Cover of A Tidal Oddyssey

A Tidal Oddyssey

Ed Ricketts and the Making of Between Pacific Tides

Richard Astro and Donald Kohrs

As I began trying to wrap my head around the crazy, new-to-me world of tide pools on the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula, a book that kept coming up in every list and bibliography was Between Pacific Tides by Edward F. Rickets and Jack Calvin. This isn’t that book. But while I was still waiting for it to be available at the library when I saw a post by the Well-read Naturalist about this book, an account of how that groundbreaking work on Pacific marine ecology came into being.

Now, a book about a book isn’t necessarily the sexiest thing. But this guy Ricketts was an incredibly interesting fellow: he was the inspiration for the protagonists of two books by John Steinbeck (and a collaborator with the legendary Californian Nobel laureate as well), a garrulous renaissance man who changed the course of a scientific specialty from outside the confines of academia and a deep thinker/talker/listener who fostered an atmosphere of curiosity and discussion which influenced a bunch of interesting people hanging around his lab, people like Jospeh Campbell, Henry Miller, John Cage.

Between Pacific Tides is a striking blend of art and science communication which has influenced generations. It is amazing. Its key insight is that the interrelatedness of the members of actual ecological communities, rather than taxonomic organization, can be the starting point for understanding life, has had incredible influence, to the point where it now seems like a given. The story of this work’s long journey is as interesting as the genealogy of its ideas, as Rickets’ persistence in the face of academic skepticism and publishers’ skepticism triumphs in the end. What an interesting story about an interesting human.

Book Info

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Publisher Description

In 1948, just weeks before his best friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts died, John Steinbeck wrote of Ricketts process of discovery, noting that “a young, inquisitive, and original man might one morning find a fissure in the traditional technique of thinking. Through this fissure he might look out and find a new external world about him.” A Tidal Odyssey a conversation about that “young, inquisitive, and original man” who found “a new external world about him” and so captivated the imagination of scientists and lay readers alike as he transformed our understanding of the seashore. This is a book about that remarkable man and his pathbreaking book about marine life on the Pacific Coast of North America. With his friend Jack Calvin, Ricketts authored his magnum opus, Between Pacific Tides (1939), a guide to the seashore invertebrates in one of the most prolific life zones in the world. He and Calvin describe the key field characteristics of the species, and then place them in their ecological context, by habitat, in a natural history-based narrative. At a time when almost all studies of life in the intertidal zones were taxonomic, Ricketts and Calvin revolutionized the field and helped to lay the groundwork for studies of the impact of environmental change on the natural world. By happenstance, Ed Ricketts is best known as a character in John Steinbeck’s fiction. But the real man is obscured by Steinbeck’s authorial license. Steinbeck’s Doc is the quirky young man who reads Li Po and drinks beer milkshakes. He was also a serious marine biologist who conducted pioneering studies of life in the intertidal zones. He was a true renaissance man – conversant in music and philosophy, poetry and mythology. Friendly with such notables as mythologist Joseph Campbell, experimental composer John Cage, and novelist Henry Miller, as well as with Steinbeck and many of the most eminent biologists of his time, he was a man for all seasons. This, then, is a book for readers who are interested in the world of Ed Ricketts as well as marine biology, intertidal ecology, and the manner in which ecological studies underpin our understanding of the impact of environmental change on the well being of our planet. (Publisher’s Description)

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