Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts

It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

sea of cortezIn a word, Steinbeck is as wonderful as ever. (I don’t have an idea of how strong a role Ricketts played in the writing of their shared story.) This unique work, a blend of travelogue, science writing, humor and wide-ranging philosophy, has all the Steinbeck voice and attitude that we love.

Steinbeck, as we know, was a prolific novelist, attached to the central California coast. Ed Ricketts was a marine biologist, and the model for the character Doc in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. They were good friends. In 1940, they chartered a fishing boat called The Western Flyer to take them from Monterey, California, down around the tip of Baja California, and up and down the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), on a scientific collecting trip. With a small crew and a large (but not large enough) supply of collecting equipment, they toured the coast, visiting small settlements and making notes on local culture, fishing for their meals, drinking more than a little beer, and collecting. The littoral zone they examined yielded enormous numbers of creatures: crabs and fishes, anemones and sea cucumbers and sea hares and shellfish and snails and starfish, on and on.

This is a fat book. My copy of Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research runs 598 pages. But the narrative or journal part forms only half that (and, as it turns out, is contained in The Log From the Sea of Cortez at 320 pages). The second half of the book is composed of “A Note on Preparing Specimens”; photographs, drawings and charts, of select collected species; and an “Annotated Phyletic Catalogue” (plus references, abbreviations, glossary, index). I confess I read only the narrative, and the introduction to the “Annotated Phyletic Catalogue”; browsing the catalogue itself told me that it was hundreds of pages of descriptions of littoral sea creatures, a significant contribution to science but not something I needed to spend my time on.

This is in part why, as the back-of-book blurb puts it, “Sea of Cortez is one of those rare books that are all things to all readers… science to the scientist, philosophy to the philosopher, and to the average man” (ahem, woman) “an adventure in living and thinking.” There is plenty of good science in this book, including much in the narrative itself, which the authors make accessible and interesting; I didn’t need the list version. I purposefully bought the long, full copy of this book, when it turns out I could have gone with just The Log.

The philosophy referred to in that blurb is no small thing. My only struggle was a chapter of about 20 pages arguing the merits of teleological versus non-teleological thinking, which I found fairly mind-numbing in its abstraction, and about 17 pages too long. Other philosophical musings are more enjoyable, as in discussing the habit of both people and other animals of getting “soft” when the going is too easy, or our yearning for the magic and mystery of the unknown: “Men really need sea-monsters in their personal oceans.” There is a common question, in our world, of whether people still living more “primitive” lives – in this case, Mexican Indians whose chief concerns are food and shelter – are happier than more “civilized” people who worry over

tremendous projects, great drives, the fantastic production of goods that can’t be sold, the clutter of possessions which enslave whole populations with debt, the worry and neuroses that go into the rearing and educating of neurotic children who find no place for themselves in this complicated world…,

etc. This question is as well stated here as anywhere, and sensitively approached, I think, which is to say not entirely answered. After much musing on political concepts and the meaning of life, Steinbeck-Ricketts returns to the immediate question at hand: “our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal.”

It almost goes without saying that descriptions are lovely and filled with sensory detail that make one want to see this land this sea, or return there.

The sweet smell of the land blew out to us on a warm wind, a smell of sand verbena and grass and mangrove. It is so quickly forgotten, this land smell. We know it so well on shore that the nose forgets it, but after a few days at sea the odor memory pattern is lost so that the first land smell strikes a powerful emotional nostalgia, very sharp and strangely dear.

On a personal note, I was delighted to find reference to places I have been: Loreto, Mulege (where they did not stop, because of the infamous malaria), Coronado Island.

I suspect, as I have before, that Steinbeck is at his best when describing parties. No one has ever written so convincingly, lovingly, entertainingly about people drinking together. And he does it with a sort of formal tone, so that we see his eyes twinkling at us over his real meaning, as when he’s told of an earlier collector who left “large families” of his offspring behind in local communities – “a whole tribe of them” – and the voice of Steinbeck-and-Ricketts notes, “We honor this man for all his activities. He at least was one who literally did proliferate in all directions.” A delightful passage beginning “There is nothing more doleful than a little cantina…” is a perfect capsule tale, that I will reread with pleasure, and if he lets me, read out loud to Husband. See also the party when The Western Flyer leaves the dock in Monterey.

Steinbeck-Ricketts’s discussion of the nature of diplomacy, as their little party prepared to sail into Mexico in a time of international tensions, employs this same tone of formal language poorly disguising sparkling satire. I never loved Steinbeck so much. In this spirit, in praise of clarity, comes a discussion in chapter 10 (March 18’s entry) of the common dullness of scientific writings. “We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child.” And so here is Sea of Cortez, a perfect example of a non-dull piece of science writing. Who says creative nonfiction is a new invention?

I have trouble attributing the loveable qualities of this book to one man, or two. It seems obvious on cursory glance that one man is the writer and the other the scientist, but what do I really know of their shared writing process? Ricketts had to have been a fun and full personality, in part because Steinbeck would have required it, I think, and in part because Doc was. There are several anecdotes told in which “one of us” does something or the other, and we are left to wonder.

Perhaps the authors’ best quality is the overall tone of wonder and playful humor in observing the everyday. I especially enjoyed the ongoing joke of the Sea Cow, a motor attached to a little skiff used to leave the boat and go collecting. The Sea Cow is personified as a being with a malevolent will of its own, determined to thwart: it works on beautiful, sunny days for short distances (“in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row”) but never in bad weather, over long distances, or after dark. The Sea Cow figures as a large personality throughout the book.

Their scientific knowledge is not boundless, and they are honest about this fact. Their purpose in this collecting expedition is to collect, that scientists may then study. When encountering a strange islet: “It is nearly all questions, but perhaps someone reading this may know the answers and tell us.” Acknowledgment of what is not known or understood is so rare, and refreshing.

As the back-of-book blurb (quoted above) indicates, this book is many wonderful things in one package, and that package of Steinbeck design: what more could we ask? A delightful true story of travel, of Mexico, of the wonder of really looking around at one’s world, of camaraderie, of joie de vivre. Recommended, of course.

Rating: 8 Sally Lightfoots.

7 Responses

  1. […] this appeals, see also Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck & […]

  2. By coincidence, I find myself today re-reading this review, along with another that connects.

    I have a response to Steinbeck’s quoted comment “We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child.”

    My answer: Rachel Carson. An interested reader should see my comments about her Under the Sea Wind, in this posting:

  3. I took your advice and found a copy of ‘only the log’ to read, and thoroughly enjoyed it! There were many segments that could easily be pulled out as sterling stand-alone essays, as you suggested.

    But this 1995 edition was a bit more than just the log. The ~16 page Introduction by Richard Astro (Drexel U.) was entirely helpful & informative, about the journey’s context, Ed Ricketts, and about this book’s place in Steinbeck’s oeuvre. E.g. he discloses that the difficult teleological chapter “was almost entirely written by Ricketts a decade before ‘Sea of Cortez’ was published”! (and there’s a story to that…)

    There is also an Appendix, which Steinbeck wrote in 1951 after Ricketts was killed when a train hit his car. This is a 50+ page ode to his friend, describing the man & his life mostly by way of anecdote, with humor typically employed along the way. It seemed TMI for me, but real fans may enjoy it.

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