Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Impact of Friendships

Bronze bust of Ed Ricketts at site of death
Researching Isaac B. Werner and his community gave me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of friendships.  He was a prairie bachelor, far from his siblings and the Werner cousins, uncles, and aunts that had surrounded him as he was growing up.  Isaac's story involves his relationships within the prairie community, his place as a bachelor in an environment in which most men his age were married with children.  Part of the prairie story is the constant movement of new settlers arriving and others giving up on their homesteads, and while friendships were interrupted and new ones were made, those relationships were essential to survival.

During our recent John Steinbeck Retreat, one of the segments I most enjoyed was learning about the friendship between Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed "Doc" Ricketts.  Prior to the Retreat, I had not read Cannery Row or The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and I was unaware of the influential relationship between Steinbeck and Ricketts.  Fortunately for me, one of the members of our group, Russ Eagle, has been a devoted fan of those books and the friendship between those two men, and his enthusiasm was contagious!

Display at Steinbeck Museum
Learning how many of the characters in Cannery Row are based on real people that Steinbeck knew when he lived there as a struggling writer, I was especially intrigued by the character "Doc."

In 2000, I created my Millennium Reading List of great books, together with a personal review form that I complete after finishing each book.  The reading list has grown (and I may never manage to read every book on the ever-expanding list), but I have maintained my commitment to do a review after finishing each book I read.  When I reviewed Cannery Row I described "Doc" in the Character section of the review as follows:  "...the owner and operator of Western Biological Laboratory, regarded as the local philosopher, respecter of music, literature, and art, and scientist whose speciality is marine life but whose experiments included rats, cats, and rattlesnakes."  In the Literary Techniques section of my review form, I wrote:  "The plot is draped loosely over two parties for Doc--one well-intentioned but catastrophic when he returns late and his 'guests' have destroyed his place, and the other a birthday party on the wrong day that began with sincere intentions and erupted into the only kind of successful party they could enjoy."  At that time I assumed the characters were creatures of Steinbeck's imagination.

Ed Ricketts Lab
View from back of lab, holding tanks
By the time I read The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I was aware that "Doc" was a real person and Steinbeck's great friend.  Frankly, I wasn't excited about reading The Log but it was one of the books to be discussed during the retreat, so I began.  The opening page was titled "About Ed Ricketts" and by the bottom of the page Ed's car had been struck by the Del Monte Express, and although he was conscious the severity of his injuries did not bode well for survival.  After his funeral Steinbeck turned to writing as his way to deal with the loss of his friend.  "...there is another reason to put Ed Ricketts down on paper.  He will not die.  He haunts the people who knew him.  He is always present even in the moments when we feel his loss the most.  ...Maybe if I write down everything I can remember about him, that will lay the ghost.  It is worth trying anyway."

Clay Jenkinson overlooking Ricketts holding tanks
I don't think Steinbeck's plan worked.  I believe he carried Ed Ricketts with him for the rest of his life.  Perhaps that is what all of us who are fortunate to have a great friendship in our lives must do.  Certainly Steinbeck made many of us feel like we had known Ed Ricketts...or wish we had known him.

Having introduced readers to Ed Ricketts, with whom the expedition on the Sea of Cortez was planned and experienced, the actual Log is introduced.  Steinbeck explained:  "The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer.  This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact.  And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there."  What follows is not only the literal description of their adventure, beginning with all of the planning before chartering the Western Flyer with its tolerant skipper Anthony Berry, and hiring the crew, but also the literary wanderings typical of Steinbeck that I so enjoy.

Also included in the Log is a discussion of "teleological thinking" which inserts its way into the book on Easter Sunday, when the crew did little collecting of specimens, instead half dozing and "...thinking of old things" and later discussing "manners of thinking and methods of thinking" involving what Steinbeck identified as teleological and non-teleological thinking.  This sort of discussion was typical of Steinbeck and Ricketts, who enjoyed exploring ideas and reason.  In fact, Ricketts had written his philosophy on this subject for which he had never found a publisher.  Much of this section in The Log from the Sea of Cortez came from Ricketts' writings, a sort of posthumous gift from Steinbeck to his friend.

During the Retreat we had a wonderful tour of the former Western Biological Laboratory, guided by an outstanding docent and concluded with a talk from author Susan Shillinglaw.  Although the laboratory had a brief life serving other uses, it was fairly well preserved during that time so that today it feels like Doc might soon return from one of his tidal pool forages and offer his guests a drink.

Susan Shillinglaw

After hard service and severe neglect, the Western Flyer is being restored, with plans for use as a sea-going classroom.  The magnificent Monterey Bay Aquarium is only a few steps down the street from Doc's lab. The legacy of Ed Ricketts lives on.

(Remember, you may enlarge images by clicking on them.)

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