Mavericks on Cannery Row
Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the
Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph
Campbell. Eric Enno Tamm. xvi +365 pp. Four Walls Eight
Windows, 2004. $26.
Beyond the Outer Shores is a new and welcome biography of
maverick marine biologist Ed Ricketts. The title refers to
Ricketts's name for the rugged coast of the Pacific Northwest,
including Vancouver Island, the Queen Charlotte Islands and the
islands of southeast Alaska, and much of the book focuses on the
ecological research he conducted there. The book's author,
journalist and conservationist Eric Enno Tamm, grew up in a fishing
village in the area.
Ricketts is perhaps best known for having been the prototype for
"Doc," the central figure in John Steinbeck's novels
Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954).
By most accounts the fictional Doc, who loved women, beer and truth,
was much like the man who operated Pacific Biological Laboratories
on California's Monterey Peninsula from 1923 until his untimely
death in 1948.
Ricketts, who supplied prepared biological specimens to schools, was
a gifted field ecologist. His coastal collecting trips led to a
seminal book on intertidal ecology, Between Pacific Tides
(Stanford University Press, 1939). It went beyond taxonomy to
describe intertidal animals holistically, placing them in the
dynamic context of their habitat and ecology. Concepts that we now
take for granted, such as competitive exclusion, and habitat
descriptors such as wave shock, were novel then and seemed to
threaten the established order. Ricketts was "a lone, largely
marginalized scientist" with no university degrees, and he had
to struggle long and hard against the "dry ball"
traditionalists of the time just to get the book published. Yet
today it is widely regarded as a classic work in marine ecology and
is now in its fifth edition.
Ricketts's lab on Cannery Row was a magnet for scientists, writers,
prostitutes, musicians, artists, academics and bums. Gatherings
there included discussions of the interplay of philosophy, science
and art, and often evolved into raucous, happy parties that went on
Steinbeck was a frequent visitor, and Ricketts had a strong
humanistic and naturalistic influence on the writer's work in the
1930s and 1940s. Ricketts's persona appeared in several of
Steinbeck's most powerful novels, including In Dubious
Battle (1936) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Steinbeck occasionally referred to himself as a biologist, and
ecological themes run through much of his finest work, as Tamm
points out. Tamm also notes that except for East of Eden
(1952), Steinbeck's fiction and his literary reputation declined
after Ricketts's death.
Ricketts was likewise a muse to the mythologist Joseph Campbell, who
not only attended parties at the lab but for a time was Ricketts's
next-door neighbor and joined him in 1932 on an extended collecting
trip along western Canada's Inner Passage. In later years Campbell
would refer to those days as a time when everything in his life was
taking shape. Tamm writes that Campbell, the great chronicler of the
"hero's journey" in mythology, recognized patterns that
paralleled his own thinking in one of Ricketts's unpublished
philosophical essays. Echoes of Carl Jung, Robinson Jeffers and
James Joyce can be found in the work of Steinbeck and Ricketts as
well as Campbell.
Steinbeck and Ricketts went on a biological expedition together to
the Gulf of California in 1940 and then collaborated on a book about
it, Sea of Cortez (1941). It was the second volume of
Ricketts's planned trilogy on the intertidal ecology of the Pacific
coast. Tamm's coverage of the trip to the Gulf is sketchy, perhaps
because he is more interested in Ricketts's research in the north.
In 1948 Ricketts was preparing for an expedition with Steinbeck to
British Columbia; the plan was that they would jointly author a
third book, The Outer Shores, which would extend their
surveys north to Alaska. Ricketts had already completed most of the
research for such a book on earlier collecting trips to Vancouver
Island and the Queen Charlottes. Following the pattern he and
Steinbeck had established in their previous collaboration, in
preparation for the new book Ricketts sent him typescripts of his
field notes and journals from those earlier trips.
The week before Ricketts was to leave on the expedition, tragedy
intervened: As he was driving to get dinner after a long day in the
lab, an evening train, the Del Monte Express, rolled through a blind
crossing and collided with his car. Ricketts died of his injuries
Steinbeck could not bring himself to follow through on the Outer
Shores book after Ricketts's death. Some of the field notes and
journals Ricketts had sent him were eventually edited by Joel W.
Hedgpeth and published, along with Ricketts's essays, as The
Outer Shores (Mad River Press, 1978), which has long been
out of print. The typescripts Ricketts had sent Steinbeck provide
the heart of Tamm's "odyssey." Ricketts's words are
supplemented by information from ships' logs, interviews, letters
and Tamm's affectionate descriptions of the settings for what would
have surely been Ricketts's most compelling work.
Clearly, Tamm loves this part of the world, and his book is filled
with its history and lore. His grasp of ecology is a little shaky,
though, and he stumbles occasionally with such topics such as
Aristotelian and Linnaean taxonomy, and the beginnings of life on
Earth. But no harm is done to the real story.
This is not a full-blown biography. Rather, it illuminates what has
been a shadowy but important part of Ed Ricketts's life, and it
leaves us wondering what might have been. I liked this book so much
that I read it twice.—Bruce H. Robison, Monterey Bay
Aquarium Research Institute, California