Book Review: Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska

Writers, relatives, and biologists reflect on the words and work of an iconic coastal character.

Published August 12, 2016

“This is exceedingly a hard-boiled type: it tolerates cannery pollution, even prolonged stagnation (a rare trait in an open ocean form), and is highly resistant to narcotics.”

Marine biologist Ed Ricketts, aka Doc to John Steinbeck readers, wrote this description in 1932, during a research and collecting expedition up the Pacific coast between Monterey, California, and Sitka, Alaska. Ricketts was traveling with Jack Calvin (his coauthor of the classic guide to intertidal life, Between Pacific Tides, and owner of the boat they were on), Calvin’s wife Sasha, and mythologist Joseph Campbell. In his curious note, Ricketts was describing the burrowing anemone that is found growing under the docks of Monterey’s Cannery Row, where Ricketts had his home and laboratory, to as far north as Sitka, Alaska. It’s no secret that Ricketts was quite familiar with recreational narcotics, but his description of the burrowing anemone refers to the laboratory narcotics he used to prepare marine specimens for his scientific collections. His creative prose, stripped of stilted jargon, is part scientific description and part memoir, and the description of the burrowing anemone is just one of many gems from Ricketts’s previously unpublished essay, “Wave Shock,” which describes the ecological influence of wave action on Pacific coast intertidal life. This essay is the heart of the collection, Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska: science, history, and reflections along the Pacific coast, and alone is worth the price of the book.

The six contemporary essays in the book, including an insightful memoir by Ricketts’s daughter Nancy in which she recalls collecting specimens with her father, guide us through this period of his life. For literary fans of John Steinbeck, historian Colleen Mondor teases out the “complicated and intense friendships” between the colleagues and shipmates who were fictionalized in Cannery Row. Biographer Katharine Rodger throws light on Ricketts’s influence on Campbell’s seminal work on mythology, Hero of a Thousand Faces, as she dips into his complex personality of proto-ecologist, hero, womanizer, and mystic, and “the anthropomorphic connections he was quick to recognize in the tide pools.” Sitka-based writer John Straley and his wife, Janice, the compilation’s editor, take readers deep into the heart of the coast and explore what makes Ricketts and his cohort so memorable. As John Straley writes of Ricketts, “he had meditated deeply on the taxonomic organization of animals and of his own place in the universe.”

What we learn scientifically about species, such as the ubiquitous burrowing Anthopleura artemisia and the many others Ricketts describes, is equally as applicable in understanding Steinbeck’s fictional characters or Campbell’s cultural archetypes. As Ricketts and Calvin subsequently wrote in Between Pacific Tides, “Who would see a replica of man’s social structure has only to examine the abundant and various life of the tide pools.”

With fine pen-and-ink renderings of intertidal life, revealing photographs of the trip, and an attractive chart of the journey, this book is visually appealing at many levels. It captures everything vital about those who tenaciously cling to the Pacific coast, whether a hard-boiled biologist, a solitary anemone with a propensity to bury itself, or a writer seemingly resistant to narcotics. It has a tide pool of characters introduced through essays that are equal proportions science, adventure, mythology, and philosophy.

Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska: science, history, and reflections along the Pacific coast
Compiled by Janice M. Straley
130 pp. Shorefast Editions