My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Shortly before the United States of America joined the Second World War, the American novelist John Steinbeck joined the marine biologist friend of his, Edward F. Ricketts, on a 4,000 mile voyage around the Baja Peninsula into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Steinbeck, who wrote “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden”, wrote a book about the experience in which he not only tells the story of their expedition but he also discusses about life, creatures, people, philosophy and metaphysics.
All this just moments before so much of the world changed – before aviation and motor vehicles made almost everywhere accessible, and crucially before money became the overriding measure of the value of a human being to Western societies.
The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin in 1977. Available in multiple editions.
As one would expect, Steinbeck writes superbly; though not in the modern style which so often runs more like a high speed chase than a reasoned conversation (in which the reader is expected to think for him or herself). Steinbeck flows from topic to topic with the natural grace of whales surfacing to breath and sound again. He mixes high adventure – as when they run aground etc. – with philosophical musing and stark if elegant complaints.
“It seemed to us that life in every form is incipiently everywhere waiting for a chance to take root and start reproducing; eggs, spores, seeds, bacilli – everywhere. Let a raindrop fall and it is crowded with the waiting life. Everything is everywhere; and we, seeing the desert country, the hot waterless expanse, and knowing how far away the nearest water must be, say with a kind of disbelief, ‘How did they get clear here, these little animals?’ And until we can attack with our poor blunt weapon of reason that casual process and reduce it, we do not quite believe in the horsehair worms and the tree-frogs….Everything is potentially everywhere – the body is potentially cancerous, phthisic, strong to resist or weak to receive…These things are balanced. A man is potentially all things too, greedy and cruel, capable of great love or great hatred, of balanced or unbalanced s0called emotions. This is the way he is – one factor in a surge of striving. And he continues to ask ‘why’ without first admitting to himself his cosmic identity.”
“The Log from the Sea of Cortez” is a book to settle down with, with your legs up, phone off, outside distractions forgotten, for a few hours of real conversation – not just you talk, then I talk, then you talk. Steinbeck proposes, we listen, but then we are expected to think about, to weigh by our own experiences, what he is saying before proceeding down the page. He is not preaching and the tone of the book is about as far from strident as it’s possible to get in a book with so many ideas, opinions and hypostheses. It’s a great read but not a quick one. Like enjoying a really superb meal, this book is one to be savoured not rushed. And one of the best ways to appreciate Steinbeck’s literary genius is probably to pay attention in bite-sized chunks, a little bit at a time. Good books that bring together science and philosophy, life and possible meanings are rare and should be treasured. “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” is one of the best.
The Log from the Sea of Cortez