Prince of Tides

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

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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:


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