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Time-travelling nature writing..
04 July 2019
"I know it will be found in the tide pools and the microscope slide rather than in men"
I would never have thought of John Steinbeck as a nature writer. Yet a chance re-reading of ‘Cannery Row’ led me, with its brilliantly drawn cast of misfits, down-and-outs, prostitutes and shopkeepers, to another read which convinced me that he was just that. On ‘Cannery Row’ the characters are satellites around 'Doc', a marine scientist of Monterey, California, who collects and sells the 'lovely animals of the sea'. It was learning that Doc was pretty much based on the real-life marine scientist, Ed Ricketts, that led me to discover 'The Log from the Sea of Cortez'. This joint account by Ricketts and Steinbeck was originally published in 1941. During a month-long sea adventure in the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) with a gaggle of men they had gathered, they voyaged in a fishing boat, the Western Flyer, collecting specimens from low-tide pools and roaming ashore. The book was constituted partly of Steinbeck's narrative of the adventure, and partly a full biological listing of the finds that they made by Ricketts.
Following Ricketts’ accidental death in 1948, Steinbeck's publishers encouraged him to issue his narrative as a stand-alone book, which he did, forwarding it with a 77-page portrait of his dear friend. This is the most extraordinarily honest and multifaceted account of a human being I think I have ever read and makes an interesting comparison with the distilled introduction of ‘Doc’ that takes two paragraphs in ‘Cannery Row’ before the character is catapulted into fictional action.
A marine scientist by training himself, Steinbeck captures in both works the dynamics of tide and coastal geography, the reliable rhythms and the idiosyncrasies of the sea, the captivating sights of the shore. There is a beautiful passage on page 109 of the original Penguin ‘Cannery Row’ where he describes over a page and a half the crowded lives which intermingle in the Great Tide Pool:
‘Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish stomach comes out and envelops its food. Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers.'
I feel safe in his scientist’s as well as in his poetic hands, in the same way as when I am reading Barry Lopez.
But it is in the ‘Sea of Cortez’ that the interpersonal drama, though life on the boat is certainly relevant and entertaining, can take a back seat. What comes to the fore are acute observations of sea-life underpinned by scientific knowledge as well as a powerful sense of the essential connection of humans to the sea. The dark depths and our dream symbols; the tide as a still active forces in our physiology despite our ignorance of them. In turn philosophical, and biologically detailed, the book came to be thought of as a seminal work of ecological holism, and yet I had never heard of it before. We tend to think of 'nature writing' as a new thing, and yet here it is fresh and provoking and insightful; first published nearly 80 years ago.
It’s clear that part of the intent of the voyage was for Steinbeck to escape his worldly troubles following the criticism of ‘Grapes of Wrath’. He is reported to have said: 'I have to go to new sources and find new routes ... I don't quite know what the conception is. But I know it will be found in the tide pools and the microscope slide rather than in men.’ Perhaps we all seek renewal when we take our adventures, when we immerse ourselves in the natural world, and we may well intend to have a good time as well. For Steinbeck it was also for the possibility of finding something to write about, and this bundle of purposes chimes with my own justification for journeys, for example my recent one to the islet of Erraid (see previous post).
Books quite often appear before me just as I need them, and this one proved to be a timely read to triangulate with two other current literary concerns. Firstly it related to a piece I have been writing about walks along the intertidal zone and my own learning about the life-cycles of barnacles. Secondly it coincided with my (first!) reading of ‘Kidnapped’ by another great writer, adventurer, traveller and sea-spirit, Robert Louis Stevenson, and his shipwrecked character Davy Balfour finding at low tide his meals of periwinkles and buckies on Erraid, or ‘Aros’ as the island becomes in fiction. And as a read in its own right it is simply beautiful, enlightened writing which travels time.
Kidnapped by a tidal island..
16 June 2019
‘The time I spent upon the island is still so horrible a thought to me ...’
Forced to eat a diet of limpets, buckies and periwinkles, some of which made him sick, Davy Balfour, having been shipwrecked on the Isle of Erraid, never did get used to the ‘horrid solitude’. He found himself ‘quite alone with dead rocks, and fowls, and the rain, and the cold sea.’ It rained continuously for nearly three days. Believing himself to be totally enclosed by sea, he beseeched passing boats to save him. He was ignored until finally he understood the word ‘tide’ shouted across the water by a fisherman, and came to realise he was on a tidal island and at the ebb could walk dry-shod onto the Ross of Mull, berating himself for not understanding better the ways of the sea.
Like the hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ (1886), I spent three nights here, camping in what is now known as ‘Balfour Bay’. I had intended only one night. Unlike him, I came deliberately and stayed as long as I did because I was entranced. The ‘trick’ of the tidal island experienced by Balfour, his ‘pitiful illusion’ of being trapped, wasn’t mine. I actively wanted to be on this island, and came prepared to be cut off. Yet, as I was visiting during the ‘neap’ period when the moon has less magnetism and the difference between high and low tide is smallest, the islet remained attached by a creek of dry white sand to the Isle of Mull.
On a kind of pilgrimage ahead of my Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, I’d been intrigued to learn that RLS had spent time here when his engineer father was quarrying and building the lighthouses at Skrerryvore and Dubh Artach. This was how the ‘islet’ came to play its part in Balfour’s famous journey. My own journey there by bicycle from Craignure satisfied my restless impulses. Once installed on a grassy bank with a warm sleeping bag, a stove and supplies, my immediate surroundings gave me little need for further movement other than meandering with the burn to the shore to where fresh and sea-water meet, noted the changing tides, the glassy translucence of the turquoise water, and the shells and algae that washed in.
The life of the green and granite amphitheatre revolved around me each day, its sandpipers and plovers singing out the long length of the June day, a gang of boy-racer ravens diving and climbing in the thermals and seeming to enjoy the echoes of their raucous croaking. I watched a Golden Eagle hunting and cavorting with a northerly through my binoculars, and felt my breath stall in response to its brute grace. Even horizontal in my tent with no view, the place pulsed on conspicuously: the rhythmic wash of waves crept a little closer at high tide; sheep came to sunbathe the cold night from their bones on the white sand at six a.m..
My food stretched to a second unplanned night there, but by the afternoon of the next day, I was still reluctant to pack up and make my way back across the island and the dry creek. However, it would be a hungry night if I stayed. And then, miraculously, and again so unlike Balfour’s experience, a passing stranger with a 10-week supply of food on her boat offered me whatever I needed. Rather than limpets, I feasted on tinned mackerel and shortbread, with muesli in store for the morning. I sank ever more deeply into being there, to watch and listen, and scramble amongst the clefts of granite, feeling that there was nothing else at all that I needed, and that I was gloriously irrelevant to the steady turning of the place.
In the Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and other news..
29 May 2019
Please find my May 2019 news here.