Book Review: The Log from the Sea of Cortez

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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!

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