“Species are only commas in a sentence”

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment


The route around the Gulf of California taken by the Western Flyer

I never knew that marine biology was a major literary influence for John Steinbeck, until I stumbled upon this beautiful passage:

“Our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, 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, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into 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. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that 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, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment  the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

220px-SteinbeckCortez Sea-of-cortez-coverThe “Log From the Sea of Cortez”, where this passage can be found, was a lesser known work by the American literature giant, written in collaboration with marine biologist Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s close friend who shaped his thinking and became the prototype for many of the pivotal characters in his fiction.   Part travelogue about their joint expedition to the Gulf of California and part biological record of specimens collected along the coast, the book also revealed the two men’s shared philosophies and outlooks.  Steinbeck was concerned not only about social issues of the working class and migrant agriculture laborers, but also about the place of humans in the environment, and about the interconnection between single organisms and the larger ecosystem.  The men voiced  ecological concerns with astounding foresight, such as the long term damage that the Japanese bottom fishing trawlers would do to the sea bed.

Although as he suspected the original issue of the book, Sea of Cortez, had very limited appeal and sold poorly, Steinbeck not only enjoyed writing the non-fiction, applying his novel-writing skills to a scientific subject, but even considered it “the best book” he had done.  After Ed Ricketts’s untimely death from a car accident, Steinbeck republished the narrative portion of the book as Log From the Sea of Cortez, to greater commercial success; and we are left with a beautiful account of a spirited journey, a testimony of a great literature-science collaboration, and a profound contemplation of the “oneness” of the universe.

“All things are one thing and one thing is all things… It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

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