Beyond the Outer Shores|
Eric Enno Tamm
Thunder's Mouth Press, 365 pp, $16.95 (pb)
I read this book at least a year ago, intending to review it for this website-but I can find no trace of the review-either on the site or in my own archives. Something must have come up. A crashed computer possibly? But Beyond the Outer Shores is too important a book to be overlooked by anyone interested in the health of the planet and particularly, her oceans. It is the first biography of Ed "Doc" Ricketts (1897-1948) the "renaissance man of Cannery Row," who was the first scientist to study intertidal communities of the Pacific coast and champion the concept of interconnectedness of all creatures, to apply the principles of ecological thinking to his scientific inquiry.
This hitherto unsung scientific seeker was not incidentally, a fast friend of literary hero of the progressive era, John Steinbeck as well as the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, meeting when they were all in their twenties. The achievements of both these men of letters temporarily cast a murky shadow on Ricketts' own work which is at least as impressive in its field. "He was a scientist, a marine biologist...an ecologist at a time when the fledgling field of ecology was nothing more than the esoterica of pedantic scientists tucked away in academia's hallowed halls."
In 1923 after dropping out of the University of Chicago, Ricketts washed up on the Monterey Peninsula with his wife and infant son where he gradually established Pacific Biological Laboratories, supporting himself and family by collecting intertidal marine flora and fauna which he sold to various educational and scientific institutions.
He was also a voracious reader outside of his discipline, devouring writers as disparate as Goethe, Robinson Jeffers, Blake, Las Tsu. He was an in-depth appreciator of Impressionist art and he soaked up the music of Bach, Mozart and Gregorian chants on a home-made record player; all intellectual activities were accompanied by copious amounts of beer. Over the years, part of the laboratory became party central for the outer Monterey Peninsula settlement which we now know as "Cannery Row."
Ed Rickets and John Steinbeck met in a dentist's waiting room in Pacific Grove (where Steinbeck and his wife were living in his parents' summer cottage). The two young men went for a drink after their separate ordeals. Steinbeck had just published his first book which was poorly received. Ricketts was also struggling. "Together...they formed a symbiotic relationship from which they both benefit[ed] over the years. Their new friendship opened for the arrival of another Easterner in the spring of 1932, twenty-seven year old Joseph Campbell fresh from Columbia University, via Europe. The lab on Cannery Row was a "rare source of income for everyone during the Depression (they called it ‘the bank'). It also became an intellectual and cultural mecca. And the parties went on for days.
For almost twenty years the friendships endured. Steinbeck frequently helped Ricketts on his local collecting expeditions and Ricketts published Between Pacific Tides a study of marine invertebrates of the U.S. and Canada to fine peer review in 1939. But it was the scientist's ambition to produce a trilogy-a second volume dealing with an expanded southerly range which resulted in Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research and later, a "northern sequel" The Outer Shores which would record the continuing exploration to the Bering Sea.
This "trilogy would be the measure of a profound relationship between Ricketts and Steinbeck. The novelist's success grew with the publication of Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, Cannary Row and The Grapes of Wrath and over the years, he was able to finance several exploratory expeditions along the Pacific Coast and accompany Ricketts on many seagoing adventures.
Though the monetary exchange was far from equal, the intellectual exchange enriched the work of both men. Ricketts' work influenced Steinbeck's in deeply philosophical ways. Steinbeck is not widely recognized as an ecological writer, mostly because the word was far from common parlance when he achieved such masterpieces like The Grapes of Wrath but many of his novels were "rages against the machine" based on the basic ecological premise that mankind is not God's crowning work, the top of the pyramid. "Ecologists would supplant the zealous belief in our dominion over nature with the more humble principle of interdependence; what we do to nature we effectively do to ourselves. It was a paradigm shift in Western thinking that became bitterly and tragically realized on a monumental scale, in the 1930s." The dustbowl and the Depression are a far away warning which we continue to ignore at our peril, in spite of nearly a century of building evidence.
A collection of Ricketts' writing since the publication of Beyond the Outer Shores in 2004 (hc) another significant book has been released by the University of California Press in 2006. Breaking Through: Essays, Journals and Travelogues of Edward F. Ricketts edited by Katharine A. Rodger. Amazon will tell you more about it.