Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Pursuing the Fireflies of our Thinking": Reading Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez

Dolphins in the Sea of Cortez

Finally, after more than a decade of intending to do so, I have gotten around to reading John Steinbeck's Log from The Sea of Cortez, and I find that it has peculiar resonances with my own life. Not only is it the single best and most hilarious account I've ever read of expedition planning--the gap between what one thinks one will need at sea, and what one actually needs (oh the things that can go wrong!)--the Log from The Sea of Cortez crystallizes a memory of what the Sea was like some seventy years ago, before the US stopped the last trickle of water from the Colorado River from draining into Mexico, and thus into the top of the Sea. 

In 2015, as we witness one extinction after another from overfishing, pollution, climate change, and multi-level trophic cascades, the biological riches of the world Steinbeck describes seem extraordinary, unbelievable even. In nearly twenty years of sailing in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, the only place in my experience as rich with life as the Sea of Cortez were certain rookeries in the Arctic, and the Bellot Strait in August. But what Steinbeck describes is so much richer, so much more lively than anything I've seen that it seems like fiction. I am struck by disbelief, akin to the sensation of doubt provoked by reports from John Cabot's 1497 crossing of the Grand Banks, that the cod were so plentiful that the crew just dropped baskets overboard and drew them up. We are so quickly habituated to the appearance of scarcity, that reports of plenty come to seem unlikely exaggerations.  But what if they are not? What if we read these reports as if they were measures that mattered?  How then would they matter to us? Steinbeck's Log offers a salutary caution even here: "The process of gathering knowledge does not lead to knowing" (137). 

Pelican hiding its catch from gulls

How should we treat the sorts of information that Steinbeck's Log offers us? A log (like a blog,) is neither a place of measurements, really, nor proofs. It is a space of observation and daily reflection, a space where one pursues what Steinbeck calls "the fireflies of our thinking," those winking buzzing little notions and flashes of insight, born of persistence, study and circumstance. A log is a strange sort of document, filled with chance, weather and trivia, and yet from these elements both journeys and knowing may be built. Below then, some facts, and then several of the firefly flashes provoked by my reading of Steinbeck's text.

Gull surf fishing in La Ramada, Sea of Cortez

In 1940, John Steinbeck set out on a 4000 mile round trip from Monterey, California, up into the Sea of Cortez and back with his friend and collaborator Ed Ricketts and a crew of fisherman aboard the sardine fishing vessel, the Western Flyer. Ricketts was a biologist who made his living from collecting, preserving and selling specimens to schools and laboratories--everything from skeletons to slides. He was also a keen observer of the intertidal zone, and had co-authored a book that became an essential guidebook to marine life along the US Pacific Coast, Between Pacific Tides (1939). Steinbeck, for his part, had recently published Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The trip into the Sea of Cortez was to be a scientific collecting mission, a speedy run at "the greatest lot of specimens...collected in the Gulf by any single expedition"(xvi).   When Ricketts and Steinbeck returned home, they co-produced a massive volume entitled Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research.  That book contained the Log, a narrative account of the journey, drafted by Steinbeck on the basis of Ricketts' journals and articles, and a massive catalog of the marine life they'd found, some 600 pages. The book was published by Viking in 1941. Ten years later, after Ricketts was dead, and Steinbeck an increasingly prominent novelist and scriptwriter, Viking released the Log as a stand-alone publication under Steinbeck's name. It has not since been out of print.

In the shallows at Caleta Partida, Isla Espiritu Santo (2015)

1.  Small things strike me as I read the book. Not only do I feel how much emptier the Sea is now than when Steinbeck and Ricketts made their voyage, but this year, returning after several years away, we notice that the Sea seems far emptier than we've ever previously seen it. In the shallows at Caleta Partida, on Espiritu Santo Island, and further north, in San Juanico along the shore, the sands are almost barren: there are no sea stars, fewer crabs; we see no wiggling shrimp, few little fish, never sponges or anenomes or nudibranches or sea cucumbers.  Are they all dead? Was some quantity of life displaced or destroyed by Hurricane Odile last fall? Has overfishing destroyed them? Or the relentless pollution of years of boaters and campers? Or do we simply not know how to look? Have we failed to look, and all those creatures are here, hidden somehow? What of all of the dead birds we found on every beach, the piles and piles of feathers, the puff of once fatty grebe chest, the stacks of blasted bodies? Is this all hurricane damage, or something else? How will we know? Is anyone tracking these things? Should we be reporting in (and to whom?) when we find our tenth dead bird in fifteen minutes on a single beach, after finding twenty on another beach the day before? And what of the blackened, dessicated turtle heads we saw on Isla San Francisco? That, we're reasonably sure, is human depradation, thanks to an illegal trade in turtle shells and oil. We see one or two live turtles drifting lazily by, but dead turtles nearing a hundred.

Fishermen setting out in a panga from the beach in La Paz (2015)

2. Another thing that strikes me is the way the journey Steinbeck recounts takes place during a time of war--or rather, in the days leading up to US involvement in World War II. On the European front, war had been raging for half a year already when the Western Flyer set out, but war as such had not yet come home to most citizens. Just so, eleven years ago, as we readied Quoddy's Run to leave the navy town of San Diego, war planes were shrieking overhead while ships departed the harbour at night in total blackout. (You could read the size and shape of the ship by counting how long the lights on the opposite shore were blotted out.) War was underway in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration was eager to revenge itself on Iraq, but war on the homefront was, for most citizens simply still a matter of bold statements and ideological abstractions.

3. Because we began long distance sailing before communications were as ubiquitous as they are now, we too have experienced the slipping away of "that other world that others call reality" as Steinbeck puts it.  We know what it is to lose track of the news and national preoccupations in favour of the intensity of being where we are, and we regularly still try to permit ourselves this sort of understanding: the focus on a single ripple or line of colour, a tiny desert flower, the savour of tortillas and chiles rellenos, the details of shoreline and wind and tide and weather predictions, the exact colours of the sunset, the rhythms of light and dark, of the new puppy's bowels, of our reading or writing or drawing. As Steinbeck writes:

The world and the war had become remote to us; all the immediacies of our usual lives had slowed up...We rather resented going back to newspaper and telegrams and business. We had been drifting in some kind of dual world--a parallel realistic world; all of the preoccupations of the world we came from...were to us filled with mental mirage. Modern economies; war drives; party affiliations and lives... [F]or us the factor of time had changed the low tides were our clock and the throbbing engine our second hand (200).

Sunrise, Isla Espiritu Santo, Sea of Cortez

4. I think about the pedagogical implications or usefulness of this book, particularly for a documentary or travel course, despite its patronizing romanticism about "Indians" and Mexicans and the discussion of women as if they were appendages. These are ways of thinking and speaking that should grate on contemporary students--they grate on me--and yet perhaps it is salutary now and then to read what seventy years ago was widely hailed as acceptable, even radical or admirable prose. How will generations hence read our own unexamined prejudices and vocabularies; will they ring to them as strangely as Steinbeck's do to us?

5. Steinbeck's humorous tone is a balm, likewise the self-mocking account of how ill much of their most fancy and "necessary" gear  really served. Equally important are the questions about how to tell about the voyage once it is over: What really happened? When? What really mattered? Were you open to change? How did you change? How do you know? On such a voyage, what you learn becomes a whole-body experience, an immersion in an environment and a set of relationships with and against your inner resistances. This is perhaps another argument (I've been collecting them) for the importance of fieldwork to thinking; there's only so much you can learn by sitting in a library.  Knowing isn't the gathering; it's what you do with that later. But first you need time away from the preoccupations of the world to drift in new spaces. Likewise, in order really to "pursue the fireflies of one's thinking," one also needs fellow travelers, shipmates with whom to muse. Together, because you are sharing these experiences, you try to parse and make sense of the people and situations and creatures and phenomena that you encounter. No one draws out the meanings of things entirely alone (surely this is why Marike and I so often wander, conversationally, around the globe at night).

Wall in La Paz that cites Benito Juarez, "Between individuals, as among nations, respect for others' rights is peace (la paz)."

6. Important too are Steinbeck's discussions of unintended consequences--for example, the nefariousness of the ostensibly admirable interleaving of efficiency and politics that results in Japanese draggers scouring Mexican waters for shrimp off of Guaymas in 1940, and then throwing out millions of tons of valuable fish as bycatch (chapter 27), a wild illogic that continues still. Or there is the horrifying effort, aboard the Western Flyer, to outwait a dying shark on the deck, which ends by immersing it in a tank of formaldehyde: "Wishing to preserve him, we did not kill him, thinking he would die quickly" (175). But the shark did not die. Steinbeck finds a moral here about how the shark's tenacity, its clinging to its bait and its life also made its death monstrous, but I think the monstrousness of this death says far more about how people instrumentalize animals and then allow them to suffer horribly--whether in full view as the shark was, or, as is more common, in extermination zones hidden from our delicate sensibilities and purview.

In the log, Steinbeck writes about what we now very easily call "ecological" relations, of webs and relationships of interdependence--although in order to reach the biological and intellectual conclusions he comes to with Ricketts and the number of scientists who work over their findings, they must kill thousands upon thousands of creatures. Observation, at their speed, as Steinbeck comments, is not nearly enough. They have miles to go and other bodies to collect. The deaths that they cause are thus treated as the bycatch of science: its steadfast pursuit of one kind of knowledge about sea creatures rests firmly upon not really knowing what it does to them when they are plucked from the sea. (So much of our culture seems built thus.) In his discussion of "non-teleological thinking," (one of Ricketts' favourite themes), Steinbeck emerges as a bit of a social Darwinist, albeit in paradoxical form: what survives is what survives; things will not always happen the way you think they will. This turns him into an apologist for horrors now and then, but at least a more or less honest one: for the most part, he sees what he does.  But is that enough? Isn't this another case where, to turn his own queries back to him, knowledge doesn't lead to knowing? Just what are my forms of bycatch; do I have any idea as I jet hither and yon, producing garbage and sewage and petrol-laced desires?

Along the boardwalk (malecon) in La Paz

7. Elsewhere (but isn't this a version of the same place, but built of the sorts of things I really do want to see?) I love the flash of recognition I get when Steinbeck describes the dogs of La Paz (105), or the hazy light of the Sea, or the suddenness of its fog, the malign feelings one gets in certain places (Timbabichi for us), the glitter of stars above and sparkling bioluminescence below. He captures the way the Sea stays with you, climbs into your heart, infects your sense of trajectory, so that whaterver you do, you always also promise to return. There is something here that gets into you and will not let you go....

La Paz harbourfront and malecon

8. One further, odd note: in his long memorial piece on Ricketts, published as an appendix to this volume, Steinbeck notes that when Ricketts died in 1948, (killed by a train smashing into his car as he was traversing the tracks at a blind crossing,) the two friends were distilling the lessons from their Cortez journey, and preparing for another collecting voyage on Haida Gwaii.  Steinbeck writes:

At the time of Ed's death our plans were completed, tickets bought, containers and collecting equipment ready for a long collecting trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands...There was one deep bay with a long narrow opening where we thought we might observe some changes in animal forms due to a specialized life and a long period of isolation. Ed was to have started within a month and I was to have joined him there. Maybe someone else will study that little island sea (212).

I wonder who has, and what we, too, will find there, on Haida Gwaii, going as we will, fresh from here.

Not much work for fishermen: pangas pulled up on shore (2015)


John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. London and New York: Penguin Classic Edition, 2000.

My understanding of "multilyered trophic cascades"--what happened for example as the East Coast cod fishery collapsed, and the niches within which several layers of species existed shifted--is informed by the work of biologists Ransom Myers and Boris Worm, and Julia Whitty's beautifully written book, Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Mariner Books): 2010. (See especially pp. 146-150 on the cod collapse.) Whitty and Worms both also write of the ways in which we become accustomed to scarcity in the seas, and recalibrate our expectations, so that what we are now seeing seems as if it has always been. Interestingly enough, as Whitty notes, "Worm and Myers' analysis [of the numbers of large fish that were readily available fifty and sixty years ago] was based....on catch reports from Japanese longliners of the 1950s" (148).

Ricketts and Steinbeck were interested in studying Masset Inlet, on Graham Island. It appears that one of the first publications to gather baseline data on marine invertebrates on Haida Gwaii is a Parks Canada Technical Report: N.A. Sloan, P.A. Bartier and W.C. Austin, Living Marine Legacy of Gwaii Haanas II: Marine Invertebrate Baseline to 2000 and Invertebrate-related Management Issues.  December 2001. Available online from the government of Canada, here:

North coast reflections, British Columbia

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