Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
For this small classic, Steinbeck based his hero ‘Doc’ on the life and work of marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Besides detailing the work of marine sample collecting, the book includes all the interactions and connections with the locals of Cannery Row. A small town where everybody knows everybody else.
‘Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest.’
Doc is everyman’s hero, forbearing to his friends, and thoughtful:
‘It has always seemed strange to me, said Doc, the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.’
Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed into the Gulf of California in 1940 to analyze the perils of dredging and overfishing. They were both (but especially Ricketts) environmentally aware of the devastation that was occurring to the water’s ecology. And they were decades before their time. Ricketts had documented the ecology of the intertidal pools in his 1939 book Between Pacific Tides, which is still used today by students of marine biology.
Steinbeck wrote his Log from the Sea of Cortez about his trip with Ricketts. I include the following quote from this book because of its simple elegance:
‘Our own interest lay in 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 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 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.’
The U.S. Congress instigated the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972 to address the problems of dredging and and to protect and preserve our coastlines and their ecological habitats.