South of Eden

[So far in resurrecting postings from the epinions John Steinbeck writeoff I hosted on 27 February 2002, the centenary of his birth (in Salinas, CA), I have put back up my own reviews. The following one was written by the late (and much lamented by me) Ed Grover of Milwaukee (who had lived in San Francisco before I did), confident that he would have approved (and wishing that all his engagingly conversational epinions were available; e-Bay bought epinions and then broke almost all the URLs rather than linking the reviews to products in their database).]


When I was invited to participate in John Steinbeck’s 100th birthday write-off, hosted by Stephen_Murray, I jumped at the chance to read The Sea of Cortez, written by Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts [1897-1948], a biologist about an expedition they made to the Sea of Cortez (better known as the Gulf of California) in 1940.


(Ricketts in 1937)

Last summer a friend of mine spent a month at Cape San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. I waited eagerly for a post card or a note but got nuthin’. When he finally returned, he said it was hot and he was unimpressed. I’ve seen some travel pieces on the Baja on PBS in the past few years and was interested in the area. I don’t know what my friend expected, but I was interested enough to read this book.

In 1940, these two friends hired the Western Flyer, a sardine boat out of Monterey, California, and made a 4,000-mile voyage around the Baja peninsula into the Sea of Cortez. to collect marine animals in the from the inter-tidal zones of the area called Panamic Faunal Province.

The book is in two sections, a narrative of the trip (277 pages) and larger section that includes photographs and an annotated catalogue. The last half of this book is filled with their scientific findings and other than looking at the pictures of mollusks, crabs and other denizens of the tide pools. I must admit that I skipped most of that part. The narrative section of the book is usually referred to and reprinted as The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and it is mostly to that part of the book that I will relate my thoughts in this review. Thankfully, a map of their route is supplied on the inside covers of the book.



In his introduction Steinbeck talks about the design of the book and exactly what formed that design. They decided to let the book form itself, with the boundaries being a boat and a sea in a time frame of six weeks duration. The subject was to be “everything they could think of or see or even imagine–without any other conditions.”

Steinbeck describes the day-to-day events of the collecting trip in a warm and friendly style. He writes about their encounters with local people at sea and on shore, the stocking of provisions, negotiations with customs officials and problems with the outboard motor, which was supposed to power a skiff; it never did work properly. The details of collecting the thousands of marine animals which, were to pay for the trip by being preserved and marketed to schools are interesting, but more to a Marine Biologist’s liking. The account of their expedition mixes science, philosophy, and an adventure that was full of the joy of life.

We get Steinbeck’s views on everything. At the beginning of the book they are looking for a boat to charter for six weeks. “It had to be sturdy enough and roomy enough to live and work on and shallow enough so that little bays could be entered.” Many of the owners were uneasy about the project and they went from pier to pier with no success. Steinbeck says, frankly, they didn’t approve of fishermen who fished for a different kind of fish. One fisherman raised the price not to cheat them but to get out of going.

Finally the Western Flyer sailed in Monterey Bay and they chartered her along with an engineer and two seamen. They were wary because the Gulf had a bad name, but the project became honorable and they had more help and advice than they could handle. It was amazing to find out how much food seven people needed for six weeks; cases of spaghetti, peaches, pineapple, tomatoes, whole cheeses, canned milk, flour and cornmeal were only a part of it. There was the equipment, too, they were going to do a large amount of t hat. And then there needed to be storage for the specimens.

We hear how many of the boats they see have deer horns attached to the crow’s nest. When they asked, the Sicilian sailors who sail these boats, they were told: “It brings good luck, we always put them on.” Steinbeck writes: “And a thousand years ago the horns were [placed] on the masts and brought good luck . . .” He tells us that the horns are race memories and that these grungy sardine boats are a modern representation of the original ships that sailed from the ancient cities of Carthage and Tyre and put into the ports of Sicily.

We get a memory of shopping in the boat department of Macy’s. One of the authors remembers that he, among others, thumped on the bottoms of boats with his knuckles; it was an unconscious testing to see that they were sturdy. He says, “A boat has no counterpart in nature unless it be a dry leaf fallen by accident into a stream. The day of departure arrives and the accounts of sailing down the coast of California with descriptions of the wind blowing up whitecaps on the waves, while the white spray flew over them and the guy wire vibrated in the wind “like a tremendous organ” are wonderfully written.

As we read about the conditions of the water below the Mexican border–a deep ultramarine blue called tuna water–we realize we are entering the land (or waters) that these men know well. Many times when help was needed to land a particularly large fish, the one at the wheel came down to help and the wheel swung free. When told they were way off course, they said, “Well, we didn’t hit anything did we?” In Magdelena Bay they harpooned a turtle. They boiled the meat, but is was a complete failure as food and they “threw out the evil smelling mess.” They impregnated the shell in formaldehyde and left it to dry in the sun. he says, “It was never pretty and we never loved it.”

At night they netted small specimens of Cypselurus californicus (flying fish). Steinbeck says that after a while the beauty of the smooth blue water lost its charm and “a kind of dream set in; a floating box from a steamship becomes a fascinating thing.” The sea swarmed with life, everything from microscopic plankton to schools of tuna, porpoises and rock lobsters; “Everything ate everything else with a furious exuberance.”

We read about sea-hares, a type of slug that reproduce so prolifically that within a few generations they would overflow the earth if it wasn’t for the fact that most of them serve as food for something else. Somewhere along the line 99.99 percent of the millions of eggs they produce are eaten by predators. Steinbeck tells us that there would be nothing left for the rest of us to eat . . . and, nothing for them either, unless they turned cannibalistic.

Each place they visit is described in detail and its inhabitants–animal and human–are compared, incidents (amusing and otherwise) are recorded, everything is discussed and mulled over. Sometimes we wade along with them in tide pools as they collect specimens in jars and bottles and the glass tubes used for the more fragile items. Each species has a story and many times the stories are linked to man and what he does to the creatures in the sea. An alarming picture of the carnage is drawn by a visit to a Japanese fishing fleet.

The Mother Ship sits out at sea while ten or more very large ocean-going dredges scoop and scrape the bottom clean. Many tons of animals are spilled on deck; there are tons of shrimp, which are put in baskets and sent to the cleaning stations. Many tons of other sea life is dumped overboard, dead and dying, for the gulls to eat. Steinbeck is shocked at the waste of such a precious food source. He finds it strange that it is the Japanese who are doing it; they are usually so saving of resources. He wonders how many pockets have been lined in Mexico.

In passing, he wonders about the extinction of the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. He also wonders, among other things, why some men are taller than others. The Log from the Sea of Cortez provides a wonderful picture of John Steinbeck. We learn his thoughts about his fellow man and the world more thoroughly than in any of his fictional works. It’s a fascinating read all through and even the pictures of empty shells, starfish and crabs are interesting to look at. The Phyletic Catalogue was interesting to glance at but too technical for me.

Ed ”Doc” Ricketts was portrayed in two of Steinbeck’s novels: Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Any casual reader who knows about this might think that Steinbeck was obsessed with this man. The reader might think that he loved him as a friend and cared passionately about him, but I found out that it was more likely that Steinbeck wanted to teach his readers to love nature, tide pools, marine biology, natural history, and naturalists. And, focusing the attention on his friend did all this. It was interesting to learn that Cannery Row was written before Ed Ricketts’s death and Sweet Thursday was written after Ricketts died.

©2002, Ed Grover

SM comment (on the original posting): I think that Steinbeck wanted to be Ed Ricketts. Ricketts is the basis for noble characters in many of Steinbeck’s works, most directly the “Doc” character in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, but also Slim in Of Mice and Men, Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, Doc Burton in In Dubious Battle, and Pippin in The Short Reign of Pippin IV.

Ricketts’ lab still exists and can be visited on Cannery Row in Monterey.

The starkness of Baja California is not to everyone’s taste, though Cabo San Lucas (and some other places) have been turned into high-rise beach tourism of the Waikiki kind.


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