Saturday 3 July 2010

Of Tide-pools and seeing

Ed ricketts (1897 – 1948) was an American marine biologist, pioneering ecological thinker and polymath. Although he has become more widely appreciated in recent years, particularly amongst scientists, he is still not very widely known in his own right. However, Ricketts not only had his own original view on the world, he also had a significant impact on a number of his friends; most notably the Nobel laureate John Steinbeck and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. Ricketts was a particular inspiration for Steinbeck and he was the model of at least seven of Steinbeck’s lead characters; including the unforgettable Doc of Cannery Row and it’s sequel Sweet Thursday. Ricketts managed to balance his own scientific research programme with the exigencies of making a living for his family from his scientific specimen supply business. He was also a widely read and engaged philosopher of science and he was acutely aware that new scientific insight required an active personal engagement with the world.

Ricketts had a visceral need to see, and this need repeatedly drove him out of his bed and onto the road; to numerous beaches, bays, coves and pools on the Pacific coast of California and Oregon.  He would carefully time his arrival at specific locales to co-incide with the ideal tide conditions required for collecting a particular marine animal. Closer to his home, in Pacific Grove on the Monterey peninsula, he also spent hours observing and collecting in a large rock pool that he christened The Great Tide-Pool. John Steinbeck spent hours with Ricketts in this pool collecting marine invertebrates and he described it as;

. . . a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals.

Whilst Ed Ricketts was out in the tide-pools and on the shoreline of the Pacific coast, he honed his ability to both see marine animals and collect them. It was here, where he was most in his element, that he showed how an outstanding field naturalist engages with Nature. As Katherine Rodger says in a recently published collection of his writings;

Ricketts was a remarkable collector, with keen eyes and fast, careful hands, often returning from the shore with rare, sometimes unknown, specimens and his major expeditions consistently yielded impressive results.  Regarding the 550 species collected on their Sea of Cortez expedition, for example, he and Steinbeck stated that “almost 10% of these will prove to have been undescribed at the time of capture”.

Given that the Sea of Cortez trip that Rodger refers to in this quotation was only 6 weeks long, this is a new species discovery rate of about 10 per week.

The Pacific littoral

Remarkably, without any University research funds or endowments, Ricketts was able to succesfully use his observational powers and collecting ability to not only pursue his own ambitious research programme in marine biology but also to run a small marine specimen supply company in Monterey called Pacific Biological Labs. During his productive professional life, Ricketts staked out for himself an ambitious agenda - he had in mind an encyclopaedic study of the Pacific littoral 

This was a vast undertaking. Ricketts saw it as reaching from the far south of Chile, via Latin and central america, the continental USA and Canada to the far north-west - Alaska and the Aleutians.
During his life Ed Ricketts co-authored three books that described his explorations and observations across this vast space. Of these, two had been published at the time of his premature death in 1948 and the third was in typescript form. At the time of his death, he had been planning how to use these books as the basic material for a definitive treatise on Pacific coast marine biology. The three books are a fascinating blend of his fundamentally ecological view of nature, holistic philosophical
views, his observations on the littoral ecology of the Pacific coast and a huge volume of very detailed and dedicated collecting notes derived from hours spent in the tidepools and shorelines that he loved so much.

Between Pacific Tides

The 1925 catalogue for Pacific Biological laboratories was Ed Ricketts’ first scientific publication. The catalogue set out the range of species he could supply, based on his access to the varied and abundant marine fauna of the Monterey region. By the mid 1930’s Ricketts had codified his considerable shoreline experience and reading into a book, Between Pacific Tides, co-authored by Jack Galvin. The book was published in 1939 by Stanford University Press and the organising scheme of the book was radical for it’s time. It described the marine invertebrates that could be found in the littoral zone of the Pacific shore organised by ecological niche and habitat, rather than by anatomical or phylogenetic similarity. This organising principle generated considerable opposition from more renowned marine biologists in the US and Ricketts and Galvin had a long battle to get it published. The book was revised and published with a foreword by John Steinbeck in 1948 and new editions appeared regularly between 1952 and 1985. The book is still in print, in a fifth edition, and it is one of Stanford University Press’s biggest ever sellers.

The Sea of Cortez

In March 1940 Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck chartered the Western Flyer, a 75-foot purse seiner built in Tacoma in 1937, and sailed from Monterey to the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California. This unique marine environment is located between the mainland coast of Mexico and the coast of the Baja peninsula. The Sea of Cortez is one of the most ecologically diverse seas on the planet and is home to more than 5,000 described species. Ricketts and Steinbeck had an ambition   to undertake the first serious scientific study of the Sea of Cortez as an ecological whole. They aimed to emulate the voyaging style of Charles Darwin on their trip and this is reflected in the full title of the book Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. The first portion of the book is a log written by Steinbeck, but based closely on the Verbatim Transcript that had been written by Ricketts from the contemporaneous notes he had kept during the voyage.  In addition to the narrative Ricketts had compiled an extensive phylectic catalogue describing the species that they had found, with full cross-references to the known literature on the marine fauna of the region.  The full book is about 600 pages long and was never commercially succesful. In later editions the publishers completely dropped the phylectic catalogue and the log portion was published under the title Log from the Sea of Cortez under Steinbeck’s sole authorship.

The Outer Shores

At the time of Rickett’s death he had completed a number of extended collecting expeditions to Vancouver Island and other coastal regions of British Columbia. His extensive journals were intended to be used as the basis for a book called the The Outer Shores, to be co-authored
with John Steinbeck. After the untimely death of Ricketts in 1948 the project languished and the full transcript of his log has only recently been published in its entirety.

These books are an ongoing testimony to the energy of Ed Ricketts, his ambitious vision and his skill as a field naturalist. His journals are full of the joy of first-hand observation and discovery. For example, here is part of an entry in his Outer Shores transcript dated Tuesday June 12th 1945 in which he describes a days collecting at Echachis Island in British Columbia;

This is one of the finest collecting spots I’ve seen in many a day . . . the fauna is very rich and varied.  Eighty-three species have already been determined; we took certainly more than 100 in this two-hour trip, and I think a reasonably complete census of the naked-eye forms here wouldn’t
stop short of 150 or 175, between tides. 

Ricketts role in marine biology and species discovery is reflected in the fact that about twenty marine organisms have species names of rickettsi or steinbecki, in honor of Ricketts and Steinbeck. For example, these include Eubranchus steinbecki,  a nudibranch named in 1987; Catriona rickettsi a nudibranch named in 1984; Pycnogonum rickettsi a sea spider named in 1934 and Polydora rickettsi a spionid polychaete named in 1961.