Chuck Baxter (1927-2022), the Sea of Cortez, and the Western Flyer

Nancy Burnett

By William Gilly, Western Flyer Foundation Board

I was in Stagecoach, CO when Nancy Burnett called on August 18 to tell me that Chuck Baxter had fallen in his Carmel Valley home, gone to the hospital, and lost a lot of blood. I knew that I would never again see my friend of 42 years and felt myself retracting into a shell. He died the next day. Over the last month I have been slowly reemerging while thinking about him. There have been wonderful obituaries in the Monterey County Weekly and Stanford Report that lay out the course of Chuck’s remarkable life that included teaching at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, exploring the Monterey submarine canyon with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and creating the Shape of Life with Sea Studios Foundation. And along the way he played an important role in founding the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But these histories do not tell enough. As John Steinbeck said in memorializing Ed Ricketts in The Log from the Sea of Cortez,  “Within that framework he went a long way and burned a deep scar.” And like Ricketts, Chuck left a unique trace with anyone who knew him. That’s just the way he was.

So where to begin with my own trace with Chuck and its relevance to the Western Flyer? Perhaps starting at the end would work best. This thought came to me on a flight to Portland last week when I ordered a Jack Daniels in memory of Chuck. This was his drink of choice over the last few years, although I somehow never had one during my visits with him, despite his extolling its virtues. This plastic glass-in-hand reverie took me back through my journey with Chuck – four chapters of about a decade each.  

I met Chuck in 1979 when I came to Hopkins Marine Station after attending a physiology symposium at UCLA in early December. The reason for the stop was because I had seen a faculty job announcement a month earlier, and I wanted to check the place out before applying. Working on squid as a postdoc at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, I knew only two things about Monterey – there were squid, and a friend, Stuart Thompson, was an assistant professor at Hopkins. Stuart introduced me to Chuck, who insisted we go out at night on Monterey Bay to catch squid in a tiny aluminum boat with a Coleman lantern he bought at K-Mart. I can’t remember exactly how we tried to catch squid, but failure did not dampen my enthusiasm. I knew I had to come to Hopkins if someone like Chuck was there.  

W. Gilly

So, Chapter 1 began in late 1980 with my arrival at Hopkins. But Chuck wasn’t there – he had gone to the Gulf of California with Stuart and other Hopkins folks. They told their tales when they came back, and I knew that I had to go too. It was the nighttime squid-siren all over again. I taught with Chuck for the next 10 years, and during that time I tried to absorb as much from him as I could – lots of zoology and natural history. But he also introduced me to his fermented malt beverage of choice, Rainier Ale. He technically referred to this product as “Green Death,” apparently based on careful studies by San Francisco columnists Herb Caen and Charles McCabe. Chuck taped a seminal Caen column on his office door, and it remained there until his 1993 retirement party, when he received a congratulatory telegram from the Rainier Brand Manager, and we celebrated with hefty ceramic steins recognizing “A unique friend of exceptional quality and character.” 

During the next decade (Chapter 2), Chuck worked at MBARI and Sea Studios, but he regularly visited my lab, often after the Friday seminar. We’d catch up and philosophize, sometimes with a “Greenie” or two. As Chuck pointed out, more than that was a “serious commitment.” Other times, he would be on one of his many “austerity programs” that lasted anywhere from days to months – absolutely no FMBs then.

Chuck retired from Sea Studios in 2003. This turned out to be a pivotal year and the start of Chapter 3. As he explains in his 2020 book, Natural History of Cognition — Mind over Matter:

I was a frequent visitor to Hopkins while going through several post-retirement ventures. Hopkins has a tradition of TGIFs to celebrate making it through another week. Those that choose to participate gather by the shore, with fermented malt beverage in hand, conversing and enjoying the natural beauty. One Friday afternoon in the spring of 2003, I was participating in a very small group that included my friend Bill Gilly, a professor at the station. Gilly had recently begun research on the Humboldt squid in the Gulf of California. As part of his Baja experience, he read Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts – recounting their 1940 cruise to explore the rich and diverse fauna along the shores of the Gulf. The book treats the biology, the people, and the magical setting of this inland sea bordered by a lush desert, as it recounts the story of the journey interlaced with holistic philosophy. Many outlandish topics arose at those TGIFs, so when Gilly proposed rerunning their cruise, I responded with great enthusiasm – figuring it would never happen. Gilly is persistent, however, and over the next year he assembled a skipper with a vessel, funding, supplies, permits, and a crew including me. The trip for me was mind-altering in creating new directions of thought.

Artwork by Ray Troll

Nancy Burnett

Both of us were transformed by that 2004 trip that indeed retraced the 1940 voyage of the Western Flyer. I think that Chuck felt his mind open up as he explored an intertidal world with which he had only limited experience on previous trips to the Gulf. Four weeks of daily, focused observation is different. And Chuck helped me and Nancy, another member of the core team, open our own eyes to new things. On April 16, I noted in my log “It is amazing to see Chuck in this element – he appears to be in a naturalistic heaven and extremely happy. His enthusiasm at finding new forms or seeing some unusual relationship between organisms – like the minute white littorine snails perched on top of small white barnacles versus minute black littorines perched on top of small black mussels – is almost child-like, and this keeps everybody’s spirits up during the long, hot (and frankly boring) transect work. And his patience with everybody constantly asking ‘Hey, Chuck, what is this thing?’ is astounding. It is a joy be here with him.” 

Nancy Burnett

And, just as Steinbeck notes in The Log, “…when the night came and the anchor was dropped, a quiet came over the boat and the trip slept. And then we talked and speculated, talked and drank beer.”  This was another face to our expedition as well, and we were well supported in it by 72 cases of assorted fermented malt beverages donated by Mark Ruedrich of North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg, CA. But we discussed and debated more than just what beer was best, although that did take a lot of time (Acme IPA was the overall favorite, but Scrimshaw Pilsner was preferred for hot days). 

Again, Chuck says in Natural History of Cognition

 During the last leg of the voyage, Gilly met Susan Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar, and their discussions led to the creation of a course for Stanford undergraduates in holistic biology. Instead of the standard reductionist-analytic approach to understand a major theme, i.e., taking one perspective and pursuing it in depth of explanation, holism broadened the view, diversified the disciplines, expanded the dimensions and sought understanding through synthesis. My participation in this course did all of these things to my mind and ultimately led to this book.

On that 2004 trip, Chuck certainly helped me to see things in a new holistic way – the best outcome was his officiating my wedding with Susan on the Hopkins beach in May 2005. And we all went on to teach Holistic Biology five times, in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 — with three of those classes including five weeks in the Gulf of California. Chuck was all-in. As he puts it:

Nancy Burnett

I played the Ed Ricketts role of naturalist, ecologist, and philosopher which involved me in extended discussions of student interests. In the 2006 course we had two students, Roddy Lindsay and Andrew Shaw, who were interested in cognition…ln Baja, Roddy loaned me Roger Penrose’s book, The Emperor’s New Mind and this book introduced me, at the right time and the right way to the work of Benjamin Libet. 

And that was it! Chuck discovered a new dimension through these interactions that led him to spend Chapter 4 of our trace moving deeper and deeper into thoughts about the evolution of cognition. By the time Covid-19 hit, Chuck had most of his book written, and it was published in 2020. Covid robbed us of most interactions during the last few years, but Susan and I visited a number of times, and Roddy and his family joined us once. Chuck was a great teacher at heart, and the reunion was inspiring.

Those precious last visits in 2022 are not to be forgotten. I am grateful that we were able to tell Chuck that the student classroom/laboratory to be built on the restored Western Flyer would be dedicated to him, the “Chuck Baxter Lab.” He was very touched, and that Baxter smile lit up. That memory will never fade.

Of course, Chuck guided many other people on his long journey, and I only know the Chuck that I spent time with. But it was a lot of time, much of it on an old wooden shrimp trawler exploring the remote parts of the Gulf of California, identifying and counting thousands of creatures on hot sharp rocks under blazing sun, and dutifully recycling siliceous material along the way to create little octopus habitats. I absorbed more than I could have ever imagined from Chuck during our time together, and the blurring of giver and receiver along our trace was humbling. For all that that I am thankful. 

I’m saddened that he will not get to see the Western Flyer return to Monterey or sail on it to revisit the Gulf – or examine specimens in the lab that will honor his outsized presence in the lives of so many of us who study the ocean and its shores. But I will see him again in all those places. That old K-Mart lantern still casts a wide beam and will continue to show the way. 

In the end, I am brought back to the penultimate chapter of The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Susan Shillinglaw

What was the shape and size and color and tone of this little expedition? We slipped into a new frame and grew to be a part of it, related in some way to the reefs and beaches, related to the little animals, to the stirring waters and the warm brackish lagoons. This trip had dimension and tone. It was a thing whose boundaries seeped through itself and beyond into some time and space that was more than the Gulf and more than all our lives. Our fingers turned over the stones and we saw life that was like our life.

Nos vemos de nuevo, amigo!

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