Steinbeck’s Science: A Review of “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”

7 March 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

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In the spring of 1940, with war on the horizon, two friends took to the sea, and escaped to another world. One was a marine biologist; the other had just written The Grapes of Wrath. As you might expect, with John Steinbeck as log-keeper, their expedition was well documented.

"The design [of an expedition]", he states early on, is "as simple as the design of a well-written book". What follows, across 6 weeks and 250 pages, is a shining example of both—and some of the most brilliant science writing ever set down.

The sea of the book's title is an old name for the Gulf of California—the long, narrow strip of water that separates the peninsula of Baja California from the Mexican mainland. It was here that Steinbeck, armed with a small crew, an arsenal of scientific equipment, and "unbelievable" amounts of coffee, traveled, in order "to collect and preserve the marine invertebrates of the littoral".

Cortez

Also on board, and partly responsible for Steinbeck's presence, was the biologist Ed Ricketts—a fellow inhabitant of the port of Monterey, California, from which they had set sail. The two were united by a passion for marine biology; until his untimely death in 1948, Ricketts ran a marine laboratory in Monterey—on "Cannery Row"—to which Steinbeck was a regular visitor. (He would later immortalise both his friend and the location in his 1945 novel of the that name).

On paper, the goal of the voyage was a simple one: a six week charter, during which they would collect and document the spineless animals they encountered along the coast. Perhaps predictably, Steinbeck's log completely transcends this brief. His account of the expedition—first published in 1941—is a rich, delightfully woven narrative; equal parts meticulous scientific observation and vibrant travelogue, and punctuated throughout with wandering existential musings.

As a pure observational account, the book excels. In other hands, the task of faithfully describing the bewildering array of species that the crew encountered, could so easily have turned out dry; a pile of obscure latin names, as lifeless as a fish pickled in formaldehyde. But far from being boring, Steinbeck's detailed, precise prose is mesmerizing. As the men tirelessly comb the coral-encrusted tide pools of the Gulf for specimens—which they collected in their thousands—we feel their wonder. Starfish glow purple and gold; dreamy sea-fans sway in the warm currents; crabs pinch; shrimp snap—and everything, it seems, stings.

The log injects enough drama into the potentially tedious job of sample collection to maintain our interest without needing to look up from the water. It's what Steinbeck chooses to add, though, which gives the book its heart—and illustrates perfectly the difference between scientific writing, and writing about science.

boat

Above the water, his narrative wanders freely; from scientific minutiae to the aching beauty of the environment; from nighttime debates on the nature of truth to the smell of freshly fried tuna. What sets this book apart is that none of these are shown as more or less important in the picture that he paints: they all matter to Steinbeck, and so they matter to us. The expedition, in his eyes, is the sum of many parts—not confined to sterile scientific aims or methods.

But his ultimate triumph, for me, lies elsewhere. More than its deft narration, or its evocative imagery—which, of course, it has in bucketloads; did I mention the author?—The Log from the Sea of Cortez accomplishes a rare feat in the field of science writing: it's not just a book about people doing science; it's a book about why people do science.

If you had asked John Steinbeck why he took to the sea, he would have carefully chosen one of his reasons. Perhaps he would have used the official one, "to observe the distribution of invertebrates". If you happened to be a Mexican peasant, in one of the ancient little harbours he visited along the Gulf, there would have been a different answer, tailored to their culture; perhaps something general about "advancing understanding". Both responses, however, would not have been the true one. This, he reserves for himself, and his readers: "We were curious".


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