Sea Slugs and Steinbecks

Killian explores the underwater ecosystem of the Gulf of California

“Gulf of California” is one name for the deep marginal sea that intervenes between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico. The larger part of its coastline – from La Paz, in Baja California Sur, up to San Felipe, tacking around to Puerto Peñasco, and on south to Guaymas – marks a dramatic encounter between saltwater and Sonoran Desert. Inland, the cardón, tallest cactus in the world, branches imperiously. The Gulf hosts turtles, totoaba, cannonball jellyfish, hammerhead sharks, and, in its more temperate northern reaches, the elusive – and critically endangered – vaquita, or Mexican porpoise. In the Infiernillo Channel, between Tiburón Island and Punta Chueca, Seri Indians harvest an edible bivalve mollusk called callo de hacha, or pen shell. Somewhat more mundane, but economically paramount, are the shrimp: fully one half of Mexico’s annual haul comes from these waters.

In 1940, an odd American expedition set off from Monterey Bay, California, and motored Gulf-ward. On board the Mercury Flyer were Ed Ricketts, Carol Steinbeck, and Carol’s husband, John. Marine biology remembers Ricketts for his work on intertidal ecosystems, those theaters of life, death, and decay that stage their dramas between the globe’s high- and low-water marks. The year before the Mexican voyage, he and the photographer Jack Calvin had published Between Pacific Tides, an accessible, controversial, and thoroughly ecological treatment of littoral invertebrates – “the good, kind, sane little animals” – and the waters that wash them. Last year, I made a brief visit to Ricketts’s old lab, in Monterey, while in California for The Underwater Realm, a workshop at Stanford’s Humanities Center.

Wooden and box-like, the shed that was Pacific Biological Laboratories makes an uncannily placid foil to the heaving aquarium and tourist shops along the road. Out back, a group of small, unspectacular concrete tanks stagger seaward to receive varying depths of tide, and of life. I was moved – and vaguely embarrassed – by the total lack of dazzle, or by a sense that there were whole horizons of wonder hereabouts, but that they were as yet invisible to me. For John Steinbeck, Ricketts was a friend, collaborator, and creative muse – several years on, the scientist-poet would appear, in sublimated form, as Doc, in Cannery Row (1945). Carol completed what Susan Shillinglaw, author of a history of the Steinbecks’ marriage, calls the trio’s “creative phalanx”: an artist, poet, and accomplished gardener, Carol was apparently an able sailor, as well. Strangely, and disconcertingly, her presence was almost completely disappeared from the trip’s published record, The Log from the Sea of Cortez.

Cortez, for Hernán Cortés: from beyond the Atlantic, another name for a small – but spectacular – Pacific sea. The Log was published in 1951, a few years after Ricketts’s death, and a decade after a first iteration, Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. A significant sketch of Gulf-life – it acquainted its readership with about fifty previously unfamiliar invertebrates – the Log is also an essentially literary document. Its authorship is unusual, and in a basic sense indeterminable – it was worked up, with an unknown degree of liberty, from Ricketts’s journal, and, to a lesser extent, from that of the captain, Tony Berry. Steinbeck’s contributions were surely extensive, but their precise nature has always been unclear. Mixed in are lengthy philosophical excurses – on subjects like cannibalism, and “non-teleological thinking” – as well as bits and pieces borrowed, in whole or in part, from Coast Pilot, and other works besides. Taxonomic footnotes dangle from the bottom of the page. Pronominally speaking, the first-person plural predominates: this text presents itself as having been written by a “we.” It is weird, then, that my edition advertises its author as “John Steinbeck” – an unfortunate, and rather gormless, simplification.

Ill-fitting, too – for among the tide-pools, reefs, beaches, and sandflats of the Gulf of California, the Log observes not singularities or specimens, but connections and commonplaces. “All life is relational” goes the text’s mantra, and its origins appear to partake of the same spirit. It offers itself as a sort of outgrowth, or intellectual ecosystem, issuing from prolonged collaborative work; its mind is hybrid, and irreducible to any one of its constituent parts. The Log is, on its own terms, a sort of organism, or at least a vital piece of some other, grander, organismic whole. In the Gulf, things are inseparable from “nature” – a thorough sense of the sea’s invertebrate life admits the presence of intransigent outboard motors, religious icons at coastal towns, and even dreams, fears, and fantasies. Aqueous lives make illusions of limit-lines: at Tiburón Island, coelenterate animals called hydroids seem so plant-like as to “indicate to the imagination a bridge between flora and fauna.”

Thoughts, too, can be thing-like – the agents and expressions of the “warp” that we bring to our impressions of the world. And if thoughts are things, then perhaps they’re susceptible to observation, like holothurians and wave shock. Maybe they’re describable, in their forms and habits, like the crabs called Sally Lightfoot (Grapsus grapsus), whose “brilliant cloisonné carapaces” skitter about the Gulf’s foreshores. Thus one of the Log’s most exciting, and enigmatic, challenges: it urges us to include its authors, and its readers, in the field of analysis, to examine our assumptions, our societies, our stereotypes, and our selves. This needn’t entail – in fact, mustn’t entail – working from pure reason, or taking a view from nowhere. Subjective experience is paramount, and one’s senses are one’s greatest tools. Science that doesn’t pay attention to pleasure – exemplified by crewman Sparky Enea’s fascination with murex shells, and the gustatory excellence of the Pacific sierra (Scomberomorus sierra) – is science in the blind.

Did the sea – did the intertidal zone – play an essential role in driving the Log’s hybrid mind to imagine life relationally, and ecologically? Or would this strange – and at times superb – book have emanated from whatever landscape or biome happened to have been under scrutiny? I am inclined to propose that the Gulf and its lives were irreplaceable collaborators. The Log testifies to the sea’s sensory separateness – on and in it, one’s terrestrial “odor memory pattern” gives way to a different, oceanic one. More precisely, though, it strikes me that looking closely at conches, urchins, sea-fans, brittlestars, and sea cucumbers encourages the kind of thinking – simultaneously absorbed and alienated – the authors promote. The better part of a century earlier, the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel produced some extraordinary illustrations of the marine invertebrates he saw at Sicily, animals that seemed not only to invite but to require a regard that was at once aesthetic, scientific, and poetic. Overfishing, tourism development, and climate change are transforming the Gulf of California and the communities that depend thereupon. It is possible that some more complicated, contemplative, worldly, and indeed humane worldview is available to us in the most apparently unfamiliar of places, should we begin, like the Log and its conspirators, living for low tide.

Killian Quigley is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Image: Kirt Edblom ‘Sea Urchin’ via Flickr Commons