Prince of Tides

Before "ecology" became a buzzword, John Steinbeck preached that man is related to the whole thing

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth next month, John Steinbeck will be justly celebrated as a major American writer. Between 1929 and his death in 1968, Steinbeck published nearly 30 books. His masterpiece, Oklahoma farmers in the dust bowl years and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are the two novels that most affected the American conscience.

But Steinbeck’s powerful social realism is by no means his only claim to greatness. He has also significantly influenced the way we see and think about the environment, an accomplishment for which he seldom receives the recognition he deserves. Not that Steinbeck or his fictional characters were green activists, passionately concerned with issues like water quality and clean air. Yet well before ecology was a subject of much public interest, Steinbeck was artfully introducing readers to ideas about all life-forms—most definitely including our own—being interdependent parts of an organic whole.

He explained this belief most directly in the Gulf of California. Many believe this was Steinbeck’s best work of nonfiction and one of the most important nature books of the 20th century.

It’s not clear whether Steinbeck’s thinking influenced Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and the other natural scientists and philosophers who formulated the now-prevailing environmental dogma. But the we-are-all-in-this-together theme was a distinctive one in some of his strongest work. And Steinbeck’s definition of "we," which included everything from sea slugs to the stars, anticipated ideas about the web of life, the rights of rocks and other tenets of current holistic ecology.

Steinbeck came rather late to his interest in the biological sciences. Born and raised in Salinas, California, he was part of a rather bookish, never very affluent, white-collar family. Contemporaries remembered him as something of a loner and an avid reader of romantic allegories and legends, particularly those having to do with King Arthur. He and his younger sister, Mary, sometimes dressed up and played at being residents of Camelot. But like small-town kids everywhere always looking for something to do, he often got out into the surrounding countryside. Alone or with pals, Steinbeck roamed the long Salinas Valley and the shores of the Monterey Peninsula, where his family had a summer cottage.

There’s ample evidence in much of what he later wrote that Steinbeck was deeply stirred by those surroundings and was a sharp, accurate observer of common natural detail. Consider this, for example, from The Grapes of Wrath. "Beside the road, a scrawny, dusty willow tree cast a speckled shade ...its poor branches curving over the way, its load of leaves tattered and scraggly as a molting chicken....He knew there would be shade, at least one hard bar of absolute shade thrown by the trunk, since the sun had passed the zenith....He could not see the base of the tree, for it grew out of a little swale that held water longer than the level places."

After enrolling at Stanford University in 1919, Steinbeck dropped in and out (because he was broke or bored) for six years, working between stints as a ranch hand, a radio salesman and on surveying and dredging crews. He showed no interest in earning a degree and, for the most part, attended only classes whose subjects engaged him at the time: journalism, literature and creative writing, among others. In the summer of 1923, he took a course in field zoology offered at the Hopkins Marine Station, a Stanford branch in Pacific Grove. The class, a survey of animal life on the shore of Monterey Bay, introduced Steinbeck to the belief that everything in nature was connected to everything else.

In 1925 Steinbeck went to New York to establish himself as a serious writer of fiction. After several disheartening months, he returned to California where he kept on writing, married Carol Henning, the first of his three wives and, in 1930, met a biologist named Ed Ricketts, who became his best friend and profoundly influenced his intellectual outlook. Ricketts had grown up in Chicago and attended the university there, where he was a disciple of W. C. Allee, another prominent early ecologist. He went to the Monterey Peninsula to establish the Pacific Biological Laboratory, which he eventually moved to Cannery Row, along the waterfront. Ricketts earned a living by supplying slides and specimens of marine animals for classroom use. That business provided him with sufficient means and leisure to pursue his true passion: studying the "good, kind, sane little animals" who inhabited intertidal zones along the northern Pacific coast.

Ricketts was a firm believer in "non-teleological" or "is" thinking. Such an approach, he said, "concerns itself primarily not with what should be, or could be, or might be, but rather with what actually 'is.'" It was the extent to which Ricketts practiced his beliefs that impressed Steinbeck. Ricketts accepted people as they were, flaws and all. Steinbeck was so intrigued that in many of his novels he created characters somewhat modeled on Ricketts—the kind, ruminative Preachers and Docs seeking what is.

First and last a storyteller, Steinbeck often gave the impression that he and Ricketts spent most of the 1930s carousing and speculating about metaphysics. In fact, during the decade after they met (Ricketts was killed in 1948 when his car was hit by a train), Steinbeck wrote the six books upon which his reputation as a novelist still rests: Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, The Long Valley and The Grapes of Wrath. The last appeared in 1939, the same year Ricketts published his own masterwork, Between Pacific Tides, an ecological reference still highly regarded by marine biologists today.

Early in 1939, Steinbeck and Ricketts chartered a trawler, the Western Flyer, hired a crew and set off for the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. They spent six weeks observing and collecting along the Baja California shore. Part of the Sea of Cortez, which was published in 1941, is a listing of specimens and their habitats. But the catalog is preceded by a vivid narrative that contains many observations of the coastal people and animals they encountered.

On one occasion, Steinbeck writes about the local residents asking him why he always went about picking up and pickling little animals. "We could have said, ‘We wish to fill in certain gaps in the knowledge of the Gulf fauna.’ ...[but] the meaningless words of science and philosophy, are walls that topple before a bewildered little ‘why.’ Finally we learned to know why we did these things. The animals were very beautiful. Here was life from which we borrowed life and excitement. In other words, we did these things because it was pleasant to do them."

At another point, after a day spent working the tide pools, Steinbeck muses: "It seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid....One [species] merges in another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air...most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing."

Steinbeck’s most vivid works are mainly about people such as Ma Joad, who intuitively understands this interconnectedness, or Tom Joad, who discovers it. One of the most entertaining of these pilgrims is Junius Maltby of The Pastures of Heaven (1932). "The laziest and most ruminative of men," Maltby drifts into the valley and marries a widow who owns a good farm. After she dies in childbirth, leaving him the farm and a son, Robbie, Maltby lets fences fall and weeds overrun the property as he spends time educating Robbie in a surreal homeschooling program. Together they poke about the fields and thickets, wade in the stream and sit in a favorite sycamore tree talking about such things as water. "Water," Junius Maltby explains to Robbie, "is the seed of life. Of the three elements, water is the sperm, earth the womb and sunshine the mold of growth."

So instructed, Robbie becomes a knowledgeable and curious child. Nevertheless, neighbors regard Maltby as a foolish father and failed farmer. "Sometimes they hated him with the loathing busy people have for lazy ones. ...No one in the valley ever realized that he was happy."

In The Red Pony, which came out in 1937, a colt is lovingly raised by Jody Tiflin, a rancher’s young son. The little horse sickens, and early one morning Jody finds him down and dying in a pasture. Vultures have already begun to tear at his eyes. In a paroxysm of grief and rage, the boy catches one of the slow-moving scavengers by a wing. He picks up a stone and begins to beat it to a pulp. But "the red fearless eyes [of the vulture] still looked at him, impersonal and unafraid and detached."

Jody’s father runs to the pasture and tries to comfort his son with reason. "Jody, the buzzard didn’t kill the pony. Don’t you know that?"

"I know it," Jody says wearily.

In The Long Valley, issued a year later, Mary Teller finds a piece of empty land on which she imagines in minute detail a house and, more importantly for her, a perfect garden. After five years, she meets Harry Teller, a man of sufficient means and, she thinks, patience, to allow her to do as she wants with the property. They are married, and after a time Mary does indeed create her dream garden. The centerpiece is a shallow ornamental pool to which, as Mary imagined they would, many birds come to drink. Watching them in the twilight of an evening, Mary is astonished and delighted to see a pure-white quail come to the pool. "She must be the queen of the quail," Mary reflects. "She makes every lovely thing that ever happened to me one thing."

During the past year or so, I have asked a number of Steinbeck readers about their favorite passages and episodes. I was surprised that several mentioned my own favorites:

"Over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing....His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly....The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead."

Paroled from state prison, Tom Joad is walking home to the farm where his family sharecrops. Seeing the turtle, he picks it up. Later, meeting Jim Casy, a wandering preacher who has lost the Spirit, Joad explains that the turtle is a present for his younger brother.

When they get to the farm, they find it abandoned and partially destroyed. While wondering what to do next, Joad decides to release the turtle. Then he and the preacher watch it crawl away. "Where the hell you s’pose he’s goin’?" said Joad. "I seen turtles all my life. They’re always goin’ someplace. They always seem to want to get there."

For me and, it turns out, for at least some others, that turtle keeps crawling along through John Steinbeck’s whole shebang.

Tags
PAID CONTENT

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus