John Steinbeck

                        Sea of Cortez  – The Pearl – The Log from the Sea of Cortez

                Sea of Cortez                                                    

Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and his biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, set out in the spring of 1940 for a six-week collecting expedition to the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). Their main objective: to collect as many marine invertebrates as possible on the shores of the gulf. Sea of Cortez, published in 1941, includes the catalogue and a scientific appendix of their findings from the expedition as well as a narrative for the journey. Ten years later, the narrative portion of the original book was published as The Log from the Sea of Cortez (SOC). The narrative from the trip to the Gulf of California is “recognized by nearly all of Steinbeck’s critics as a statement of his beliefs about man and the world” (Richard Astro SOC Introduction xvi).

The trip to the Gulf of California led to the publication of Steinbeck’s classic novella, The Pearl, in 1947. In La Paz, Steinbeck heard the story about a poor boy who finds the world’s largest pearl. The old legend found its way into SOC; however, the story in SOC and the version published in 1947 differ. Some say aspects of the tale were influenced by Steinbeck’s travels to other parts of Mexico.

Steinbeck, Ricketts, and the crew set out aboard the Western Flyer from Monterrey, California. The crew anchored at small pueblos and pristine beaches, and the narrative offers a glimpse into the past when a tuna cannery and a few houses were the only evidence of a population in Cabo San Lucas. The log gives detailed descriptions of the collecting stations, lists of the crew’s findings, and anecdotes of spontaneous encounters with nature. Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea turtles, and rays mingle with the less familiar limpets, sea urchins and cucumbers. Steinbeck’s focus on biology does not forget the important connection between culture and the non-human world. His narratives from La Paz and Loreto focus on the people who warmly greet the crew of the Western Flyer, but the narrative also focuses on the crew and cultures’ connection to the land. Everybody in Cape San Lucas hated cormorants and nobody in La Paz loved the mangroves. Throughout the narrative Steinbeck wrestles with an explanation for the locals as to why he and his friends were collecting the tiny creatures in the tide pools. His only explanation: they were curious.

Holism and Non-Teleological Thinking
Two ecological ideas about nature and humanity’s place in nature come from Steinbeck in SOC: Holism and non-teleological thinking. These ideas developed from Steinbeck’s close friendship with Ed Ricketts. Holism is the big picture. The idea considers how all things are interconnected, how one animal reacts to another, and how those animals react to their environment. Evident throughout The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s environmental outlook influences much of his other works, such as Travels with Charley and Of Mice and Men. At one point in the text, he describes the interconnectedness of all living organisms and their environments by declaring “ecology has a synonym which is ALL” (Steinbeck 72). Non-teleological thinking takes on more complexities, but Steinbeck sums it up as thinking that does not concern itself with what “should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually ‘is’—attempting at most to answer the already sufficiently difficult questions what or how, instead of why,” (SOC 112). Chapter 14 of SOC is written in the classic ramble style and explores non-teleological thinking.

Literary Points of Interest: El Arco in Cabo San Lucas, Cabo Pulmo Reef, the southern end of Isla Espiritu Santo, El Magote, Puerto Escondido, Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto de Conchó in Loreto, Bahia de Concepción.