Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Where is Doc Ricketts when we need him?


Just what we needed, a happy story about global warming--The sardines are back in Monterey Bay and in quantities that approach the heyday of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Besides being an excuse to write about one of my favorite places and favorite books by a favored author, the renaissance of the sardine may be further proof of changing climate. No one knows for sure.

Monterey Bay is a biologic treasure chest. Very cold water from a profoundly deep trench bubbles to the surface bringing with it clouds of food for marine creatures. Until the late 1940s, the bay also teamed with gigantic tides of sardines, which the good denizens of Monterey, caught and put in cans. Steinbeck chronicled their life in what I think is one of the great American comedies. Then, the sardines simply disappeared. No one knows why. The canneries closed and only in the last decade (mostly because of the fabulous aquarium there) has the place come back to something resembling prosperity, even if it is tourist-infested.

Now the sardines are back. In a story by Emily Saarman in the Santa Cruz Sentinal, she writes that warm ocean currents--perhaps the result of global warming--have brought the return of the sardines. Sardines like warmer water and the bay is warming up. Climate change or natural cycle, no one knows for sure. But canneries are again booming, although none on Cannery Row itself. Too many tourists spending too much money. (By the way, do you know of many places in America that are famous for a book--even one few of the people going there have read?). One Salinas plant is canning 10, 000 tons a year. Alas, Americans no longer eat sardines; most are shipped to Asia. I happen to love them. Vinegar, tomato, onion and sardines on rye. Yum. They are even good for you.

Monterey Bay is not alone. Saarman reports the silvery fish now are far more plentiful all along the west coast from Mexico to Canada.

Three other things that come to mind because of the story. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, as I told my students, contains probably the greatest first paragraph in American fiction.
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen" and he would have meant the same thing.
Second, the Stanford library has the original, hand-written manuscript of Cannery Row, which Steinbeck wrote with pencil on yellow legal paper. I saw it when I first got there. Steinbeck made very few corrections or modifications to the text. The whole damned thing--first paragraph and all--flew out of the man's head whole. I get so depressed even thinking about it...

And Ricketts? He was a marine biologist and pal of Steinbeck who had a lab on the Row, which is still there. It’s a bar. He’d approve. The lab is the scene for the great frog escape in the book, and Ricketts is the “Doc” in the many Steinbeck works. Steinbeck (once a biology major at Stanford) and Ricketts, took the famous exploration trip through the Gulf of California in Mexico that Steinbeck wrote about in the Log from the Sea of Cortez. Most editions of Cannery Row or the Log print Steinbeck’s eulogy to Ricketts. He was killed by a train crossing a railroad track going for a six-pack of beer. Steinbeck wrote that he was "a great teacher and a great lecher."

My kind of guy.

1 comment:

Larry said...

This morning (1/18) the LA Times had a one pargraph story about this. Their headline:

Global Warming Could
Account for Sardines

Larry