Book Reviews


The Western Flyer: Steinbeck’s Boat, the Sea of Cortez, and the Saga of Pacific Fisheries

Author: Kevin Bailey

Publisher: Chicago Press

Year: 2015

Reviewer: Kevin Bailey provides an account here of what it was like to do research for this book (i.e. this is not a book review, per se). Go to the Facebook page for the Port Townsend Shipwrights Cooperative for information regarding the boat’s current condition:

It’s an unsettling experience to see your book emerge from the privacy of the nurturing environment where you’ve tended it, into public exposure. Now anyone can read it, not just the select few you had chosen, and criticism is public for your neighbors and family to see. Suddenly you have to switch from an introvert composing sentences in your mind, to an extrovert publicizing your product.

In October 2010, I was visiting Salinas, my hometown and the birthplace of Steinbeck. I was thinking about writing a story about the relationship of Ricketts, Steinbeck, and Joseph Campbell. As I read the local newspaper, I came across an article about a fund-raising dinner on behalf of the Western Flyer, the boat John Steinbeck and “Doc” Ricketts had taken to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. The nephew of the old skipper discovered the boat in Puget Sound, where had been tied up for many years. Now it had a new name, the Gemini. A local nonprofit group was trying to buy the boat. I thought, “hmm…that’s interesting.” I contacted the nonprofit to find the boat’s location, but they asked me not to visit because the owner lived on the boat; he was reclusive and they didn’t want me to upset the negotiations.

As it happened, a real estate developer saw the same newspaper article. He swept in and bought the boat for $40,000 out from underneath the nose of the nonprofit. The new owner stated his intention to build a moat in a boutique hotel, dock the Western Flyer in it, and turn the 76-foot long ship into a floating restaurant complete with colored fountains. They would serve meals to tourists on her aft deck. The developer estimated that the new business would bring 15 million dollars of tourist money into the depressed economy of downtown Salinas. This was going to happen just about 400 meters from Steinbeck’s grave. The glimmering of a story rolled over in my mind.

A few months later I visited the Western Flyer on a gray January day. The boat was moored in a slough under the Twin Bridges near Anacortes. Rust streaks and blue tarps adorned the hull; dilapidated is the word that comes to mind. She contrasted with the swank new Swinomish tribal casino next door. It was a sad sight to behold. The boat sat at its mooring for two more years and then in September 2012, a plank in the boat’s hull ruptured and it sank at its mooring. A slew of agencies swooped in on the wreck. Fines were slapped on the owner left and right.

Two weeks later, a salvage crew refloated the boat. They put straps under her belly and pulled at her with a giant derrick. It was like trying to tug your boots out of a gooey-duck mudflat. When she finally broke free of the bottom and her deck emerged, water, mud and seaweeds poured out her portholes and doors. They pumped the sea out of the Flyer’s body and patched over the hole in the planking of her belly that had let the water in. She was a rusting carcass.

The Flyer was moored at the same dock in the slough for several more months. Then in January 2013 the boat sank again. This time it sat on the bottom for nearly six months. The boat was finally lifted to the surface in June, and by now it was a decomposing hulk. The ship was crusted with mud and barnacles, and veiled with a gauze of seaweed. It looked like a ghost ship.

The Western Flyer was towed to Port Townsend and put in drydock. By now, the two sinkings had cost the developer a couple hundred thousand dollars. The damage to the boat was extensive. The cost of restoring the Flyer, was pegged at over 1 million dollars. Meanwhile, there was a steady stream of visitors to the boat. When I visited in August 2013, someone had pinned a picture of John Steinbeck to the boat as though it was his casket in a wake.

You might ask, as I did, what happened to the boat in the 70 years between 1940 and 2010? That’s what the book is about. It was a joy and a privilege to research and write about the Western Flyer, braiding the story of the boat, her people, and the fisheries.

A recent development, happening after my book landed in the printer’s press, may bring a happy ending to the Western Flyer’s story. A geologist who owns a drilling company bought the Flyer for one million dollars. He plans to invest a further two million in the boat’s restoration and use the boat for education. The purchase could be the beginning of a new story for the old boat.

Storytelling is one of the most important ways we have to communicate information. It’s largely neglected in science. But you can package a lot of science into the telling of a story; people will learn from the narrative without realizing it and resisting. Right now I’m working on a new book, telling the stories of some small-scale fisheries, their roots in history, their experiences, and problems. In my view, traditional fishing is a way of life that deserves to be valued and preserved as a reminder of who we are on the planet that sustains us.


Picture3Beyond the Outer Shores:  The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell

Author: Eric Enno Tamm

Book Reviewer: Orlay Johnson

Publisher: Thunder Mouth Press, New York

Year: 2005 (paperback)

Short Review: The book is a gem and I recommend you buy it and pass it on to your colleagues and friends – with a caveat. The focus is on Ed Ricketts’ life after his and John Steinbeck’s famous collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez. The title refers to a second book he and John Steinbeck were writing on North Pacific marine life at the time of his death — but Beyond the Outer Shores covers so much more. This books shows Ricketts was far more “Doc” in Cannery Row. A self-educated biologist, he defied the academic establishment and revolutionized the study of ecology and marine biology on the Pacific coast. For that reason, I believe the book should be read as widely within our field as possible. The caveat is: this book was conceived during dark times and Tamm describes behavior that today would be considered not only unethical, but also illegal. The book may be hard to find, but I think it is worth the hunt.

Full Review: In case you don’t know, Ed Ricketts was a marine ecologist immortalized by John Steinbeck as “Doc” in his books, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, as well as in a book co-written by Steinbeck and Ricketts, The Log of the Sea of Cortez. Beyond the Outer Shores is a biography of Ricketts’ scientific achievements, his family, and his friendships with both Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, particularly after their return from a collecting trip to the Sea of Cortez.

Why review a book published over 10 years ago? In my mind, the first reason is that the book was published by a rather obscure publisher (Thunder’s Mouth Press of New York) and is often difficult to find. It needs as much PR as it can get. Secondly, whenever I read it, I just can’t help writing down comments and ideas that Tamm has stirred in my brain. Others who have read it feel the same – I’d suggest you read the book and see what effect it has on you. Thirdly Edward Ricketts is one of the most eclectic and fascinating people you will ever meet. From my readings, it is not an exaggeration for Tamm to describe him as “the Jerry Garcia of American science—a bearded guru who ignored the social and scientific orthodoxies of his time; a progenitor of the counter-culture; an enigmatic ecologist whose pioneering work was initially rejected by the scientific establishment” (Tamm 2005). Who would not want to read about such a character?

This book also gives us remarkable insight into where Steinbeck and Ricketts were heading with their ecological studies when it was all cut short by Ricketts’ car-train accident on May 11th, 1948. He died just days before he and Steinbeck were supposed to leave on the final Alaska leg of a collecting trip to Alaska, a life-long dream of his. Both were planning on using the trip to finish a world-class ecological account of the animals and plants of the region. Steinbeck, deeply heart-broken by the death of his friend, abandoned the partially completed book and never finished it. Ricketts’ notes for the book were not edited and published until 1978 when Joel Hedgpeth (1978) undertook the task.

Tamm’s biography gives the reader some indication of their thinking at the time and where the book might have gone had they finished it together. As Tamm points out, the accident occurred just when Ricketts was finally achieving both a large measure of professional success as well as happiness in his new marriage. It is also ironic that he was advocating for a reduction in the sardine fishery, a reduction that was opposed by the fishing companies who had just built a new cannery blocking the view of the unmarked train crossing. Even more devastating to the community was that, only a few months after his death, both Cannery Row and this same sardine fishery collapsed, just as Ricketts had predicted, and would never fully recover.

This book also makes it clear that Ricketts’ accomplishments have been obscured both by his fame as “Doc” in Cannery Row and by the denigrations of his accomplishments by the scientific aristocracy of the day. At that time, biologists were usually men from the upper classes with degrees from east coast universities. Ricketts was extremely bright but had left the University of Chicago before fishing his baccalaureate in order to walk across the Southern United States, eventually opening a biological collecting lab in Pacific Grove and Monterey (on Cannery Row), California. He lived in virtual poverty, supported only by selling biological specimens and the money loaned to him by Steinbeck.

The publication of Cannery Row made Ricketts famous but it did not elevate his status in the academic community. In Cannery Row, Doc is not portrayed as a serious “scientist”, which Ricketts was, but rather as a “beer-drinking philosopher-scientist who presided over Monterey’s population of whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches.”   The persona of Doc made Ricketts’ research and writings, which were advocating a new and very anti-establishmentarian way of studying and classifying organisms, easier to dismiss.

Steinbeck acknowledged that Cannery Row and later Sweet Thursday were written as comic relief for “a group of soldiers who had said to me, ‘Write something funny that isn’t about the war. Write something for us to read – we’re sick of the war.’” The Doc persona was meant to humanize scientists in a humorous and readable way, not be an accurate representation of Ed Ricketts and his actual scientific work.

Tamm also discusses Ricketts’ philosophical writings, such as “Non-Teleological Thinking” and his belief in a biocentric (as opposed to homocentric) world. Ricketts wrote extensively on these issues and considered them as important as his marine biology work. He submitted several long essays to “Atlantic Monthly” and other literary journals and, although he only had one essay published (as part of The Sea of Cortez), his ideas had a major impact on Steinbeck and Campbell’s work.

However, this brings up a major caveat for some readers: While Tamm indicates that Ricketts had a strong belief in moral value, by today’s standards, his behavior is often unethical, immoral, and at times illegal, including heavy drinking, sexism, womanizing and a variety of other illegal activities. These behaviors can be extremely distasteful to modern readers. To be fair, to what extent Steinbeck exaggerated Doc’s behavior in order to make the books more exciting is unknown, but Ricketts’ never denied the stories and, as Tamm writes, “Doc’s sexual and other adventures may be more Steinbeck’s than Ricketts’, but there seems to be plenty of bad behavior to go around”.

A minor irritation is that Tamm has an inclination to mention a belief or written passage of Ricketts, Steinbeck, Campbell or others, and then launch into a lengthy sermon on his own perspectives of the subject. Perhaps this is a small quibble but it does wear on the reader and is very distracting.

This is certainly a well-written book about an icon of marine ecology and, besides learning about the forgotten origins of marine science on the Pacific coast, it will encourage you to read more about Ed Ricketts and his friends. Check out The Sea of Cortez and Between Pacific Tides (with John Calvin), as well as Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, Grapes of Wrath and, of course, Campbell’s The Masks of God. These men were, and still are, giants of the American literary and scientific world.

The-Sixth-Extinction The Sixth Extinction

Author: Elizabeth Kolbert

Book Reviewer: Dr. Fred Utter

Publisher: Henry Holt

Year: 2014

This book is properly focused in the prologue by the author’s emphasis of the present being a truly extraordinary moment of history to be viewed with fascination and horror. The story is expertly developed from onsite visits and authoritative interviews that bring the reader directly in touch with the scientists and the resources in question.

These elements are continually interwoven in a tapestry combining history and mystery and ever reinforcing the truth of Pogo, “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US”. Through the fourth chapter, we are reminded that this wisdom regarding our destructive nature is recent, given that even the concept of extinction is barely 200 years old – expanding from the insights of Cuvier. Even as fossils accumulated, uncertainty persisted regarding possibly still-extant forms in unexplored regions, as can be seen in the written records of the Lewis and Clark expedition. With the certainty of earlier extinctions (end Ordovician 450 my, late Devonian 360 my, end Permian 220 my, late Triassic 200 my, end Cretaceous 65 my), questions persisted regarding their cause.

While the meteoric driven end of the dinosaurs has only recently been accepted, some more speculative explanations for earlier extinctions include ice ages precipitated by CO2 assimilations (late Ordovician), and conversely, high carbon-induced warming, reduced pH, and high H2S. This latter explanation is, by the way, the prominent theory behind the Permian-era extinctions that resulted in 90% of life on Earth becoming extinct and, frighteningly, significantly parallels our present situation. Interestingly, even Darwin failed to give special status to humans as agents of the current wave of extinctions, which is termed the Anthropocene.

The “evil twins” of ocean acidification and warming are vividly displayed in the microcosm of marine thermal vents. When one approaches a marine thermal vent, one can see healthy biological communities gradually yielding to lifeless environments (need a more detailed explanation here – in author’s own words – of how ocean acidification/warming correlate with marine thermal vents). The dynamics of this current wave of extinctions are exacerbated by the “new Pangea” where non-native organisms invade new environments, disrupting stable ecosystems and sometimes generating massive die offs, as seen with the incredibly high, fungal-induced mortality rates experienced by bat species in North America and amphibian species throughout the world. Conversely, but also exacerbating the dynamics of extinction today, fragmented ecosystems prevent gene flow among formerly connected meta populations, putting populations on downward trajectories toward extinction. Species rescue programs, such as zoos, terraria and gene banks, are heroic but perhaps futile gestures for saving near-extinct taxa as circumstances in the wild continue to deteriorate.

Perhaps most disheartening is the chilling implication that our present course is “written in our genes”. Everywhere Homo sapiens has colonized, mega fauna have disappeared. Even our Neanderthal cousins coexisted with such life forms in Europe for over 100,000 years until our arrival, which eliminated the mega fauna and themselves (after assimilating portions of their genome). Are we in the process of “sawing off the limb where we are perched”? In spite of the bleak picture, predicting the future remains a futile exercise. Perhaps technology will trump ecology. Despite our past failures in prescribing quick fixes for complex messes (think salmon hatchery complexes for lost ecosystems), a new order may yet emerge from the inevitable and pending chaos.

I try to remain an optimist, and a good point of departure from my own reading of this book is to encourage all responsible readers to assimilate its message. Perhaps a widespread and profound understanding of our self-induced and impending tragedy can generate the will and action necessary for generating effective remedial measures.


Catching-a-Deckload-of-Dreams Catching a Deckload of Dreams: Chuck Bundrant and the story of Trident Seafoods

Author: John van Amerongen

Book Reviewer: Dr. Fred Utter

Publisher: Documentary Media

Year: 2013

True to its title, this book is centered on Chuck Bundrant’s leading role in the development and direction of Trident Seafoods. Excepting entire segments written in the first person by family members, the text consists of vignettes from extensive interviews with Bundrant himself and many others. These statements are interconnected more or less chronologically by the author within and among 33 chapters plus prefatory and concluding materials (and all worth reading).

The author, hired by Bundrant in 2006 to write the book, develops a complex and very human personality starting with his youthful migration westward and northward just a year out of high school in 1961. With underlying determination, independence and a strong work ethic, Bundrant had little trouble getting entry-level work on Alaskan king crab processors, gaining experience including – by necessity due to a drunken skipper – sharing the running of a boat back to Seattle; he wasn’t necessarily against partying, just not on work time.

Using his savings, he invested in his first boat, a broken down gill-netter in Seward. This misadventure didn’t pan out but led to a series of serendipitous events including saving the life of Clem Tillion (who, as an influential legislator returned the favor 10 years later by saving Trident’s financial life), and – again by pure coincidence, assisting and ultimately crewing with the prospering Burch brothers, which guided him towards obtaining his own fleet.

These stories, and those that follow are mostly flavored with salt air, testosterone, ever-present danger, sometimes blue language, and just good story telling reminiscent of the wild west and “The Deadliest Catch”. Particularly memorable were the stories: 1) of FV Bountiful’s construction (in an Indiana shipyard where Bundrant ended up buying the bankrupt yard for $5!); 2) the entire Akutan adventures including the fire, rebuilding and present operation with the present manager being “mayor of a town of 1,200 workers”; 3) the aerial adventures including the Grumman Goose (reminiscent of my first Bristol Bay adventure in 1953) and float plane takeoff failures (and once again the fortuitous arrival of Chuck Bundrant); 4) ultimate vindication in the class action efforts and other political and legal struggles leading to full American sovereignty in the Alaskan Exclusive Economic Zones and 5) the long-term negotiations with Tyson and the ultimate assumption of its fleet.

But the underlying message goes far beyond excitement, adventure and danger. It speaks to the character, indeed the soul, of the corporation itself as epitomized by its founder (and with providential guidance as Bundrant might profess). There is ambition without greed, toughness without cruelty, choosing and listening to strong associates without cronyism (but still the ability to make unpopular decisions when warranted), vision to face setbacks as challenges rather that defeats, and particularly – viewing all involved personnel as members of a team akin to a family. A down side of these characteristics is a perceived isolation implied in each of the statements of the Bundrant children Joe, Jill and Julie. Each of their writings reflected deep love and respect for their dad, but an absence of intimacy that would come from a – perhaps less authoritarian parent with similar attributes and a job that permitted more home time during their formative years. Indeed, I missed on first reading that their birth mother (Mary) was around at least through 1980 (according to Joe), but by 1982 Chuck was married to present wife Diane. The author stipulated that some stories he chose not to print and I will not speculate beyond noting that by “treating everyone the same (p. 14)”, there may have been a domestic penalty to be paid.

Some final notes, in addition to the Alaska map (preceding chapter 1), a chart of the current corporate structure and staffing would have clarified some confusion regarding who’s doing what and where. As a biologist, I appreciated the doubled efficiency achieved in Pollock processing by Trident, but was disappointed that nothing was mentioned about crashing king crab populations other than it promoted a new fishery of smaller snow crab. These are minor quibbles. It was a long book, but I’m glad I committed to its review. It was worth the effort and promises to make fascinating reading for a diverse audience interested in corporate growth, Alaskan wilderness, and particularly, human nature.