Month: August 2016
Today, Saturday, I resolved to avoid anything beyond my own un-amplified perception: Everything that is media in its commercial sameness and insensate iterations of horrendous worldly violence, pathos, warfare, or famine in the name of gods, nations, and dogmas. Everything beyond the limits of my own sight and hearing; everything disconnected from home and family. Today I quit political and commercial porn– cold turkey– and I avoided shopping, virtual and physical; and cut off all that is said to be entertainment: no Netflix, Amazon. I determined, just for this day, to simply Be; to inaugurate a personal, secular Sabbath.
If one spends time with Herodotus, or more orderly and recent historians like Edward Gibbon, or Will and Ariel Durant, or even an inconstant Wiki, it is clear that different cultures in different times and places often have historic/mythic commonalities (myth to some but history by the ancients). One sees how virgin births and floods and such events invade and adapt to new cultures.
As I think about life here at the vortex of the early 21st Century, it seems terribly noisy; we ‘know’ so much about places and events far from our own reality; far too much, considering that knowledge is unlimited but far from accurate, far from meeting our need for truth, facts… Whatever those are! Does knowing imperfectly, or just seeing some tragic image, imply an obligation? Somehow I suspect it does. That’s the problem ‘Knowing’. I have always made an effort act on that knowledge, however imperfect it may be; and almost always, in those actions, I myself am changed, and often healed.
Even so, the noise of knowledge, and the burden of awareness can be oppressive; maybe that’s why I like this from Gilgamesh of Sumeria; the god Enlil sent a flood that destroyed mankind:
‘… on the seventh day the waters became calm, the sun came out, the earth was in stillness, peace and quiet reigned over the earth, for man had been swept from off the face of the earth and drowned in the flood, because his “noise” had disturbed the god’s rest ! ‘ (Gilgamesh and Atrahasis)….Hebrews… transformed either the Akkadian Sebittu or the Sumerian Sa-bat (Sha-bat) into Hebrew Shabbath (English Sabbath)’
(p. 107, W.G. Lambert, “A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis,: , in Richard S. Hess and David T. Tsumura, Eds., I Studied Inscriptions From Before the Flood, Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 1994)
It made me consider a personal Sabbath, cutting down the noise of the wider world. Despite variations in details, a regularly (often weekly) recurring day of rest is found in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity , Theravada Buddhism, and even Cherokee. Coincidence? Could there be something significant in that coincidence? It is often claimed that people far from our ‘connected’ world, perhaps people we feel are disadvantaged, seem unreasonably happy and content. Would a regular day of withdrawal or rest could ‘knit up the raveled sleeve ‘ of 21st Century mind? Could I manage to steal some quiet, on a weekly Sabbath? That is not like me, a child of the world, an itinerant physician since 1955, a sort of multi-cultural polyglot culturally gluttonous citizen of the Americas, who just ordered a sixth expanded passport.
If death is not quite yet at the bedside, it’s premature and presumptuous to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ like Dylan Thomas,
” Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
or to rage at the coming of every dawn either. I choose, for now, not to risk being drowned by an angry god, like Enlil by observing a Sabbath without so much noxious noise. At our age, Enlil’s and mine, we both should benefit far more from one quiet day a week than from all those chemical and societal drugs and noxious nostrums typical of 2016.
With the Dec 7 1941 attack of Pearl Harbor, my father immediately volunteered with the Naval Sea Bees hoping to build airfields, and bases. Yet he was a geologist and mining engineer at a large remote Cascade range copper mine in Holden Washington. Since copper was essential to the war effort he was rejected by the Navy, and quickly transferred to the Santo Domingo copper mine in the Municipality of Aquiles Serdán, Chihuahua, Mexico, to help develop it and other nearby copper mines. He was 33 and I was 9. We lived in those particular parallel worlds of father and son. I understood nothing of the Great War or mining, but everything a boy can know about the demanding and transient childhood culture of boys in remote little mining towns. He understood blasting hard rock a mile or more underground, and analyzing diamond drill cores to make 3D maps of mineral deposits. I understood one had to carry a stick to make it to school unscathed until he could transform himself into a local peer.
In that March and April of 1942 of the log, we lived about three hundred miles to the West, of where John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, were in their own parallel world with a crew of three, aboard a boat on the Sea of Cortez. They were collecting littoral sea shore specimens at each low tide, and afterward sorting and preserving the specimens, and collaborating on a journal while joyfully consuming 2500 bottles of Corona beer. They knew not of the crush of day to day events of WWII, nor did their close Monterrey friends know of their days and nights on The Sea of Cortez… sea cucumbers, limpets, rays, swordfish, Gulf of California life forms including the local human inhabitants.
While my former Holden childhood friends shot down imagined Zeros, my new friends and I shot down Gringo warplanes. In the Cascades of Washington, WWII raged. In Chihuahua wounds from loss of the northern 1/3 of Mexico’s territory still wept. Each world was unaware of the other. That has generally been the way of humanity, at least until recent decades when people are progressively more heavily bombarded with the sounds and sights of suffering people in other contemporaneous worlds, thanks to technology. It remains to be seen if that assault of ugly information will lead to more mutual understanding, or will dull our sense of common humanity. So far the outcome is in great doubt, as if we are the generations of chaos suggested by Moisés Naím in The End of Power, another book review on this blog.
But The Log from the Sea of Cortez. ISBN978-0-14-019744-1 is the subject of this review. The cover names only John Steinbeck, and yet the content, and interplay of writing styles, clearly supports the two old friends claim that they both wrote it. They make that claim in a brief introduction as well as in the text; there is a rough map of the route; there is a Glossary of Terms- mostly devoted to taxonomy and ecology. But on first opening the book The Appendix drew my attention. It is a long eulogy to Ricketts written in Steinbeck’s, sharp, often moving and often humorous, unhurried rich prose on the life and death of his friend and co-author.
That long eulogy is in contrast to the many sections of the log with taxonomic names and descriptions, and pithy commentary about ecology, the nature of collecting specimens, the importance of life’s diverse forms; and life’s natural purpose – or better said- non purposeful, non teleological nature. There are many dense little essays on the ecology, the one-ness, of living and non living matter, and the interrelation of individual animals to the collection of all those individuals that make up and entirely different animal; there are crisp philosophical discussions on the nature and fate of life. The log is clearly a joint effort by two great writers who became one, in separate but contemporaneous world of the 1941 Sea of Cortez.
A brief introduction sets forth the authors’ vision: “We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world… Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops …destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. … Thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.” But the following 221 pages of log entries make clear the authors believe that both are true: none and all.
The pages are encrusted with zoological terms, sticking like limpets to the pages. There is a glossary of terms —from Aboral ( upper surface of a starfish brittle star, sea urchin.), Amphipod, (paired legs of beach hoppers, sand fleas, shrimp-like crustaceans..), Atokous ( sexually immature forms of certain polychaet worms) … to zooid (individual members of a colony or compound organism having a more or less independent life of its own.
The Log is chronological. It begins by detailing the process of finding a suitable boat, The Western Flyer–a 70-some foot long well maintained and well built trawler; finding and getting aboard scientific equipment and supplies, six weeks food stores, and introducing the reader to the characters crew, including an outboard engine that has its own troublesome personality. It becomes immediately evident these writer/explorers are not simply adventurers, but a team of zoologist ecologist and gifted writer.
By March 11, at page 25, after a days-long raucous celebration and farewell, they cast off. The log speaks of writers classically educated in history and literature and science, in the mold of lovers of knowledge: Philosophers. The Captain, Tony, is a solid sailor, a careful hard bitten technician. Tex is the engine man whose very bones are parts of a diesel engine; Tiny and Sparky are old friends, ‘bad boys’ become bad men, rough sailors, whose perceptions and salacious comments are–to everyone’s delight– in sharp contrast with those of the toney writers. Page 18 begins a seven point/paragraph introduction to the remaining crew member, an outboard engine called The Sea Cow, who always promises to propel their skiff, but always refuses, or quits when it causes the greatest problem. They row. Except for the captain and Sea Cow they all share a great affiliation with 2500 bottles of Corona beer.
This log is informative, entertaining, and thought provoking. The fame of the authors makes it especially notable and relevant to those familiar with the Monterrey area and history. It is doubly enjoyable to me because in the same days and nights described in the log, I lived nearby in my own very different parallel world, one that is in another sense the same world. Goodreads offers many quotes and have note-booked many of Steinbeck’s beautiful portraits of people, seascapes, places, children, towns, officials, and natives; and many pithy Ricketts short essays on the nature of nature, of ecology, of relationships among living beings. But if one doesn’t read both Steinbeck and Ricketts in their log habitat, they seem to me lifeless as a diaphanous pellucid sea creature in a specimen jar, where color and motion and even structure are lost. To enjoy that one must simply… Jump into the Log!