The Log from the Sea of Cortez – John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck was the author responsible for some of the best known works of American 20th century fiction – you may have read The Grapes of Wrath (or The Wrath of Grapes, as my sister is occasionally wont to call it) at high school, for example. The Log from the Sea of Cortez is a non-fiction work, recounting a marine specimen collecting trip that Steinbeck and his friend Ed Ricketts made in the Gulf of California, in 1940. This extremely biodiverse piece of ocean has been the site of studies of Humboldt squid, Shark Men expeditions, and studies of whales.
Ricketts was a biologist, and inspired some of Steinbeck’s fictional characters. The two of them chartered a fishing boat, and sailed from Monterey Bay and spent six weeks making various stops in the Gulf, anchoring the fishing boat and using their unreliable tender to travel to shore and back. They concentrated chiefly on the intertidal zone, and collected samples of as many species as they could find.
To most modern readers, accounts of them trying to spear manta rays and eating dolphin will be upsetting, but in general the curious delight that Steinbeck and his companions took in their discoveries is infectious. More than this, however, I enjoyed the way Steinbeck evoked life on board the fishing boat, the warm evenings, the companionship of the crew, and the sun-baked, sleepy towns they encountered en route. Steinbeck was distressed by Japanese shrimp trawlers wreaking havoc on the ocean floor, and horrified by the tons of bycatch (specimens, to him!) that was thrown back into the ocean, dead and dying.
In between accounts of their life on board the ship, and their forays to shore searching for specimens, Steinbeck ruminates beautifully and gently on man’s connection to the ocean and to everything else, materialism, contemplation, politics, love, freedom, and any number of other lofty themes.
We have thought often of this mass of sea-memory, or sea-thought, which lives deep in the mind. If one asks for a description of the unconscious, even the answer-symbol will be in terms of a dark water into which the light descends only a short distance.
A group of scientists reproduced Steinbeck and Ricketts’s journey in 2004; while the website that recorded their voyage has disappeared from the internet, a description of their expedition has not.
This is a book to be read during a summer holiday, or when one wishes to invoke the feeling of summer, and with ample time to hand for slow-paced philosophical musing. It’s a travelogue that says much about the interconnectedness of things, and more.