John Steinbeck—bitten, improbably enough, by a youthful bug for marine biology—found himself in the spring of 1940 on a chartered sardine boat with the invertebrate taxonomist Ed Ricketts, en route to the waters of Baja California, Mexico, to noodle in the tide pools for unknown life forms. But they were after much bigger game than the specimens they planned to stuff in little jars. At the start of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck’s book about their “expedition” (or was it a jaunt?), the king of Cannery Row insisted that he and his new pal Ricketts were after nothing less than a whole new way of learning about the world. Here’s the pitch:
We said, “Let’s go wide open. Let’s see what we see, record what we find, and not fool ourselves with conventional scientific strictures.” We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway, for in that lonely and uninhabited Gulf our boat and ourselves would change it the moment we entered.
Call it the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of the field trip. Mounting a full-bore attack on bookish objectivity and the closeted university types who went in for it, Steinbeck suddenly turned and gave ichthyologists (of all people) a few good kicks, in a passage that has become legendary among fish biologists and the students who dislike them. The subject is the seemingly innocuous taxonomic technique for identifying fish by means of the count of their fin spines—an undertaking Steinbeck casts as the epitome of the desiccated learning of the schools:
[T]he Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth: “D. XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.
He and Ricketts, Steinbeck hastily assures the reader, were going to catch some sierra—and they were going to eat them too, calloused hands still bleeding from the naked line. Now that’s real knowledge, and the manly men that make and share it: no roof, no chair, no books.
It’s a somewhat goofy passage, to be sure, but I had trouble getting it out of my head one hot afternoon in the late summer of 2004, when, standing on a sandy spit in the Sea of Cortez, I landed my first Mexican sierra—a toothy, fifteen-inch torpedo of mercurial muscle speckled with yellow coins. After all, I was myself on what could (only charitably) be called an expedition—as an instructor in a two-week intensive university course on marine ecology. Together with a dozen Stanford undergraduates and a few fellow teachers, I had spent the morning diving one of the very reefs where Ricketts and Steinbeck once plucked tubeworms, mused about metaphysics, and drank warm beer (they did a lot of this). And I would return after my fishing excursion to our field station—a weathered building of termite-nibbled beams and hewn tuff, erected nearly a century ago as the headquarters of a mining company, but long since abandoned to itinerant biologists—for a lecture about fish genetics in a room lined with formalin jars, each haunted by a lurid piscine sprite.
Despite a certain boozy bravado and slightly woozy postpositivism, Steinbeck had sunk his hooks into some fundamental problems, problems that suddenly stood out sharply against the pink desert hills and cold blue water: What is knowledge, and how do we get it? Why do we go into classrooms, and when must we leave them behind?
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