Friday, November 12, 2010

Log from the Sea of Cortez

I think I told you I've been on a Steinbeck kick lately--I re-read Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Pearl then I read The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights to the kids while we drove up toward Denali several weeks ago (which is a great book if you're trying to introduce your boys to bigger and harder books without losing their interest along the way). And then there was Travels with Charley. . . . ah, the love of a good book.

This one I picked up at the used book store and made the mistake of leaving it out on the counter in the kitchen too long. Andrew came through, saw it, then took it to read for himself which wasn't objectionable except that he would occasionally get to passages and say, "Oh, this is great--listen to this!" and then he'd try to read it to me. I finally had to do that "I'm not listening to you!" move with my hands over my ears several times for him to get the picture that I didn't want the best parts spoiled. Poor guy.

Eventually he finished it and I was able to read it for myself and thoroughly enjoyed it.  If you're someone who goes for a good National Geographic special or (like me) ought to get an honorary degree in marine biology after all the nature shows you've sat through with your kids over the years then this would definitely be the book for you.

One of Steinbeck's nonfiction works, it chronicles his six-week voyage on the Western Flyer with friend and co-biologist Ed Ricketts as they traveled the Sea of Cortez in search of marine specimens. In Travels with Charley he's a knight errant, questing to find the real America. In The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights there are other knights on other quests and in The Sea of Cortez he's once again the knight himself, looking for meaning among the beauty of the sea and looking for connections between the humanity he's left behind and the anemones and sea cucumbers he's observing.

There are sections that are fascinating from a biological standpoint (such as when the crew accidentally spears a sea turtle and brings it on board) and then there are sections that connect with you on a philosophical level (such as when he describes our human trait of hope). However, I promise you that there are things that will make you squirm when read from our 21st century perspective.  The amount of death that he and the crew inflict in their collection techniques is a little sickening. I'm not a member of PETA or Greenpeace but I still have a healthy respect for life in any form and some of the passages seem too wasteful for my tastes.

Toward the end the men meet up with a fleet of Japanese fishing vessels who are strip-mining the ocean of shrimp. As Steinbeck describes their harvesting he condemns not only the over-fishing but the waste of life but, with beautiful irony, Steinbeck never sees his own involvement.  Immediately after they leave the Japanese ships they find a bay full of 10-foot manta rays and he describes their efforts to kill some of the creatures.  They spear several of them and critically wound others but they never stop to think that while what they're doing isn't on the same scale as the Japanese it's the same disregard for life--and perhaps worse for Steinbeck because he could at least recognize the principle of waste in others and their own killing wasn't done for any kind of profit, monetary or dietary, just for curiosity and "because they were there" like a bunch of boys shooting at birds with a BB gun.

But despite this, as I read the book I had the overwhelming urge to go with them and I wondered if anyone had attempted to recreate the voyage. Sure enough, the National Geographic society did just that a few years ago and NPR and The New York Times both picked up the story which you can read at

Maybe I, too, have got a bit of that knight errant blood in me to let this kind of story drag me along so thoroughly.


Janet said...

I put this on Facebook instead of here. Interesting. Blogger doesn't recognize Facebook as a word. That should be a sign.

I'm normally not a Steinbeck fan, although I did like "To a God Unknown." This one sounds more along that line. I'll have to find it.

Flea said...

Oo! Oo! What fun! I LOVED Travels With Charley. Probably my favorite Steinbeck. The Arthur book runs a close second. Thanks for the recommendation!