RE: NANFA-- cells smashers and ichthyologists

Jay DeLong (
Wed, 20 Feb 2002 22:40:57 -0800

My last post on this topic (I promise). In his book The Log From the Sea of
Cortez (1941), John Steinbeck wrote this Introduction. The last paragraph
ties everything together in a neat summary:

The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by
the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or
fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact. And yet the
impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide
pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. Why is an
expedition to Tibet undertaken, or a sea bottom dredged? Why do men, sitting
at the microscope, examine the calcareous plates of a sea-cucumber, and,
finding a new arrangement and number, feel an exaltation and give the new
species a name, and write about it possessively? It would be good to know
the impulse truly, not to be confused by the "services to science"
platitudes or the other little mazes into which we entice our minds so that
they will not know what we are doing.
We have a book to write about the Gulf of California. We could do one of
several things about its design. But we have decided to let it form itself:
its boundaries a boat and a sea; its duration a six weeks' charter time; its
subject everything we could see and think and even imagine; its limits-our
own without reservation.

We made a trip into the Gulf; sometimes we dignified it by calling it an
expedition. Once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and that is a
better-sounding and a more exciting name. We stopped in many little harbors
and near barren coasts to collect and preserve the marine invertebrates of
the littoral. One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip-- and when
we used this reason, we called the trip an expedition-- was to observe the
distribution of invertebrates, to see and to record their kinds and numbers,
how they lived together, what they ate, and how they reproduced. That plan
was simple, straight-forward, and only a part of the truth. But we did tell
the truth to ourselves. We were curious. Our curiosity was not limited, but
was as wide and horizonless as that of Darwin or Agassiz or Linnaeus or
Pliny. We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what
we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of
structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality. We knew that what we
would see and record and construct would be warped, as all knowledge
patterns are warped, first, by the collective pressure and stream of our
time and race, second by the thrust of our individual personalities. But
knowing this, we might not fall into too many holes-- we might maintain some
balance between our warp and the separate thing, the external reality. The
oneness of these two might take its contribution from both. For example: the
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. It is good
to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one
truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that
color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.

Such things we had considered in the months of planning our expedition and
we were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw
in the horizons and crowd the sky down on us. We knew that what seemed to us
true could be only relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of
observation. The man with his pickled fish has sacrificed a great
observation about himself, the fish, and the focal point, which is his
thought on both the sierra and himself.

We suppose this was the mental provisioning of our expedition. 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. By going there, we would bring a new factor to the Gulf. Let us
consider that factor and not be betrayed by this myth of permanent objective
reality. If it exists at all, it is only available in pickled tatters or in
distorted flashes. Let us go," we said, "into the Sea of Cortez, realizing
that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through
a flat of eel-grass, that the rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us
truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take
something away from it, but we shall leave something too." And if we seem a
small factor in a huge pattern, nevertheless it is of relative importance.
We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world.
And that isn't terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the
Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons
of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back,
and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region.
That isn't very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the
great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is
important or all of it is.

We determined to go doubly open so that in the end we could, if we wished,
describe the sierra thus: "D. XVII-15-IX; A. 11-15- IX," but also we could
see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it
threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it. And there is no reason why
either approach should be inaccurate. Spine-count description need not
suffer because another approach is also used. Perhaps out of the two
approaches, we thought, there might emerge a picture more complete and even
more accurate than either alone could produce. And so we went.

Jay DeLong
Olympia, WA

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