Ed Ricketts

When Ed Ricketts left for the Sea of Cortez aboard the Western Flyer in March 1940, he hoped the trip would be the basis for a new book. Just a year before, he had published Between Pacific Tides, an ecology-based guide to the seashores of Pacific North America. Between Pacific Tides had been a labor of love – taking over a decade to get published – and Ricketts was eager to expand his observations and thinking about ecology into new environs. The upcoming expedition to Mexico with his close friend and confidante John Steinbeck was marked by excitement and hope, and Ricketts was eager to get underway from Monterey, California. 

Ricketts first came to Monterey Bay in 1923, when he arrived from his native Chicago with his wife and newborn son, Ed Junior. Though both Ricketts and Steinbeck left college without completing degrees, they were both inspired by science classes that provided the seeds of their emerging ecological worldviews. One example was the Animal Ecology course taught by new faculty member Warder Clyde Allee, a zoologist and early pioneer in the new field of ecology, during Ricketts’s last term at the University of Chicago. Allee was then working on his classic book Animal Aggregations: A Study in General Sociology (1931), a study of how and why animals come together into groups. He believed cooperation was fundamental to virtually all species, mediated by natural selection. Just as William Ritter’s work inspired Steinbeck, Allee’s ecological ideas lie at the root of many of Ricketts’s ideas about the natural world. 

In Monterey, Ricketts established Pacific Biological Laboratories, a supply house aspiring to provide specimens to schools for study and dissection, with his college buddy Albert Galigher. Their partnership soon ended, however, and Ricketts struggled to make a go of the business on his own. During this difficult period, Ricketts became increasingly interested in what he called the “little beasts” of the tidepools. As he worked tirelessly, collecting and shipping specimens to schools across the country, he also spent hours each day observing and studying marine animals. As his wife, Nan later wrote: 

“We used to see a lot of people gathered around Ed when he was collecting at low tides, asking questions. […] He would have made an excellent tour guide. He loved telling people around him about the animals he uncovered and about their habits.” 

Rather than becoming a tour guide, Ricketts followed his desire to learn and share and by becoming a scholar and author, spending years compiling data and writing Between Pacific Tides, which was to become one of the seminal texts of intertidal ecology in the twentieth century. His partners in exploration included friend and co-author Jack Calvin and a young scholar named Joseph Campbell. Campbell moved to Pacific Grove in 1932, and he and Ricketts engaged in wide-ranging conversations about poetry, myth, and science. In 1932, the two traveled with Calvin and his wife Sasha to southeast Alaska on the Calvins’ boat, the Grampus. The Alaska trip yielded extendednotes and an essay by Ricketts about how wave shock influenced animal community structure on seashores, which became one of the governing tenets of Between Pacific Tides

The mid-1930s was a period of extraordinary productivity for Ricketts, who expanded Pacific Biological Laboratories, worked on the manuscript of Between Pacific Tides, and drafted a series of essays about philosophy and art. The latter are commonly thought to define his worldview and are known to have greatly influenced Steinbeck’s own work of the 1930s and 40s. One of them, “Breaking Through,” reflects Ricketts’s thinking about a kind of transcendence that an individual may experience at points in their life. In particular, he uses examples of extreme stress and even grief as possible catalysts for “seeing beyond” the present moment. In Ricketts’s estimation, a person who “breaks through”—a term borrowed from poet Robinson Jeffers’ “Roan Stallion”—experiences a holistic understanding of the world, the universe, and life itself. 

A second extended essay is perhaps the most difficult to discern. “A Spiritual Morphology of Poetry” is a dense discussion of the history of poetry and Ricketts’s categorization of poets. He uses these categories to help illustrate how poetry may act as a “vehicle” for the kind of transcendence he describes in “Breaking Through.” While the essay focuses on poetry, it is possible to see glimpses of how Ricketts believes other art forms and “vehicles”—including science itself—may function in the same way. 

Perhaps the best known of Ricketts’s essays is “The Philosophy of Non-teleological Thinking,” in which he articulates what is often referred to as “is-thinking.” Ricketts believed that seeking acceptance rather than causation is a more enlightened and productive way of thinking and living. He derived some of his notions of non-teleological thinking from his readings in Zen Buddhism and Taoism, and scholars have rightly found connections to the concept of “quietism,” as found in the latter. In an unpublished fragment found among Ricketts’ papers called “Quietism vs. the Deep Thing” he noted that “If a person can see the large picture, he tends to be quiet, relaxed.” 

When Ricketts and Steinbeck went to the Sea of Cortez, they practiced non-teleological thinking throughout their journey, remaining acutely aware that their mere presence altered the environment. “We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway,” they explained, “for in that lonely and uninhabited Gulf our boat and ourselves would change it the moment we entered. By going there, we would bring a new factor to the Gulf.” Instead, they simply observed what they saw and experienced, and often, that included themselves and the Western Flyer’s crew. 

The trip covered four thousand miles in six weeks. Typically, the crew would rise before dawn and take the infamous outboard motor they called the “sea cow” ashore to collect at low tide. It was back-breaking, meticulous work. As they wrote in Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research

“It is easy to grow tired at collecting, the period of a low tide is about all men can endure. At first the rocks are bright and every moving animal makes his mark on the attention. The picture is wide and colored and beautiful. But after an hour and a half the attention centers weary, the colors fade, and the field is likely to narrow to an individual animal. Here one may observe his own world narrowed down until interest and, with it, observation, flicker and go out.” 

They returned from the Gulf exhausted but pleased. It is widely believed that Steinbeck wrote the account of their trip as a log, and Ricketts compiled the phyletic catalog of the nearly 500 species they encountered—of which many were undescribed or unnamed at the time. However, this view of the writing process is far from complete or fully accurate. In fact, though the men had agreed to both keep notes during the journey, only Ricketts did, and the typescript of the notes he gave Steinbeck includes many passages verbatim in the final Sea of Cortez. What’s more, Ricketts’s essay on non-teleological thinking appears included verbatim in the book’s narrative. Clearly, the collaboration was far more intertwined than some have speculated.   

Ultimately, the men were both satisfied with the resulting book, a large volume that included many photographs and sketches of the specimens they’d collected. In a letter to Steinbeck written just months before the book was released, Ricketts notes that:

“It seems gratifying to reflect on the fact that we, unsupported and unaided, seem to have taken more species, in greater number, and better preserved, than expeditions more pretentious and endowed […] with prestige, personnel, equipment and financial backing.[…] It appears that our unpretentious trip may have achieved results comparable to those of far more elaborate expeditions, and certainly more unified and ordered in an architectural sense. It may well prove to be, considering its limitations, one of the important expeditions of these times.” 

Sea of Cortez was an important book for both Steinbeck and Ricketts. In the years following its publication, life would carry the friends far apart; nevertheless, their collaboration always served as a reminder of their bond and deep mutual affection, and its contribution to marine science remained a source of enduring pride. 

The war meant great change for Ricketts, who was drafted into medical service as a lab technician at the Monterey Presidio. Meanwhile, Pacific Biological Laboratories suffered during the war years, and though he continued to fill orders and correspond with researchers and teachers across the globe, the business was never a financial success. 

Yet Ricketts was still fascinated with the Pacific, traveling to the rugged western shores (which he called the “outer shores”) of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Southeast Alaska in 1944 and 1945. He collected, took notes, and began an extensive outline for a book about the region that he saw as the third in his trilogy about the North American Pacific. He shared the concept with Steinbeck, and the author planned to join him on an outer shores expedition in the summer of 1948. That spring, Ricketts wrote to Joseph Campbell that : 

“We’ll be going again to the Queen Charlottes end of May. John is coming up there for part of July. I have turned over to him verbatim transcriptions of my two summer’s notes; then he’ll have his own and mine for the coming trip. Should be able to construct quite a book out of them; he’ll have his journal done I fear far before my scientific part’s complete. It should be a smaller Sea of Cortez. ‘The Outer Shores.’ I’ll send you one.” 

But the trip was not meant to be. On the evening of April 8, 1948, Ed Ricketts left some friends who were visiting the lab to drive into Monterey to buy groceries for dinner. While crossing Drake Street, his car was struck by the Del Monte Express, a train en route from San Francisco. He survived the crash and was taken to Monterey Hospital. It soon became apparent that he had sustained massive internal injuries and was immediately taken into surgery. Ricketts’s family and friends kept an anxious vigil at the hospital, donating blood, comforting one another, and waiting for news about the operation. He died three days later, on April 11.  

Shock and disbelief set in on Cannery Row. Steinbeck, in New York City, having left immediately after receiving the news about Ricketts’ accident, arrived too late to say goodbye to his friend. Like so many, the writer was angry and confused and later remembered, “Everyone who knew him turned inward. It was a strange thing—quiet and strange. We were lost and could not find ourselves. […] no one who knew him will deny the force and influence of Ed Ricketts. Everyone near him was influenced by him, deeply and permanently.” 

By Katharine A. Rodgers, University of California, Davis