John Steinbeck, Nature Writer?

I don’t know if anyone noticed, but a while ago I added a little “What I’m Reading” widget to the sidebar of this blog. For the last couple months, a chapter or two at a time, I’ve been working my way through The Log From the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck. I assume everyone reading this has heard of John Steinbeck, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of this particular book – I never had until we read a brief excerpt of it during our Land Ethic Leaders training back in January. It’s a work of nonfiction chronicling a trip that Steinbeck and his friend biologist Ed Ricketts took to the Gulf of Mexico (aka the Sea of Cortez) in 1940 to collect marine invertebrates and generally go exploring. Before reading this, I wouldn’t have thought of John Steinbeck as a nature writer, but a lot of the passages in the book are beautiful, thoughtful reflections on the relationship between people and nature.

Our own interest lay in the relationships of animal 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 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 the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and 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 tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

All this years before Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was published! Steinbeck goes off on tangents about subjects like the effects of globalization on indigenous communities and the importance of using resources sustainably (although he doesn’t use those specific terms, probably because they hadn’t been coined yet) and other very modern-seeming ideas. Parts of the book are also incredibly funny, such as the running joke about the “Sea-Cow,” the outboard motor they brought to power their skiff which develops its own malevolent personality and only deigns to run when they don’t urgently need it to.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part philosophy, The Log From the Sea of Cortez may not be typical summer beach reading but it’s worth checking out. What good nature-related books have you read recently? Share in the comments!

Friday I leave for a backcountry trip that I’m co-leading for work. I’ll be back next Wednesday, but in the meantime watch this space for some snazzy guest posts!

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2 thoughts on “John Steinbeck, Nature Writer?”

  1. I had to work hard to track down Steinbeck’s “Logbook” after reading “Cannery Row” “Sweet Thursday” and admiring the character of “Doc”. It’s a great read, along with “Travels with Charlie” that were part of my summer reading list several years ago and deserves much more publicity. I can’t think of a better book to read at the beach! (sorry Dan Brown, you don’t make the cut). It does what any good book does in that ever since reading it I am desperate to some day visit Baja and see the sea/landscapes and creatures of the book. And of course I would love to get my hands on Ricketts’ own “Between Pacific Tides” published in 1939.
    As for this summer, I just finished E. O. Wilson’s “Letters to a Young Scientist” and I highly recommend this to be purchased for any young person in your life (middle to high school/early college age) who just can’t seem to walk past a log without turning it over to see what’s underneath.

  2. I’ve read the “Logbook” – beautifully written. I was thrilled to find a copy of Ed Rickett’s book for $1 in a charity store – had to stop myself going WHOOP as I leapt on it! I still don’t understand how it got to the east coast of Australia, as it’s about the west coast of the US. It’s also a good read, and helped me realise how similar are the niches and species in rockpools on both sides of the Pacific (eastern Australia and the US west coast).

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