In 1930, writer John Steinbeck and his new wife Carol moved to Pacific Grove, CA, where his family owned a summer home. Born in 1902 in nearby Salinas, Steinbeck had spent his early years exploring nature--the fields of the Salinas Valley as well as the tide pools of Monterey Bay and Point Lobos. Later he admitted that he was a "water fiend" and most of his life was lived near the sea.
When enrolled in Stanford University in the early 1920s, Steinbeck took a course in marine ecology at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, also in Pacific Grove. His own interest in ecology and natural science thus meshed with Ricketts's studies of marine ecology. The friendship between the two men was extraordinary--deep and deeply significant for both, as captured best in three of Steinbeck's works drawn from that friendship: Sea of Cortez, Cannery Row (1945), and "About Ed Ricketts" (1951). For nearly two decades--from 1930 until 1948, when Ricketts died--the two men met or corresponded frequently, engaging in long conversations about art, philosophy, music, invertebrates. Throughout their long years of friendship, the artist and the scientist "sparked one another," as Ricketts's sister noted. Ricketts's mind "had no horizons," Steinbeck wrote in admiration of his friend's encyclopedic interests.
The ecological perspective that both men embraced is evident throughout Steinbeck's work, from the wildly penetrating study of one man's intimate relationship with the land, To a God Unknown (1932), to the multi-leveled epic, The Grapes of Wrath (1939), to his final novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) where Steinbeck ponders the "survivability" of ethical standards in America. In Steinbeck's last published work, America and Americans (1966) he bemoans ecological destruction throughout the country.
When Ed Ricketts left for the Sea of Cortez aboard the Western Flyer in March 1940, he hoped the trip would be the basis for a new book. He had just published Between Pacific Tides the year before, an ecology-basedguideto the seashores of Pacific North America. Between Pacific Tides had been a labor of love - taking over a decade to get published - and Ricketts was eager to expand his observations and thinking about ecology into new environs. The upcoming expedition to Mexico with his close friend and confidante John Steinbeck was marked by excitement and hope, and Ricketts was eager to get underway from Monterey, California.
Ricketts’s first encounter with Monterey Bay was in 1923, when he and his wife and newborn son, Ed. Jr., arrived from Ricketts’s native Chicago. Like Steinbeck, Ricketts had left college without completing his degree, though also like his friend, had found the seeds of his own emergingworld view in the science classes he had taken. Specifically, during his last term at the University of Chicago, Ricketts enrolled in the Animal Ecology course taught by a new member of the faculty—Warder Clyde Allee, a zoologist and early pioneer in the newfield of ecology. When Ricketts was in his class, Allee was working on his classic book Animal Aggregations: A Study in General Sociology (1931), a study of how and why animals come together into groups. He believed cooperation was fundamental to virtually all species, mediated by natural selection. Just as William Ritter’s work inspired Steinbeck, Allee’secological ideas lie at the root of many of Ricketts’s ideas about the natural world.
In March of 1940, marine ecology in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) was born with the pioneering expedition of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck aboard the Western Flyer, a sardine seiner out of Monterey, California. Although earlier biologists had visited the area, none had done so using an ecological, or “holistic” approach and none had attempted to undertake a faunal survey nor describe littoral communities. The voyage is eloquently chronicled in the 1941 book by Steinbeck and Ricketts, Sea of Cortez. A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (Viking Press). The book is an essay on the then-emerging field of ecology, as well as a travelogue, an adventure story, and a philosophical inquiry. In their six-week voyage, Steinbeck and Ricketts made 24 discrete collections from 21 localities. Thousands of specimens and over 560 species of marine invertebrates were captured, and the Synoptic Catalog in Sea of Cortez was the first-ever compendium of the invertebrate fauna of the Gulf of California. Only 484 species of invertebrates are listed in the book’s Phyletic Catalog, but many more were collected and later identified by specialists from around the world. About 40 new, undescribed species were also taken on the journey, most of which have since been named.
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