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The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

by John Steinbeck Reviewed by Don Weiss

Steinbeck is best known as the author of The Grapes of Wrath, which brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. But he was also an enthusiastic marine biologist. In fact, he studied marine biology at Stanford, though he left there without graduating. It was only later, when he became a friend of Ed Ricketts, that he became active as a collector of marine specimens for Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratories, which Steinbeck helped keep afloat financially when times were tough.

In the spring of 1940, Steinbeck and Ricketts hired a Monterey Bay fishing boat, The Western Flyer, and cruised through the Gulf of California (AKA The Sea of Cortez) on a collecting trip. Steinbeck and Ricketts then produced a book, Sea of Cortez, of which the narrative section is normally reprinted as The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Steinbeck recounts the day to day events of the collecting trip; encounters with local people at sea and ashore, negotiations with customs officials, difficulties with the outboard motor which was supposed to power a skiff, and details of collecting the thousands of marine animals which, preserved and marketed to schools, were to pay for the trip.

But Steinbeck, like Ricketts, saw more than individuals and species, and what makes The Log from the Sea of Cortez worth reading is the way he draws the reader from a contemplation of an animal to an understanding of the ecological system of which that individual is a transitory part.

The way he accomplishes this is as notable as what he does. First entices the reader with anecdotes — the idiosyncrasies of the crew, incidents in the collection process, and the beauties of the Sea of Cortez. Then he talks about thought and reasoning, and how these are affected by the incidents of life, incidents which are so different on a collecting trip than when living at home. Finally, with the groundwork laid, he turns to an explanation of basic ecological principles which, in the light of what has gone before, is presented as an inescapable conclusion:

Our own interest lay in relationships of animals to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known as unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things — plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tidepool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez is available from Penguin 20th Century Classics for $13.95.

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