Steinbeck and the Environment

Interdisciplinary Approaches

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1997 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5487-9

Chapter One

John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts: Understanding Life in the Great Tide Pool

James C. Kelley

James Kelley draws on a wide range of philosophies to show how Steinbeck and Ricketts almost literally anticipated the New Age school of "deep ecology." To the superorganism concept Steinbeck was exposed to at the Hopkins Marine Station and the idea of group cooperation among organisms Ricketts received from W. C. or Warder Clyde Allee at the University of Chicago, Kelley adds the concepts of transcendent and visceral thinking that contributed to Ricketts's goal of "breaking through" to a holistic concept of the world ecosystem. The essay also contrasts Ricketts's idea of the "deep smile" of primitive peoples living close to nature with the ethic of nature subjugation practiced by "advanced" European cultures. Kelley concludes that Steinbeck and Ricketts viewed science based on ecological principles as a "noble human undertaking" and a rational means of achieving global understanding. The philosophy of Sea of Cortez is increasingly relevant to our preparation for today's "green revolution."

One of the most important social changes in these last decades of the twentieth century is, surely, the "greening" of the world population. The widespread concern for the environment and the effect of this concern on the political process and on the amount of money we are devoting to understanding human environmental impacts and reversing their effects are unprecedented in human history. This concern may be a natural response by an organism to environmental change. The Gaia Hypothesis (Lovelock 1972, 215) predicts this sort of response as organisms work to regulate their environment to make it more habitable (such a regulatory effort presumably occurs even if the uninhabitable features are of their own making). To some degree, our environmental awareness must be due to the Apollo space program, which allowed us, for the first time, to see our little water planet from the outside. To some less obvious but no less profound degree, the awareness may have been conditioned by John Steinbeck, who gave expression to Ed Ricketts's philosophical thoughts. These thoughts contain all of the primary elements of what "New Age" writers, thinking they have found something new and revolutionary, call "deep ecology." In fact, the thinking by Steinbeck and Ricketts on the subject is considerably more sophisticated than much of the recent work. This chapter will explore some of these ideas and how they may condition environmental concern.

Ecological Thinking, Rational Understanding

Ricketts's mentor, W. C. Allee, traces the origins of ecology to Empedocles, Aristotle, and Theophrastus but recognizes the development of the field in its modern form as beginning with the use of the name (Oekologie, or oecology) by Haeckel in 1869 (Allee et al. 34). The field experienced a rapid expansion and sophistication in the first three decades of this century, during which both Allee himself and William Emerson Ritter were major contributors. The Gaia concept is, of course, more recent. The term was introduced by Lovelock in 1972 (579), but in 1989 (215) he traced its origins to the work of the remarkable Scottish geologist James Hutton in 1788 (Hutton 209-304).

John Steinbeck was certainly interested in the subject we now call ecology at least from his Stanford years; in 1923, he and his sister Mary took summer session courses in marine biology at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. It was a short walk down from the Eleventh Street house to the tide pools between Lover's Point and Cabrillo Point (China Point), which they visited often as children. The instructor in his summer biology course, Charles Vincent Taylor, was a doctoral candidate at Berkeley, a student of Charles Kofoid, and heavily influenced by the work of William Emerson Ritter, former chairman of the Zoology Department and, in 1911, founding director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Benson 1984, 240). As chair, Ritter had taught the University of California's summer marine biology course on the Hopkins property in 1892 (Ritter 1912, 148). Ritter used the "superorganism" model for what we would today call an ecosystem. This model worked well for Steinbeck in the form of the "phalanx" concept for "group man," prominent in In Dubious Battle, "The Leader of the People," and The Grapes of Wrath (Astro 1973, 61).

When John met Ed Ricketts in 1930, Ed was fresh from the powerful influence of Warder Clyde Allee at the University of Chicago. Allee wrote extensively on group behavior among animals and was interested in the ways in which the group modifies, for example, the feeding or reproductive behaviors of its individual members. Allee developed some of the fundamental principles of the discipline of ecology and certainly was one of the most important contributors to the rapid development of the field in the early decades of this century. He was a powerful personal figure, and the University of Chicago, at the time, was a major force in both ecology and marine biology through his efforts and those of the pioneering and prolific invertebrate zoologist Libbie Hyman.

A third perspective, although not strictly ecological and still in its formative stage, was provided by the young Joseph Campbell, Ed's neighbor on Fourth Street in Pacific Grove and a regular visitor to Ed's lab in 1932. Joe Campbell was, at the time, exploring both the common denominators of the mythologies of the world's peoples and also, after his time in Germany with Carl Jung, the needs of our "collective unconscious" and how and why we develop our mythologies. Joe was infatuated with Carol Henning Steinbeck, and it was Carol who introduced Joe, John, and Ed to the often allegorical poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers, by then living in Carmel, greatly influenced all three (Larsen and Larsen 179).

The mix of ecological and mythological concepts provides a philosophical basis that pervades much of Steinbeck's work from at least Tortilla Flat (1935) to The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). The ecological treatment of intertidal communities was the significant innovation of Between Pacific Tides, by Ricketts and Jack Calvin, and the principle of the interconnectedness of everything is an essential part of Joseph Campbell's later work. He was fascinated by the notion that all humans share a set of primitive ideas, the Elementargedanken of German anthropologist Adolf Bastian. In Campbell's analysis these primitive ideas may be born of Jung's collective unconscious (Masks of God 45). In this formulation the mythological work yields a basically ecological explanation (i.e., one of the ways in which our species adapts to its environment is by explaining the wonders of the world through our mythology-or through our science).

Transcendent Understanding, "Breaking Through"

John was fascinated with Ed's scientific temperament. In a radio script interview on his advocacy on behalf of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, the novelist said that "the only heroes left are the scientists and the poor" (Benson 1984, 402). He admired Ed's objectivity and his ability to think nonteleologically, to observe natural phenomena for excruciatingly long periods without drawing conclusions as to the causes of the observed behaviors. The story of Hazel and the stinkbugs in Cannery Row provides the ultimate display of nonteleological irony to illustrate this point:

[When Hazel, observing typical stinkbug behavior, asks] "Well, what they got their asses up in the air for?" ...

"I think they're praying," said Doc.

"What!" Hazel was shocked.

"The remarkable thing," said Doc, "isn't that they put their tails up in the air-the really remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we'd probably be praying-so maybe they're praying."

"Let's get the hell out of here," said Hazel. (CR 147-48)

Ed Ricketts's ability to study the phenomenon under investigation as it is, without leaping to causal conclusions, is certainly an element of good science, but it led Ed to seek another kind of transcendence. Ed was fond of advocating what he called getting the "toto picture," the kind of holistic, synthetic thinking that is essential in ecology (Hedgpeth 1978, pt. 2, 26). It was the pursuit of this kind of systemic understanding that led Ed to develop the philosophy of "breaking through." The idea of breaking through implies the existence of a kind of understanding that goes beyond anything possible by scientific observation and deductive reasoning alone. I will refer to this kind of understanding as transcendent understanding.

Ed attributes the terminology to Robinson Jeffers in "Roan Stallion":

Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire, The atom to be split. Tragedy that breaks man's face and a white fireflies out of it; vision that fools him Out of his limits, desire that fools him out of his limits, unnatural crime, inhuman science, Slit eyes in the mask, wild loves that leap over the walls of nature, the wild fence-vaulter science, Useless intelligence of far stars, dim knowledge of the spinning demons that make an atom, These break, these pierce, these deify, praising their God shrilly with fierce voices: not in a man's shape He approves the praise, he that walks lightning-naked on the Pacific, that laces the suns with planets The heart of the atom with electrons: what is humanity in this cosmos? For him, the last Least taint of a trace in the dregs of the solution; for itself, the mould to break away from, the coal To break into fire, the atom to be split. (Jeffers 140 [emphasis added])

It should be clear from the emphasized phrase, in this part of the poem, that Jeffers expects science itself to break through. In his 1938 poem, "The Purse-Seine," in a mode very much like Ricketts's own, Jeffers breaks through from the description of sardine fishing to see the sardines in a seine net as symbolic of humans pressed together in cities, dependent on one another and the artificial life support systems that keep them trapped in the urban environment (Jeffers 588).

In another use of the phrase, Ed's professor W C. Allee, in chapter 11 of Cooperation Among Animals entitled "The Peck Order and International Relations," says that the biologist must "break through" the confines of his discipline and try to understand how his knowledge may be applied to international relations. He writes:

It may have come as a surprise to some that there is evidence from modern experimental studies in group biology that bears on international problems. The biological information at hand is incomplete and must be used with caution, but the urgency of the situation (the world political disarray after World War I] has seemed to me to necessitate breaking through the reticence of the research biologist to set forth, and even to summarize briefly, some of the human implications growing out of recent work with animal aggregations. (202)

If Ed did not take the phrase from Allee, certainly he and John followed the advice with some enthusiasm. Interestingly, Joseph Campbell uses the same phrase in The Mask of God (4).

The notion of breaking through, especially when it follows a long period of rational contemplation, is a remarkably Zen idea. The achievement of "satori" was discussed in Zen texts owned by Steinbeck and Ricketts (DeMott 1984, 69 and 108), particularly D. T. Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism, which we know was in Ed's library at the lab, as were Lao Tze's Tao teh Ching and the Taoist poetry of Li Po in S. Obata's The Works of Li-Po (Hedgpeth 1978, pt. 2, 23). These works reverberate with various versions of the phrase "the Tao which can be Tao-ed is not the real Tao." In Lionel Giles's 1905 translation, Lao Tze says, "The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao" (5). In Ed's essay "The Philosophy of Breaking Through," he uses the first translation, which is that of Dwight Goddard. Hedgpeth says that Ed had the 1919 edition in his library and further that "John Steinbeck often looked through Ed's books; and if John read Lao Tse, it was probably Ed's copy. My first sight of John Steinbeck was as he was standing beside a bookshelf in Ed's place with a book in his hand" (Hedgpeth 1978, pt. 2,23). In the essay Ed focuses on the enlightenment achieved after a long struggle, a theme that spans the cultural range from the Tao teh Ching to the Grail Romance (Masks of God 197) and that is central to the Judaeo-Christian tradition from the Exodus to the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In "About Ed Ricketts," Steinbeck says of Ed, "He was walled off a little, so that he worked at his philosophy of 'breaking through,' of coming out through the back of the mirror into some kind of reality which would make the world seen dreamlike. This thought obsessed him" (LSC lxii).

Visceral Understanding

We have seen an awareness of at least two levels of understanding that were of interest to Steinbeck and Ricketts: the empirical scientific understanding that comes from studying the natural world and a transcendent understanding achieved by breaking through. The second is clearly more than an inductive synthesis from observational results. The full realization of the idea requires transcendence in the mystical sense used in Zen Buddhism. In addition to these two forms, there is a third that I will call visceral understanding. This is an intuitive and innate understanding of the world. Steinbeck used the term "racial memory," and it is clear from the pantheistic exploration of the oneness of man and nature in To a God Unknown that John came to this notion independently of Ed, although by the time the novel was published in 1933 it showed Ed's influence (Astro 1973, 81-88). Beginning with Webster Street's unfinished play The Green Lady, which already took this pantheistic view, John built on the idea with such passages as "There was a curious femaleness about the interlacing boughs and twigs, about the long green cavern cut by the river through the trees." To take another example, in Joseph Wayne's orgasmic experience on the land: "He stamped his feet into the soft earth. Then the exultance grew to be a sharp pain of desire that ran through his body in a hot river. He flung himself face downward on the grass and pressed his cheek against the wet stems. His fingers gripped the wet grass and tore it out, and gripped again. His thighs beat heavily on the earth" (TGU 11). The catharsis appears in Joseph's dying words "I am the land, and I am the rain. The grass will grow out of me in a little while" (TGU 261).

Ed Ricketts came to a different but sympathetic idea from his marine work. In his essay "The Tide," he says: "We have to envision the concept of the collective pattern associationally involved in instinct, to get an inkling of the force behind the lunar rhythm so deeply rooted, and so obviously and often present in marine animals and even in higher animals and man" (Hedgpeth 1978, pt. 2, 64). Consider Ed's statement, in the same essay, discussing the notion proposed by George Darwin (son of Charles Darwin) that earlier in earth history the tides were much stronger:

It is nevertheless far-fetched to attribute the lunar rhythm status actually observable in breeding animals of the tide controlled breeding habits of the California grunion, of the Polynesian palolo worm, of Nereis, of Amphineura, etc., wherein whole collections of animals act as one individual responding to a natural phenomenon, to the present fairly weak tidal forces only, or to coincidence. There is tied up to the most primitive and powerful social (collective) instinct, a rhythm "memory" which effects everything and which in the past was probably far more potent than it is now. (Hedgpeth 1978, pt. 2, 64)


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