A new collection of essays about one of the most iconic figures in American literature has been published, shedding new light on his connections to Alaska.
“Ed Ricketts, from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska” explores the relationship between the noted biologist of the title, and John Steinbeck, the Nobel-prize winning author who immortalized him.
The book also deepens our understanding of Rickett’s 1932 trip to Sitka to collect marine specimens with Sitka writer Jack Calvin and his wife Sasha. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a surprised connection to “Star Wars.” Yes. “Star Wars.”
Ed Ricketts was the man behind the character “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel “Cannery Row.”
Ricketts was much more than a template of the hands-on biologist Steinbeck met in Monterey, California. Rather, Ricketts had a larger-than-life personality that translated well to the page.
The two men cruised around the Baja peninsula together on their most famous trip to collect marine specimens, and co-authored “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.” Following Ricketts’ death, Steinbeck updated the introduction to that book.
“Knowing Ed Ricketts was instant. From the first moment I knew him, and for the next 18 years I knew him better than I knew anyone. And perhaps I didn’t know him at all. Maybe it was that way with all his friends. He was different from anyone, and yet so like that everyone found himself in Ed. And that might be the reason his death had such an impact. It wasn’t Ed who had died, but a large and important part of oneself.”
This is John Straley, one of the essayists who has contributed to the new book: “Ed Ricketts, from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska.” His wife Jan, a marine mammal biologist, edited the anthology.
Another contributor is Nancy Ricketts, Ed’s daughter. Nancy has lived in Sitka for more than 40 years. She remembers quite well seeing her dad read “Cannery Row” shortly after it was published.
“Some of the time his feet would come off the floor and he would say, ‘Oh! Oh!’ And that’s about all he’d say, was ‘Oh! Oh!’… And then at the end he said, ‘We’ll just let it go that way, it was written in kindness.’”
In her essay, Nancy Ricketts tries to paint a more true-to-life portrait of her father than the hard-partying — but dedicated — commercial scientist who slept in his lab.
She recalls family collecting trips in an old Packard with her father and mother and two siblings, roaming as far north as Puget Sound to collect different varieties of jellyfish for labs around the world. This was not your usual family business.
“We wanted to go barefoot, but there were barnacles. And we had really tough feet, certainly by the end of the summer. We could walk on barnacles easily. But for collecting, we wore tennis shoes, we wore bathing suits, and we wore a sweater over the bathing suit. And we would collect until the tide came up to the point where the Gonoinemus didn’t come up anymore. They were hidden down below in the eel grass. And that’s when we stopped and went home. Dad preserved them outside, and Mother I think was mostly cooking. And we were all hungry, yeah. That was an important time.”
In 1932, Ed Ricketts accompanied Sitkan Jack Calvin on a collecting cruise up the British Columbia and Alaska coasts to Sitka. Also aboard Calvin’s boat, the Grampus, were Calvin’s wife, Sasha, and world literary scholar Joseph Campbell.
That cruise would rewrite the study of intertidal marine biology. Jan Straley says that modern researchers have been trying to retrace the steps of Calvin and Ricketts.
“A few years ago the Sitka Sound Science Center received funding to a comparative study between the ’32 surveys and current-day surveys, to see what changes had occurred over that time. And that paper was pivotal in trying to figure out what species occurred in ‘32, and the location of the sampling sites as well.”
John Straley, the writer, relied on his three decades of experience as an investigator to pull together the threads of the 1932 cruise aboard the Grampus.
“We did some detective work on finding those original sites that Ricketts and Calvin had used. There had been some snapshots taken of Ricketts and Calvin and some of the women who had been with them picnicking at those sites, and we went around to different places in Sitka Sound studying the backdrops in those photographs, and we figured out that there were some near Pirate’s Cove, and some near Whale Island.”
Shortly after the cruise, Calvin and Ricketts published “Between Pacific Tides.” The text wasn’t just a detailed reference book — it turned biology on its head. Instead of identifying and grouping intertidal creatures by their common characteristics — or taxonomy — Calvin and Ricketts organized animals by habitat in the intertidal zone.
John Straley says the breakthrough occurred in the literary conversations the group had at night over the course of the 10-week cruise.
“And they had discussed Robinson Jeffers poetry at night, and Sasha had been one of the key people to crack this poem by Robinson Jeffers, the Roan Stallion, where they really figured out that focusing on the taxonomy of the creatures — focusing on the human intellect — was not the key to understanding the interconnectedness of all this life they were immersing themselves in in the tidepool. And this would affect Campbell’s work, in cross-cultural storytelling and myth-making, and also with Ricketts in this deeper understanding of ecology.”
“Between Pacific Tides” to this day remains a core text of intertidal biology. Joseph Campbell’s ideas would influence western literary thinking for years. One young filmmaker, George Lucas, based his innovative Star Wars trilogy on principles Campbell outlines in his “The Power of Myth.”
So, whether you’re flying the Millenium Falcon in the theater this holiday season, or cruising up the coast of Southeast Alaska in the Grampus, know that Ed Ricketts, the Calvins, and Joseph Campbell all shaped your universe.