, Isaac, for drawing it to my attention. I know little about marine life, but find it fascinating, so different from that of landbound ecologies. Definitely putting this on my To Read pile!

    • I think you will love it. It’s vibrant and funny and thought-provoking and very accessible to anyone with a passing interest in biology and ecology.

  3. chris339 says

    Great post, Isaac. I read the book many years ago, and you made me want to read it again. I have visited the Sea of Cortez on occasion, each time pondering what it must have been like when Steinbeck was there. Every port is undergoing rapid expansion, and many of the creatures are in danger of being over fished.

    • Thanks Chris. I imagine it’s completely different nowadays compared to over 70 years ago when Steinbeck and Ricketts embarked on their expedition. But from the narrative there were signs that overfishing was occurring even at that time. There’s an excellent piece by Michael Antman that speaks more about it:

      http://www.bookslut.com/afterwords/2006_08_009650.php

      “As Steinbeck notes, ‘the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region.'”

      • chris339 says

        Isaac, thank you for the link. In some ways it gives me hope. There are limits now on the shrimping, and I think a greater awareness of the ecological value of the gulf. It’s still being damaged and its still incredible vulnerable, but its also a huge body of water. Perhaps its inherent resilience and some awareness (and activism) can save it.

  4. I have read many of Steinbeck’s novels, but have never come across this book. I see a journey to the library is in order! I love that mix of traveling and discovery and what it may lead to. Fine post Isaac…enjoyed the images too.

    • Thanks Al. I think you will enjoy the book.

      I like that mix as well. In the book, Steinbeck seemed a little envious of how Darwin had all that time on the Beagle to synthesize his observations, and that he himself only had six weeks. But he also said that wasn’t good or bad, just different.

  5. I’ve only read Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. So, I was not familiar with this one. But you describe it so well, I’m curious about it. I have noticed this element in Mice and Men: “Steinbeck worked out the conflict between primitivism and progress.” So true.

    • Even if you aren’t interested in the travelogue itself, the intro is really worth it insights behind the man. The Log provides a glimpse into Steinbeck’s worldview, and it’s a fascinating one.

  6. A marvelous read, Isaac. I’ve been a Steinbeck fan since reading “Of Mice and Men” as a high school sophomore in 1963 and I’ve read “Sea of Cortez” half a dozen times – heavily influenced since college by it’s philosophy. Your review is exceptional. Reverential yet realistic. Well done.

    • Thanks for reading, RJ. I must admit, I came upon Steinbeck much later than high school, yet the Sea of Cortez is such a unique and resonant piece of work that I find myself coming back to it again and again in the short years since I read it for the first time. Sometimes things just click, and I’m always grateful when that happens.

  7. cassidy grattan says

    IY-real good essay on one of my favorite books. I recommend ‘Beyond the Outer Shores,’ by Eric Enno Tamm for a more thorough investigation of the influence/difference between Steinbeck and Ricketts. Richard Astro’s analysis is perhaps a bit too simplistic and he somewhat understates Ricketts’ influence on Steinbecks humanitarianism, I think. Would be interested to hear what you think of the book.

    • Hi Cassie, thanks for reading and commenting. I will definitely check out your recommendation. That relationship is fascinating to me.

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  9. harold day says

    appreciate the wholeness of these two friends and your insights of their humanity , Isaac. I believe John communicated with Eleanor Roosevelt and both had compassion for the spirit of poor people.

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