Everybody in Woolgoolga, just north of Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales – or Woopi as the locals call it – was complaining of the humidity. So a visit to the relative cool of a second-hand bookshop for me and my four-year-old daughter, while the older kids were in the local library doing school work, was tantalising in more ways than one. The affable proprietress, alerted to our presence by a wolf-whistling plaster frog at the door, greeted us with a smile.
The books were nestled among sewing patterns, spools of thread and balls of wool – another part of the business – and were relatively few in number. But what they lacked in abundance was made up in diversity.
There were the usual romance novels, which occupied an entire wall of the shop, as well as a few large-format cooking, craft, self-help and cricket-technique books. Interspersed between these was some surprisingly good fiction. The ubiquitous Hardy and Brontës – no doubt jettisoned by grateful school-leavers – but also some Tolstoy, Thomas Berger (Little Big Man), Somerset Maugham, a Complete Plays of Oscar Wilde and, much to my joy, a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a book for which I had been keeping my eye out for some time. It was only $5, a Pan paperback and in excellent condition.
The family bookshelf when I was growing up was dominated (or so it seems in retrospect) by Australian and British fiction and, apart from the essential Mark Twains, Moby Dick and Last of the Mohicans, contained relatively few books by American authors. John Steinbeck was a notable exception, and my parents owned most of his works written prior to him being awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. My suspicion for novels with American themes was swept away by my first entry into the vivid, humorous and idiosyncratic world of Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row. It not only spurred me on to read many of Steinbeck’s other novels, but it also paved the way for Hemmingway, Stein, Henry and Arthur Miller,Vidal andVonnegut, amongst many others. It revealed a new landscape: one that was demonstratively not Australian or British, and one that I am grateful to have explored at that time.
Our bookshelf also held a copy of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, but it failed to interest my adolescent thirst for fiction; I only flipped through it at the time, noting its central themes and little else. It was only after I left home and was studying Zoology at Monash University and saw the occasional reference to the book that I regretted not having read it properly before. By that time, my parents were divorced, the family book collection had been dispersed and our copy of The Log from the Sea of Cortez lost or sold in one of the moves and I never seemed to find the time to search it out in the library. So the book got pushed up into that attic of my mind as one of many must-read-one-days. But it was not forgotten.
The Log from the Sea of Cortez was first published in 1951, two years after Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath, and 10 years after an earlier version, published during the war, that did not sell well.The 1941 version was written in the middle of his career, arguably at his peak. It took a very different tack from Steinbeck’s previous works, and perhaps fared less well for that reason.
TheWoolgoolgian 1967 edition has the first 70 odd pages devoted to a biography of Steinbeck’s friend, Ed Ricketts – the ‘Doc’ of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday – who had died in 1947, after being hit by a train.The biography is, in many ways, the best part of the book. Ricketts – a collector of marine animals for schools – is made larger-than-life by seemingly random but astute anecdotes of his work, sex life, drinking, philanthropy and less than successful business acumen.
Steinbeck claimed that Ricketts was ‘interested in everything’ and so ‘perhaps it would be well to set down the things he did not like.’These included old age, women with thin lips, hot soup, getting his head wet, reasonless cruelty and being on time for appointments. I think that Ricketts and I would have got along famously.
Some of the stories show beautifully Ricketts’ peculiar take on life – a vignette on his attitude to his safe is especially funny. So worried that a burglar might damage the safe’s mechanism in trying to open it, Ricketts never locked it. In fact, he went even further to ensure that it would not be harmed, by placing a note above the lock telling the would- be burglar that it was unlocked.The irony was that Ricketts never had anything valuable to keep in it anyway, and so stored food in it instead.The safe finally proved its worth: when the laboratory in which the safe stood burned down, it maintained in good order a pineapple pie and a quarter pound of gorgonzola.
The main part of the book – describing a zoological collecting expedition which Steinbeck, Ricketts and a professional fishing crew in The Western Flyer made into the Gulf of California in 1940, just prior to America’s involvement in World War II – has much less humour and is far less engaging than the preceding part.
It is, for Steinbeck, a relatively dry and repetitive account, falling about half way between what might be expected from a rigorously scientific report and a yarn about a fishing trip with some mates; and failing, I think, in both. A contemporary reviewer, Harry Gilroy in The New York Times noted bluntly: ‘On this evidence, Steinbeck the philosophical essayist will do well to leave the field to the other Steinbeck; the novelist appears to have a far more penetrating insight into nature.’
Yet Steinbeck’s 1962 Travels With Charley: In Search of America, an account of a road trip that Steinbeck took with his poodle Charley, does show his talents as a ‘philosophical essayist’. It has consistent and clear insight, it endears and has the feel of a wise old man looking for answers about his country and about life. His choice of companion is part of the book’s charm: we suffer, along with Steinbeck, through Charley’s short illness in Texas. Steinbeck’s observations on contemporary American society, especially segregation, are strong, lucid and passionate. Steinbeck’s heart condition at the time may have sharpened his focus, and this was, after all, 20 years since he wrote the first incarnation of The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
While the The Log from the Sea of Cortez may not do as much justice to Steinbeck’s legacy as his other inimitable works (The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men remain two of mine, and the world’s, all-time favourites), it has made a significant contribution to science and the understanding of the environment of the Sea of Cortez or The Gulf of California, as it is more commonly known.
Raphael Sagarin (from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University in the US) and colleagues in 2004 retraced Steinbeck and Ricketts’ voyage, and compared the findings from the two studies. They found that many of the species documented in 1940 were still there in 2004, but the shore-dwelling animals, as well as turtles and fish, were less abundant and biodiversity was lower overall.There were some species that exist now, but were not collected by Steinbeck and Ricketts, including the jumbo squid, which forms an important fishery in the Gulf.
The authors put the changes down to ‘coastal development, and pollution, fishing, disease and climate change’. Perhaps we should add the natural sciences to the other contributions John Steinbeck has made to the world.
I bought the The Log from the Sea of Cortez from the book shop in Woolgoolga, as well as a picture book for my daughter. We left for the open air, the wolf-whistling frog in our wake, with me desperately trying to explain what a wolf-whistle was to a four year-old and why a frog should be doing it in a second-hand bookshop. Maybe Ed Ricketts could have come up with a witty response, or perhaps John Steinbeck could have described the life cycle of frogs. I took the easy way out and suggested we have an ice cream.