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. He had just published Between Pacific Tides the year before, 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 encounter with Monterey Bay was in 1923 when he and his wife and newborn son, Ed Junior, arrived from Ricketts’ native Chicago. Like Steinbeck, Ricketts had left college without completing his degree, though also, like his friend, had found the seeds of his own emerging worldview in the science classes he had taken. Specifically, during his last term at the University of Chicago, Ricketts enrolled in the Animal Ecology course taught by a new member of the faculty—Warder Clyde Allee, a zoologist and early pioneer in the new field of ecology. When Ricketts was in his class, Allee was 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’ ideas about the natural world.

When he arrived in Monterey with his college buddy, Albert Galigher, Ricketts established Pacific Biological Laboratories, a supply house aspiring to provide specimens to schools for study and dissection. Their partnership soon ended, however, and Ricketts struggled to make a go of the business on his own.

Ricketts became increasingly interested in the “little beasts,” as he called them, in the tidepools. Thus, 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.”

Instead of a tour guide, however, Ricketts became a scholar and an 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.

Ricketts’ co-author was his friend, Jack Calvin, with whom he worked on the book for many years. But Ricketts also collected and explored the Pacific with others, most notably 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. The two traveled with Calvin and his wife Sasha to southeast Alaska in 1932 on the Calvin’s boat, the Grampus. The Alaska trip yielded extended notes and an essay by Ricketts about how wave shock influenced animal community structure on seashores. This became one of the governing tenets of Between Pacific Tides.

The mid-1930s was a period of extraordinary productivity for Ricketts, who expanded his business, 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 world-view and are known to have greatly influenced Steinbeck’s own work of the 1930s and 40s. Ricketts’ essay, “Breaking Through” reflects his 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 this kind of “seeing beyond” the present moment. In Ricketts’ estimation, a person who “breaks through”—a term borrowed from poet Robinson Jeffers’ “Roan Stallion”—is able to experience a kind of holistic understanding of the world, the universe, and life itself.

The second of Ricketts’ extended essays is perhaps the most difficult to discern. “A Spiritual Morphology of Poetry” is a dense discussion of the history of poetry, and of Ricketts’ 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 also function this way.

Perhaps the best known of Ricketts’ 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. They both remained acutely aware that their mere presence altered the environment. “We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway,” they explain, “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.” So they observed what they saw and experienced, and that often included themselves and the crew of the Western Flyer.

The trip was rigorous—four thousand miles in six weeks. Typically, the crew would rise before dawn and take the infamous “sea cow” ashore to collect at low tide—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/unnamed at the time. While these assumptions are not wholly incorrect, they are far from accurate. In fact, though the men had agreed to both keep notes during the journey, only Ricketts did, and his typescript of those notes—created for Steinbeck to use as he wrote the narrative of their trip—includes many passages that the writer used verbatim in the final Sea of Cortez. Thus their collaboration was far more intertwined than some have speculated. And, Ricketts’ essay on non-teleological thinking was included verbatim in the book’s narrative.

Ultimately, the men were both very satisfied with the resulting book—which was a large volume that included many photographs and sketches of the specimens they 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.”

The Sea of Cortez was an important book for both Steinbeck and Ricketts. Though in the years following its publication the men were to grow apart when Steinbeck moved to New York and both men became involved in World War II. Yet they both remained proud of the book and its contribution to marine science.

The 1940s were marked by war and change for Ricketts, who was drafted into medical service at the Presidio in Monterey where he worked as a lab technician. His own business at 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, and traveled 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. Ricketts wrote to Joseph Campbell about the project in spring of that year:

“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, that 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 enroute from San Francisco. He survived the crash and was taken to the Monterey Hospital. It soon became apparent that he had sustained massive internal injuries, and was immediately taken into surgery. Ricketts’ family and friends kept an anxious vigil at the hospital, donating blood, comforting one another, and waiting for news about the operation.

Three days later, on April 11, he died. Shock and disbelief set in on Cannery Row. Steinbeck, in New York City, having left immediately when he received the news about Ricketts’ accident, arrived too late to say goodbye to his close 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