By Clare Fieseler
The biggest influence on John Steinbeck’s career was his friendship with a scientist. So when people ask why I split my time between scientific research and photography/writing, I often refer them to Steinbeck’s real-life account Log from the Sea of Cortez about hatching and leading an ocean expedition with his scientist pal, Ed Ricketts. In August I paddled Newfoundland’s bays and was reminded why one of Steinbeck’s lesser-known works has such a hold on me still.
My journey to Newfoundland officially started by intercepting my folded Oru Coast at the American Airlines baggage counter in Washington, DC. It was my third time attempting to fly after three days of storms. All northbound flights had been grounded. I got news at the baggage desk that I was being transferred to a last-minute “rescue flight” on a Canadian carrier in another terminal. Only jogging could me get me through Reagan National Airport's older, mid-century modern terminal in time.
I finally flopped near the boarding gate, a little breathless, and I tracked the location of my Oru Coast with an airline app. Phew! The boat had made it onboard. The exhausting days ahead in conference halls could still be supplemented by adventuring in Newfoundland’s wildlife rich fjords. Even if for just one half day. Bringing the boat would force me out on the water. Right? One of Steinbeck’s most repeated truisms came to mind: “Our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.”
Here’s a literary refresher on John Steinbeck beyond pithy quotes and Cliff Notes. Steinbeck was a restless, wandering Californian novelist most well-known for such classics as Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. Few casual readers know that Steinbeck wrote Log from the Sea of Cortez, a non-fiction book chronicling a real-life expedition he planned and completed with zoologist Dr. Ed Rickets in 1940. The book reflects on their one- month aboard a 75-foot sardine purse seiner as they toured the Gulf of California collecting small ocean critters.
When I began my professional career in marine research over eight years ago, my supervisor at the time, the late Dr. Rafe Sagarin, told me to read Log from the Sea of Cortez before even cracking my first textbook. Steinbeck and Rickett's expedition was legit. They collected over 500 species and discovered almost 50 new species.
But what I took from reading Steinbeck’s Log was a philosophical lesson. Scientific descriptions can only paint half-truths about the nature around us. When science-derived knowledge is accompanied with the visceral pulse of first-hand experience and storytelling, that is when we arrive at the most accurate truth about the natural world.
In short, science needs storytelling and vice versa. For Steinbeck, the very reason for this expedition was for the two men to integrate their distinct ways of experiencing life — Ricketts through scientific descriptions and Steinbeck through exploration-based narratives. “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.” That is how John Steinbeck introduces Log from the Sea of Cortez.
About 300 marine scientists convened by the sea and debated its biggest secrets for almost a week, all the while spending the majority of time inside a glass building. And after four days of living in a hotel fish bowl at the edge of St. John’s Bay, I’d had enough. But it was only the encouragement of an old friend from graduate school and fellow conference delegate, Lindsay, who pushed me to bail on the last half-day of conference workshops. We only had six hours of daylight. And so we went.
The only vehicle we could secure was an U-Haul pick up truck. We pushed the Oru Coast onto the flatbed, disregarded the U-Haul advertisements emblazoned on our stead, and drove off south along the coast.
Our adventure together was less legit than Steinbeck’s. We didn’t describe any new species. And our timing was just a few weeks late to paddle alongside the crowds of humpback whales that swarm Newfoundland’s fjords every summer. But taking turns in the kayak, we explored the tide pools of sea urchins, peered into beds of kelp, and crawled through the coastal forests. We stood on the eastern most point of North America and explored two of the island’s most scenic bays, Witless Bay and Bay Bulls.
Lindsay, an expert in sea horses, reminded me to pay attention to the small things: urchin skeletons, massive seaweed stands, and diving seabirds. Most out-of-towners pass over the small stuff in chase of Newfoundland’s more notable wildlife. Like it bumbling puffins and spouting Minke whales.
As the sun sank in the sky on our half day of adventure, we took the kayak out of the water to begin drying. I would have to fold and put it on a plane in just 7 hours for an early morning return flight to DC. We walked along a cobble beach near Witless Bay. We passed by a local family skipping stones and roasting marshmallows around a campfire. Small waves lapping the cobble rock beach made a particular sound as we passed that was much different from the sandy tropical beaches where Lindsey and I both typically do our science. The distinct sounds of coastal areas, we remarked to each other, have a math and physics to them. But to avoid losing the moment to science speak, we turned back, and chose to chat with the family gathered around the fire.
We all watched the last light disappear as the sky turned from deep blue to a fleck-filled black that stretched over the cold Atlantic waters. Like Steinbeck, I regarded it no exaggeration that experiencing that moment was more complete and accurate than anything I had learned, discussed, or debated during all the conference days prior.