“Inspire me a bit.”

A roundabout giving appeal, and Ed Ricketts’s roundabout approach to ecology.

In 1940, Jack Calvin wrote a long letter to Ed Ricketts, urging him to come to Sitka on a collecting trip. A year before, Calvin and Ricketts’s ecological landmark, Between Pacific Tides, finally saw print after years of research, rewriting and resistance to publication on the part of Stanford University Press. The book’s long gestation is not unlike that of the Western Flyer, which, for the past five years, has been rebuilt and re-conceived as an educational vessel. As it approaches its launch date, it seems fitting to fold into the Western Flyer story the spirit of Jack Calvin, Between Pacific Tides, Ricketts’s pioneering ecological sensibilities and the craft of wooden boat building. ALL of it matters deeply—to us, to the Flyer’s mission, to the health of the ocean. Calvin writes: 

My spare time these days is going into the complete rebuilding of an 18-foot motor boat. I designed it for hunting, fishing and just plain loafing around, but it would make a top collector, too.  How about a trip up here this summer to inspire me a bit? Every once in a while I run into a particularly rich spot that something ought to be done about, and make a mental note to take you there some day. N. B. Stalwart boatmen in this country have a stout old tradition that one pint of whiskey is required for each gallon of gas. You do not put whiskey in the gas tank, except in emergencies. (Calvin to Ricketts, Feb. 14, 1940)

“Inspire me a bit.” That’s what drew many to Ricketts, and it might as well be the clarion call of the restored Western Flyer. The steady, miraculous rebuilding has inspired boatbuilders. Once in the water, the repurposed vessel will spark curiosity (the WF mission) in ecologists, students, researchers and the curious—in ports from Southeast Alaska to the Gulf of California.

But there’s something else in that letter that is foundational to the Western Flyer story—reference to those rich collecting spots on the Alaskan coast. In fact, Ricketts’s working life was inspired by, certainly structured by, rich collecting spots–in La Jolla, around San Francisco Bay, along the Washington Coast to the Outer Shores, to Sitka. He visited each, collected at each, studied each. And from that lifetime of study came a complex understanding of ecology, as outlined in a 1945 manuscript, “The Outer Shores Transcript.” Ricketts considers four “approaches” to ecology, from “superficial” to complex. To begin ecological appreciation, look closely with full participation at what is present at a given site (level one). Note community interactions between different species (level two). To more fully understand the complexity of intertidal communities, research the life histories of each species (level three). Finally, consider how intertidal communities in different locations around the world might share physical characteristics, tidal rhythms, and life forms with similar ecological niches, even if the species are totally different. That’s ecology at its most complex, tracing regional and global patterns. As Ricketts concludes: “…an integration of all this would give a true picture of ecology. But all these things could be tied in together by a true ecology in which the important thing is neither the region, or the association, or the animal itself…or its various stages or needs, or even the ecological niche, but in which the unit is the relationship.” Embrace ALL.

It seems to me that Ricketts’s layered notion of ecology may be his chief contribution to science and to ecological awareness. Those “approaches” and the integrative understanding of ALL will be the bedrock upon which the Western Flyer’s education programs will be built: See, connect, consider—and reflect on how a “niche” in Monterey might have some bearing on what is happening in La Paz. Or Sitka. Or Bellingham, Washington. 

I doubt that the crew will follow the Alaskan tradition of insuring a pint of whisky for each gallon of gas. But the Western Flyer will certainly be launched in the “stout old traditions” of a bottle broken on her hull. Join us then—launch information to follow in March!

And please, in giving December, help us install the engine, equip the boat, and get it in the water. Help us celebrate and carry on Ricketts’s legacy of ecological thought: 

Level one: Participate: $100-200
Level two: Join the community: $201-500
Level three: Dig deep, Life histories: $501-1000
Level four: Global niches $1001-2500
ALL: _____________

-Susan Shillinglaw, PhD
Steinbeck scholar and founding board member with the Western Flyer Foundation

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